There are heaps of fun things to do in Central Otago, from laid-back vineyard visits to exciting 4WD trips, cute small towns, farmers markets, scenic walks and much more. We’ve spent a lot of time in Central Otago over the last few years – we’re pretty sure we can help make your trip there as good as it can be!
One of the best aspects of a trip to Central Otago is getting to explore some of New Zealand’s cutest old towns. Central Otago is full of history, and you’ll certainly feel that while walking the streets of the towns below (plus others like Ophir, Roxburgh and Alexandra). A lot of small towns have weekend farmers markets.
Walk to the top of the hill to see an awesome view over Clyde and the Alexandra Basin. The main street is lined with boutique shops and eateries, including Olivers, probably the most famous restaurant in Central Otago.
The old part of Cromwell is situated on the shores of Lake Dunstan and provides the perfect mix of old-world charm and natural beauty. You can walk by the edge of the lake in either direction and the whole place looks magical in autumn.
St Bathans used to be a thriving gold mining town, but is now more well-known as being a haven for ghosts. Apparently the hotel there is haunted, so if you’re a ghost chaser you’ll probably want to spend the night there. There are a few old buildings to check out and the walk around Blue Lake is one of the best short walks in Central Otago.
There are heaps of short walks in Central Otago. I haven’t found many longer ones that compete with the likes of Roys Peak and Ben Lomond in Wanaka and Queenstown, but the short walks mentioned below are definitely worth seeking out.
Blue Lake (St Bathans)
My favourite walk in Central Otago starts in the historic village of St Bathans. Park up in town or by Blue Lake and then walk around it. It should take 90 minutes or so and you’ll see some great views of the lake, which is an abandoned quarry. I remember it being a lot bluer when I was a kid, but it’s still a special place.
Flat Top Hill
This walk starts at Butchers Dam, just outside of Alexandra. From there you head up Flat Top Hill for some amazing views of the Clutha River towards Alexandra and beyond. You can also see a little way towards Roxburgh – there’s a cycling track below which takes you between the two towns.
Conroys Dam Track
We did the Conroys Dam Track the day before Roys Peak as a warmup, and it did the job perfectly. It’s an easy track with a variety of views and an old stone cottage to seek out.
There are a few tracks in the Bannockburn scenic reserve and most are pretty short. We did a loop track which took us up the hill, around to an old cottage and then back down again. The views of rugged terrain dotted with vineyards are awesome, and you can relax with a wine at Mt Difficulty afterwards.
Vineyards and Wineries
Wine is massive in Central Otago. There are vineyards scattered around the area, especially concentrated around Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell. I’m no wine expert but I’ve been to a few and helped with a harvest one time at Perseverance Estate.
Gia is a big Mount Difficulty fan, but I reckon if you’re a wine fan you’ll find heaps of good options. You can organise tours or go to specific wineries, and some have restaurants.
There are several popular bike trails in Central Otago, from short jaunts by the river to the mulit-day Otago Central Rail Trail
The Rail Trail
The Otago Central Rail Trail stretches from Middlemarch to Clyde, and passes by historic pubs, tiny towns, old viaducts and plenty of wide-open vistas. I did about half of it when I was a kid and struggled – I had no bike fitness though and it was a stifling 30 degrees plus, so I had excuses.
Alexandra to Clyde
The cycling / walking track between Alexandra and Clyde takes you along the Clutha River and seems fairly easy (we walked it). It could be a good one to do if you’re wondering how much you’ll actually enjoy cycling (before committing to something like the Rail Trail!).
Alexandra to Roxburgh
We haven’t been on this track, but we did see some of it from Flat Top Hill. It looks awesome, but you have to organise a boat at some point on the track, which always seemed like more hassle than it was worth. I’ve heard great things about this track though, so it could be worth looking into.
Cromwell to Clyde
This track only opened recently but it has been getting a lot of buzz. We haven’t done it yet but have driven the road on the opposite side of the lake heaps of times. The scenery is awesome and the track seems to have some impressive looking bridges.
Central Otago’s history is visible all throughout the region, and another interesting aspect of it is the old houses people, especially gold miners, used to live in. The best places to see a ruined old village is at Bendigo Historic Reserve. There you’ll find the remains of two small settlements, which include houses, pubs, blacksmiths and heaps more.
Another old cottage to seek out is Mitchell’s Cottage. It’s a short distance from the main road (between Roxburgh and Alexandra) and has been well preserved, giving a glimpse into the harsh life of those early Central Otago settlers.
Dams and Reservoirs
Central Otago is one of the driest places in New Zealand, which means irrigation has played a huge role in the region. There are several dams and reservoirs you can visit – it doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing to seek out but they are usually located in scenic areas (but most require FWDs to get there)
Poolburn dam / reservoir was a Lord of the Rings filming location. The reservoir, with its small islands and outcrops, is surrounded by barren, rocky land and the drive to get there is worth it on its own.
The road to Fraser Dam takes you high above the Alexandra Basin. You’ll get great views along the way, and the dam / reservoir isn’t bad either!
This is the first small dam we saw in Central Otago and it was impressive – just like a man-made waterfall!
There are a couple of bigger dams (Clyde / Roxburgh) that are worth a look. Clyde Dam in particular is cool to see, as it’s surrounded by iconic Central Otago scenery.
Other Things to Do in Central Otago
The Old Man Range
If you have access to a FWD I highly recommend a trip up to the Old Man Range. It’s one of the highest points in Central Otago and you’ll get sweeping views in all directions. It’s dry, barren and cold up there – definitely one of the more unique spots I’ve been in New Zealand.
Central Otago is the place to go for stone fruit, as well as berries, cherries and heaps more. There’s nothing better than driving through Central Otago on a hot summer’s day and stopping of for a nectarine or maybe some real fruit ice-cream!
If you’re driving from Central Otago to Mount Cook you’ll drive through the Lindis Pass. It’s a scenic stretch of road and is particularly pretty in winter with some snow on the mountains.
And So Much More!
As you can see, there are heaps of fun things to do in Central Otago. I haven’t even mentioned everything! There are heaps more walks, historic towns and scenic viewpoints all over Central Otago. It’s the perfect place to explore, whether it’s a day trip from Queenstown or a dedicated trip.
Have you been to Central Otago? What are your favourite things to do? Let us know in the comments below!
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