Family Activities in The Catlins
A rugged stretch of coastline where the rainforest meets the Pacific Ocean, The Catlins is a place for families to connect with nature as well as each other. Free natural attractions scatter this off-the-beaten-track destination, which spans from Fortrose in Southland to Balclutha in Otago. Seeing penguins, sea lions and seals is a highlight for most children, while playing in waterfalls and scouring sweeping beaches are more ways to spend time here as a family. Check out what you could be getting up to with this list of things to do in The Catlins with kids.
1. Go for a Dip at McLean Falls
Starting with some waterfalls, The Catlins is arguably home to some of the most picturesque waterfalls in the country. What’s more, they are easy for families to get to via short walks! McLean Falls is a highlight, cascading down multiple tiers that kids love to climb until you reach the main plunging waterfall. The walk is an easy 40-minute return walk through the forest.
Location: Rewcastle Road, approximately 12km (7 miles) from Papatowai.
2. Marvel at the Beautiful Purakaunui Falls
For a waterfall that’s so easy to get to you can take a stroller, choose the Purakaunui Falls Walk! This 20-minute walk through majestic beech forest takes you over footbridges crossing a gentle stream to a viewpoint at the base of these cascading falls that you often see featured on postcards. See more natural wonders like this in the 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins.
Location: Purakaunui Falls Road, approximately 7km (4 miles) from Owaka.
3. Look Out for Seals at Nugget Point
While the nugget-like rocks sticking out of the Pacific Ocean are the main reason why travellers venture to Nugget Point, the reason to go there with kids is to check out the seals! Follow an easy 20-minute walk until you reach a platform below the Nugget Point Lighthouse. There, you’ll be able to look out over a New Zealand fur seal colony where seals are often seen frolicking in the rock pools below. Take binoculars for the best viewing experience.
Location: The Nuggets Road, approximately 9km (6 miles) from Kaka Point.
4. Watch Out for Penguins at Roaring Bay or Curio Bay
For more wildlife experiences to leave the family in awe, visit Roaring Bay on the way to Nugget Point (see point #3). There, you’ll find a short walk to some viewing hides where you can watch yellow-eyed penguins waddling between the sea and their nests without disturbing them. Alternatively, yellow-eyed penguins are also seen at Curio Bay crossing the rock pools. Be sure to respect the signage and the cordoned off areas. The best time to see these rare birds is before 9am and after 3pm.
Location: Roaring Bay – The Nuggets Road, approximately 9km (6 miles) from Kaka Point. Curio Bay – Mair Road, approximately 5km (3 miles) from Waikawa.
5. Be Amazed by the Sea Lions at Surat Bay, Cannibal Bay or Waipapa Point
On a final note about The Catlins mesmerising wildlife, enjoy a stroll along Surat Bay or Cannibal Bay beaches where you’re likely to come across groups of New Zealand sea lions basking in the sun. Alternatively, there are sea lions often spotted on the beach at Waipapa Point, which also features a historic lighthouse. Just remember to keep the little ones in check and keep your distance from these large animals. Check out our advice for the best viewings in the 5 Tips for Watching Wildlife in the Catlins.
Location: Surat Bay – Newhaven Road, approximately 9km (6 miles) from Owaka. Cannibal Bay – Cannibal Bay Road, approximately 12km (7 miles) from Owaka. Waipapa Point – Waipapa Lighthouse Road, approximately 16km (10 miles) from Fortrose.
6. Visit the Owaka Museum
If the rain catches up with you in The Catlins, make it an excuse to visit the revered Owaka Museum. Browse an array of exhibitions of relics found from The Catlins shipwrecks, pioneering industries, early Maori history, clothing wore by the early settlers, and much much more. There are interesting stories and audiovisual displays to appeal to all ages. On-site is also the information centre and a community art gallery. For more museums to check out around The Catlins, check out the 6 Best Museums in Clutha & The Catlins.
Location: 10 Campbell Street, Owaka.
7. Explore Earthlore Wildlife Gardens
A must for families visiting Owaka, Earthlore Wildlife Gardens is a fun, educational and downright quirky attraction that will stick with the little ones for years to come. As you explore the gardens where native birds and seen and heard year-round, you’ll come across a mini frisbee golf course, gypsy caravan with dress-up costumes for hilarious photos, meet friendly donkeys, sheep, geese and many more surprises. On a more serious note, the gardens take an active role in insect conservation, where kids can join in by picking up an activity pack from the gift store.
Location: 129 Hina Hina Road, Owaka, approximately 3km (2 miles) from Owaka town centre.
8. Horse Trek in the Majestic Scenery of The Catlins
Treat the kids to a special way to explore The Catlins Coast, horse riding through its majestic scenery. Join Te Taunga Adventures for their scenic horse riding tours that are ideal for all ages and abilities. With more than 660ha (1,631 acres) of sheep and beef farm to explore, awash with panoramic views of the coast, beaches, rivers and forest, the team can curate a ride to suit your family. Alternatively, choose from an already prepared schedule of one-hour to six-hour rides with a spectacular array of sceneries to discover that are achievable for beginners and children.
Location: 41 Newhaven Road, approximately 5km (3 miles) from Owaka.
9. Build Sandcastles and Get an Ice Cream at Porpoise Bay or Papatowai Beach
We don’t need to tell you how much kids love the beach, and The Catlins has many to enjoy! Porpoise Bay neighbouring Curio Bay (see point #4) has a sweeping crescent beach with safe swimming, a small campsite shop nearby selling ice cream, and the opportunity to spot dolphins riding the surf. Another popular beach choice for families is Papatowai Beach, which sits at the end of the Tahakopa River and is accessible through the rainforest on the 15-minute Picnic Point Walk. In the small village on your way to the beach, you’ll find a children’s playground and a general store with, yes, more ice cream!
Location: Porpoise Bay – Waikawa-Curio Bay Road, approximately 4km from Waikawa. Papatowai Beach – Picnic Point Walk, Cross Street, Papatowai.
10. Walk the Family-friendly Lake Wilkie Track
Finally, another short walk for families is the Lake Wilkie Track. This 30-minute return walk is suitable for strollers and takes you through a stunning tract of native forest where kids will have fun poking their faces through the holes in the tree trunks. You’ll venture down to a boardwalk on the reflective lake surrounded by interesting plantlife that attracts dragonflies, birds and more.
Location: Chaslands Highway, approximately 5km (3 miles) from Papatowai.