Guide to Central Otago and Coastal Otago
There has never been a region with such a mix of activities and scenery! Among the mountains looming over impressive lakes is the adrenaline-fuelled Queenstown Lakes District. Past vineyards, gold mining towns and to the coast is a city of grand architecture, Dunedin and so much more!
All over Coastal Otago, you can find fascinating and, let’s face it, the cutest marine life we are talking little blue penguins and New Zealand fur seals! Additionally, there are some interesting rock formations your camera will love, such as the Moeraki Boulders, Nugget Point and Curio Bay’s fossilised forest. So take a look at our backpacker guide to Otago to find all the hidden gems and things to do in the Otago region.
Things You Can’t Miss in Otago
- See a yellow-eyed penguin in Oamaru
- Take an artistic photo of the Moeraki Boulders
- Walk amongst grand gothic-styled architecture in Dunedin
- Take a wildlife tour of the Otago Peninsula
- Reach Nugget Point on the Catlins Coast
- Enjoy the mountain views of Queenstown and Wanaka (and the odd skydive).
The main town of the Waitaki District, Oamaru is known for limestone architecture and the penguins! The town has the most protected heritage buildings in the country.
A stroll down the Habour-Tyne Street area and the Victorian harbour has the most impressive buildings, many of which are made of cream-coloured limestone.
Another reason to visit the harbour is to see the blue residents of Oamaru: the little blue penguins. They come up to the shores just after dark. There is even grandstand seating to view the penguins. Take a 30min walk south and you will find a colony of yellow-eyed penguins.
Once you have fully explored Oamaru, take a road trip up the Waitaki Valley to discover a world of fossils and rock formations. Read more about it in 7 Bizarre Sights in the Waitaki Valley and Oamaru & Waitaki – Guide for Backpackers.
These perfectly rounded boulders on Moeraki Beach have become the object of many artistic photographs. What’s more, they have taken millions of years to form.
Originally formed by a layering process much like oyster pearls on the seabed, the seabed rose to become coastal cliffs. These cliffs eroded, leaving the boulders to roll onto the beach.
The Moeraki Boulders are best seen at low tide. Apart from boulders, the town of Moeraki is also home to a yellow-eyed penguin sanctuary and seal colony. Learn more about them in The Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Moeraki Boulders.
The city of Dunedin stands out from the rest of New Zealand’s cities because of its Victorian and Edwardian architecture. This is evident from the gothic-styled Dunedin Railway Station (check out train journeys on Viator and Tripadvisor) and, New Zealand’s only castle, Larnach Castle (find out more on Viator and Tripadvisor).
While you’re here, set yourself the challenge of walking up the steepest street in the world: Baldwin Street.
As well as a wealth of shops, visitor attractions also include the Otago Museum for New Zealand history, natural history a garden and a planetarium (check out guided tours on Viator and Tripadvisor). The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is another great option for social history buffs. Don’t forget the most important history of all: the history of chocolate at Cadbury World. Check out some other cheap or free things to do around the city in our article.
For more inspiration on what to do in Dunedin, see our Dunedin – Guide for Backpackers.
Wildlife enthusiasts rejoice for there is a peninsula that has a diverse range of New Zealand wildlife! By day, you can see the world’s largest albatross, the royal albatross, feed their young then fly away with their enormous wing-span (up to 3 metres) from the Royal Albatross Centre. The viewing platforms outside the Royal Albatross Centre allow you to watch the albatross catch the wind and swoop overhead, as well as spotting other sea birds like Stewart Island shag. As evening closes in, you can look out for blue penguins coming to shore at Pilots Beach. [Update: tours now run from the Royal Albatross Centre to Pilots Beach].
There are various wildlife tours and cruises you can take around the peninsula, whether it’s in a penguin sanctuary or in specialised conservation areas. Some activity providers will pick you up from your accommodation in the Dunedin area.
Alternatively, if you have your own transport, take one of the walking tracks on the peninsula and see what you discover. Go to Hoopers Inlet, Papanui Inlet or Portobello Bay to see a mix of native and introduced water or wading birds, such as black swan, grey duck, kingfisher, paradise shelduck, pied oystercatcher, pukeko, pied stilt and white-faced heron.
Some of the bays and beaches, Sandfly Bay is one, are home to the rare yellow-eyed penguin and Hooker sea lions. Other decent viewing points are only accessible with activity providers. When going to see wildlife, please make sure you don’t get too close! These species of wildlife, penguins, in particular, are endangered.
Completely untamed, the Catlins is a rocky coast complete with rock formations attracting backpackers and seals alike! Yellow-eyed penguins and gannets are also spotted here.
An iconic landmark is Nugget Point. Nuggets of rock sit below a pointed cliff (hence ‘Nugget Point’), which you can view next to one of New Zealand’s oldest lighthouses. The native New Zealand fur seals can be seen on the rocks and in the rock pools below, although you may need binoculars to get a clear view something every backpacker carries, right?
Curio Bay is one of the world’s largest fossilised forests. Make sure to visit at low tide to see the tree trunks and stumps that have left their mark in the rock. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see yellow-eyed penguins waddling over the rocks. They’re surprisingly agile!
Other formations to visit are Jack’s Blowhole, Cathedral Caves and Purakaunui Falls. Owaka is the largest township on the Catlins Coast, giving you a couple of accommodation options. For more information on the Catlins, visit The Catlins – Guide for Backpackers.
Queenstown Lakes District
The holiday resort town Queenstown is an attraction for all things adrenaline! Multiple bungy jumps, canyon swings and skydives can be done here. The neighbouring town of Wanaka is often described as a “quieter Queenstown”, however, it has lots to offer in its own right. The canyoning, mountain biking and kayaking on the beautiful Lake Wanaka are some of the activities attracting backpackers to the scenic town.
The smaller towns are well worth a visit: Arrowtown is situated next to the Arrow River sparkling with minerals. You might even find some golden nuggets! The central building has been preserved to look as it did when people first settled here when gold was discovered. A drive to the top of Lake Wakatipu will bring you to Glenorchy, a place so beautiful that many areas were chosen to depict Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings.
A huge appeal for this district are the surrounding snowcapped mountains in the ski season. Wanaka is close to Treble Cone and Cardrona ski fields, whereas Queenstown has The Remarkables and Coronet Peak. For more information, see our articles: Wanaka – Guide for Backpackers and Queenstown – Guide for Backpackers.
Alexandra, Cromwell and the Maniototo District
To get off the beaten track, check out the towns of Cromwell and Alexandra. Cromwell is renowned for its fruit-growing and vineyards making it the perfect place if you want to work a picking season. Find out more in Working a Fruit Picking Job in New Zealand. Cromwell also has the appeal of the stunning Lake Dunstan and attractions like the Highlands Motorsport Park for go-kart racing and extreme racing car experiences.
Take a drive along the stunning Clutha River Gorge from Cromwell and you will arrive in Alexandra. Again, a great place to work, as well as a mecca for mountain bikers. Hire a bike and do one of the many trails, such as the Alexandra and Clyde River Trail, The Roxburgh Trail and the Otago Central Rail Trail. Find out more in 12 Super Scenic Cycle Trails in Otago.
We also recommend a quick walk up to the Alexandra Clock, starting from the Shaky Bridge, for some great views of the town and Clutha River.
Venture further into Central Otago and you will arrive in the Maniototo District full of history. Stop by the town of Ophir which is like stepping back in time with its well-maintained heritage buildings and bridge. We also recommend visiting the town of Naseby to try your hand at curling. Yes, this small town in New Zealand is the only place in the Southern Hemisphere with a dedicated indoor curling rink! You can visit all of these places when doing the Otago Central Rail Trail.
If You Have More Time in Otago…
- The Waitaki Valley is known for its vineyards. Have a pinot noir wine tasting session in Kurow.
- The beach at Waikouaiti is a safe swimming spot and can be good for surfing.
- Bike the Otago Rail Trail. Railway lines have been converted into trails throughout Central Otago.
- Visit the town with the giant fruit sculpture: Cromwell. Expect good fruit, good wine and gold panning.
- Do one of the walks from the picturesque gold-mining town, Arrowtown.
- See more things to do in the 12 Super Scenic Cycle Trails in Otago.