We’ve travelled to the Catlins heaps over the last few years and always seem to find something new to see. Whether you’re doing a day trip to the Catlins or spending a few days in the area, it can be an overwhelming place to plan a trip to (so many beaches and waterfalls!). This Catlins itinerary will show you the best things to see on a day trip to the Catlins, as well as ideas for a longer trip.
This Catlins itinerary assumes you’re starting in Dunedin and heading south from there. I’ll give you my perfect Catlins day trip itinerary first and then towards the end will show you the best things to see on a two or three-day trip.
Sunrise at Nugget Point
Watching the sunrise at Nugget Point is a great way to start a trip to the Catlins. If you’re coming from Dunedin it’ll take around 90 minutes to reach Nugget Point, meaning you’ll have to have an early start. So worth it though!
If you’re not up for an extremely early morning I’d still recommend making your first stop Nugget Point. It’s most northern of the Catlins attractions and is also a really impressive spot to kick things off with.
You’ll want to visit some beaches on your Catlins trip (it’s home to some of the best beaches in New Zealand after all) and Cannibal Bay is a good one to start with. It’s a shortish drive from Nugget Point and the beach is stunning. You can also walk over to Surat Bay and you’ll get some sweeping views from the headland separating the two.
Quick Stop: Owaka – the biggest town in the Catlins. Stop here for supplies or a bite to eat (or stay here a night if you’re in the Catlins for a few days).
Jack’s Bay / Blowhole
Jack’s Bay is another picturesque beach in the Catlins, but that’s not that main reason to visit. Reached via a short and scenic walking trail, Jack’s Blowhole is a unique spot on the Catlins tourist trail. It wasn’t “blowing” too hard when we were there but we really enjoyed the walk.
Next up on our one-day Catlins itinerary is Purakaunui Falls, the most famous (but not necessarily the best) waterfall in the Catlins. It’s only a 5-minute walk through the forest and the falls are impressive, especially after rain.
If you’re on a Catlins day trip you’ll probably be close to Papatowai at lunch time. This is a good thing! There’s a cool little café in Papatowai, which is part of the Lost Gypsy Gallery. This place was created by local artist Blair Somerville and has heaps of automata (interactive gadgets basically).
It’s one of the coolest galleries, or artist residences, I’ve seen and is the best non-nature-based thing to do in the Catlins. It’s such a fun place to walk around and the kids will love it. There’s also an area where younger kids aren’t allowed, which is home to heaps more interesting (and often funny) contraptions. There’s also an awesome beach at Papatowai and a big camping ground (and a dairy!).
Florence Hill Lookout and Tautuku Bay
You’ll struggle to find a better roadside viewpoint that Florence Hill Lookout. From the side of the road (well, a big car park) you get a perfect view over Tautuku Bay, and there are a couple of short walks by the beach too. This can be a 5-minute stop or a lot longer – it depends how much time you think you’ll have.
A visit to the Cathedral Caves is only possible close to low-tide, and it seems to close altogether in the colder months. So, don’t have your heart set on visiting this place! It also costs $10 per person, so I can understand people not wanting to pay when every other nature spot is free. Still though, a cool set of a caves assessed via a nice beach!
McLean Falls is, in my opinion, the best waterfall in the Catlins. It’s a lot bigger than Purakaunui Falls and since it takes a little longer to reach (45-minute round trip walk) it’s quieter. The walk is fairly easy, but you can see why a lot of people skip it in and just do Purakaunui Falls. If you’ve got the time and energy I highly recommend it.
READ MORE: Where Are the Best Waterfalls in the Catlins?
Curio Bay is the last spot on my Catlins day trip itinerary. If you do all of this it’ll be a full day, but look at all the cool things you’ll see! Curio Bay is a great place to finish. It’s easily one of the best beaches in the region and there are a few unique things about it, including a petrified forest, the chance to see dolphins in the waves right by the beach and the possibility of seeing yellow-eyed penguins.
There’s also a café there and some places to stay, so this could be a good option to stay the night if you’re planning a longer trip. From Curio Bay it’ll take you around 2.5 hours to reach Dunedin.
The Catlins is home to lots of sea lions as well as some penguins and a few dolphins. Yellow-eyed penguins are best seen close to sunset and you’ll see plenty of sea lions at various beaches. You can see dolphins at Curio Bay — we’ve seen them on one out of our four or so trips there.
A Longer Catlins Itinerary
I’ve shown you how much you can see on a day trip to the Catlins, but what about a longer stay? There are heaps more to see, so I’ll break it down into a 2-day trip and a 3 day trip.
In two days I’d recommend doing Nugget Point – Cannibal Bay – Jack’s Blowhole – Purakaunui Falls and then spending the night in Papatowai. Things that aren’t included in my one-day itinerary in that you could do on this day include Tunnel Hill, Purakaunui Bay, Pounawea and Matai Falls. You could also spend a bit more time in Owaka or Balclutha on the way.
READ MORE: 23 of the Best Things to Do in the Catlins
The second day would take you from Papatowai to Cathedral Caves, McLean Falls and Curio Bay to Waipohatu Falls, Slope Point, Waipapa Point Lighthouse and Fortrose. From there you can continue to Invercargill / Queenstown / Te Anau or back to Dunedin. Stop off at Waikawa (just before Curio Bay) if you’re keen to check out a museum (or grab some fish and chips).
If you have three days then you pretty much see everything. I’d add Niagara Falls, Koropuku Falls and spend a bit longer at the beaches. If you have three days you could do all of this in quite relaxed manner – two days might be a bit rushed. Maybe stay in Owaka (or Kaka Point) one night if you have plenty of time — that way you can visit Nugget Point for sunrise without having to get up to early.
However you do it, exploring the Catlins is a lot of fun. There’s so much to see, the distances between places are short and there are places along the way where you won’t see any other tourists. The perfect road-trip destination I reckon!
Did you enjoy our Catlins itinerary? Let us know in the comments below!
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