If you’re a fan of beaches, waterfalls and stunning coastal viewpoints, you’re going to love the Catlins. The Catlins is in the far southeast of New Zealand’s South Island and it’s the perfect place for a road trip – weather it’s a day trip from Dunedin or part of your journey south to Invercargill / Queenstown and beyond. There are heaps of fun things to do in the Catlins – I’ll help you decide what to see and what to skip!
One of the best things to do in the Catlins is a waterfall walk. There are some great options, from a 5-minute stroll through the forest to Purakaunui Falls to the half-day walk to Waipohatu Falls.
Purakaunui Falls is the most popular waterfall in the Catlins, partly because it’s awesome and partly because it’s a very short walk from the car park.
McLean Falls takes a bit longer to reach (45-minute round-trip walk) but it’s a more impressive waterfall. It’s surrounded by lush forest and drops down several tiers – such a nice spot on a sunny day and it’s way quieter than Purakaunui Falls.
This waterfall is a little more low-key than the first two, but definitely worth seeking out if you love waterfalls. There’s also another waterfall on the Matai Falls track – Horseshoe Falls – and the walk from the car park isn’t too arduous.
There are two waterfalls on this track, but it’s a lot longer than the others (2-3 hours return). Waipohatu Falls is the perfect place for people wanting a bit more of a hike than the other waterfalls and the falls themselves are stunning. You’ll also likely have them all to yourself.
Lighthouses and Viewpoints
The Catlins is home to some of the best coastal views in New Zealand, and you don’t usually have to walk far from the car park to see them.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point is one of the things to do in the Catlins that’s on everyone’s list. It’s one of the most interesting coastal views in New Zealand and it’s really dramatic at sunrise. If possible, try and do it for sunrise, but go there anyway if you can’t!
A short walk from Jack’s Bay takes you to Jack’s Blowhole. It’s a scenic little track and the blowhole is cool too. You might see some penguins and sea lions in these parts – we saw a penguin from the track and heaps of sea lions at Jack’s Bay.
Florence Hill Lookout
One of the easiest things to do in the Catlins is visit Florence Hill Lookout. It’s just a car park by the side of the road, and the view is amazing. I’d easily put it in my top five coastal viewpoint in New Zealand – you can’t beat that combination of white sand and clear blue water backed by the wild green forest.
Slope Point is the southernmost point on the South Island, and it’s worth a look for that fact alone. It’s a nice spot (the lighthouse isn’t up to much though) but if you’ve only got a short time in the Catlins this is one place I’d skip (mostly because it’s a longish drive from the rest of the places of interest).
There are heaps of stunning beaches in the Catlins and it can be hard to choose which ones to visit. I’ll list my favourites below.
Great surf and the chance to see yellow-eyed penguins, dolphins and sea lions are the main drawcards of Curio Bay. It’s also just a beautiful beach to look at – the ideal spot for lunch by the beach while you wait to (hopefully) spot dolphins. We’ve seen them once out of our three of four trips there, so hopefully you have some luck!
This pretty, white sand beach is flanked by emerald green headlands and is probably the most photogenic beach in the Catlins. You can also walk from Cannibal Bay to Surat Bay for more beach views and sea lion spotting.
This beach is a slight detour from the main road but it’s worth a look if you’re beached out by that point. Purakaunui Bay is a scenic beach with a dramatic headland, and there’s also a DOC camping ground there if you’re keen to stay the night.
There’s a big camping ground at Papatowai Beach as well as a shop and a café nearby. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and if you’re planning on spending a night or two in the Catlins it’d be a good option for that. The beach is nice too!
Tautuku Bay is the beach you see from Florence Hill Lookout. It’s nice at beach level too, and there are a couple of short walks nearby – one over a wetlands boardwalk and one to Lake Wilkie, which has good reflections on calm days.
READ MORE: 10 of the Best Beaches in the Catlins
Other Things to Do in the Catlins
Check out some of the other things to do in the Catlins, including historic spots, unique tourist attractions and short walks.
This is another popular tourist attraction in the Catlins, but you’ll have to time you visit with the tides if you want to visit. A trip to the Cathedral Caves involves a short walk through the bush, followed by a walk along a nice stretch of beach to the caves. Walking through the caves is fun — just don’t stress too much if you miss this place as it’s often closed.
Lost Gypsy Gallery
The Lost Gypsy Gallery is one of the most unique tourist attractions in New Zealand. It’s great for kids and adults alike and there’s a small café there too.
This place, created by artist Blair Somerville, houses hundreds of automata and other gadgets and he encourages you to play with them. The bus / café area is free to enter, and there’s also a paid bit which has heaps of cool contraptions – try walking around this place without a smile on your face!
Yellow-eyed penguins are found throughout the Catlins. The best time to see them is close to sunset, but we saw one waddling up the beach at Curio Bay in the mid-afternoon once. We’ve also seen them at Jacks Bay and apparently Roaring Bay (right next to Nugget Point) is another good place to see them.
Sea Lion Spotting
You’ll also see heaps of sea lions (and the occasional elephant seal) in the Catlins. They’re always entertaining to see, but make sure to keep your distance!
Waipapa Point Lighthouse
A lot of people will skip Waipapa Point Lighthouse as it’s at the far southern end of the Catlins, but it’s a good spot if you’re in the area. The lighthouse looks good in photos and the coastline stretching in both directions is nice.
Tunnel Hill Track
You can get a glimpse of the Catlins’ past on the Tunnel Hill Track. It’s a short walk to an old railway tunnel – an interesting spot and I’m guessing the kids will love it.
The Whistling Frog
There aren’t many cafes and restaurants of note in the Catlins, so if you’re hungry I’d suggest a trip to the Whistling Frog. You can also camp there and grab a beer after a long travel day. It’s close to McLean Falls and there isn’t much else nearby.
Owaka is the main town in the Catlins. Most people drive straight through, but there are few good places to eat and drink there as well as motels etc. There aren’t any other proper towns in the Catlins so if you need to stock up on supplies you should do it there.
This small village has an interesting museum, an old church and a fish and chip shop – three great reasons to stop!
Fortrose is at the far southern end of the Catlins and is probably only worth a visit if you’re continuing on to Invercargill. There’s a good beach there and at low tide you can see the wreck of the ship Ino.
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island? Check out our travel guide!
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