A Travel Guide to The Catlins
As one of the few remaining areas of New Zealand where Mother Nature reigns supreme, The Catlins is the final frontier of a South Island road trip. Wild coastal forest spills from the hills all the way to the Pacific Ocean, where most of the locals you’ll meet are the rarest sea lions in the world, some of the rarest penguins, seals, dolphins and majestic seabirds. On the narrow roads, some sealed; some not, you’ll come across, what we believe, are some of the most picturesque waterfalls in the country, as well as hidden lakes, fossilised forests and other natural wonders. It’s a place where there’s something to see every 20 minutes down the road, but don’t think this is a destination you can cover quickly. It’s definitely worth taking at least two days, maybe even five, to explore all of the gems of the area. Even if you stay a week, you’re bound to leave not having ticked everything off the bucket list!
So plan your ideal getaway to The Catlins Coast, whether it’s a budget road trip with the family or a more luxurious honeymoon, with this complete travel guide to The Catlins.
Fast Facts About The Catlins
Location: On the southeast coast of the South Island, running between Balclutha in the Otago region and Fortrose in the Southland region.
Climate: Daily average temperature – 10.2°C/50.3°F, yearly average rainfall – 940mm/37″
Find out more in What is the Weather Like in New Zealand?
Time zone: NZST / GMT+12/+13
How to get to The Catlins: The Catlins is connected to the rest of the South Island along the Southern Scenic Route roads such as the Owaka Highway, Papatowai Highway, Chaslands Highway, etc. The closest international airport is Queenstown Airport (3 hours drive), which also has frequent domestic flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The Catlins is on the main national bus route, which you can find more information about in Bus Networks in New Zealand. Accessing the various attractions via bus is best done with bus tours, such as Intrepid Travel and Headfirst Travel or on a private tour with Back to Nature Tours (find out more on Viator and Tripadvisor).
The Catlins for Budget Travellers
The Catlins was made for budget travellers. Nowhere in New Zealand has a string of free attractions just moments from each other while travelling along The Catlins Coast. Waterfalls, penguin viewings, sea lion viewings, seal viewings, lighthouses, beaches, museums, a fossilised forest, a lake, estuary walks, forest walks… all of this and more are available in The Catlins. Fill up the campervan and hit the road by staying in campsites and holiday parks along the way. Alternatively, there are affordable lodges and inns to call in. Get more information in The Guide to The Catlins on a Budget.
Budget Activities in The Catlins
- Check out the views and seals from the Nugget Point Lighthouse
- Scout out all of the waterfalls: McLean Falls, Purakaunui Falls, Matai Falls and Niagara Falls
- Visit the giant sea caves, Cathedral Caves
- Check out the fossilised forest and penguins at Curio Bay
- Step on the southernmost point of the South Island at Slope Point.
For more ideas on budget activities, check out the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in The Catlins.
Budget Accommodation in The Catlins
In theme with The Catlin’s free activities, The Catlins also hosts some super affordable accommodations. Campsites are abundant in this part of the country where travellers love to experience the great outdoors. If you’re not a fan of camping, however, you can rely on the backpacker lodges, holiday park cabins, inns and cheap motels of the area. Check them out in the 10 Best Budget Accommodation in The Catlins.
The Catlins for Luxury Travellers
Rugged, wild and rather remote, The Catlins is a place to escape most of the modern-day luxuries. You won’t find helicopter tours or cruises here, nor five-star accommodation. But while there aren’t enough luxury offerings to necessitate our usual “Luxury Guide” instalment to this travel guide, those seeking a little pampering or luxury in The Catlins can find it at some of the more lavish holiday home offerings.
Accommodation like Niagara Ridge Retreat, Tahakopa Bay Retreat and Beresford Heights offer ultra-modern retreats, some with in-house experiences like farm tours, massages and hunting trips. Find out more about these luxury holiday houses in the 10 Best Holiday Homes in The Catlins.
The Catlins for Families
For families looking for a fun and affordable travel experience with the little ones, The Catlins is a God-send! Short drives, easy short walks – some even stroller-friendly, this section of the coast is so easy to explore with children in tow. What’s more, almost all of the main attractions are free. If you do want to do something a little more “special” for the kids, however, activities like horse riding and wildlife gardens are available. As for accommodation, holiday homes a popular choice with families, while motels will give you more room to play with your budget. Get more inspiration for a family trip with The Guide to The Catlins for Families.
Family-friendly Activities in The Catlins
- Go for a dip at McLean Falls
- Explore Earthlore Wildlife Gardens
- Horse trek in the majestic scenery of The Catlins
- Build sandcastles and get an ice cream at Porpoise Bay
- Walk the family-friendly Lake Wilkie Track.
For more details on each activity and more, check out the 10 Things to Do in The Catlins with Kids.
Family Accommodation in The Catlins
Take your pick from affordable motels, cheaper holiday parks, holiday cottage complexes and your own space in a holiday home. There are plenty of options for child-friendly accommodation in The Catlins, where you’re bound to find something suitable for your tribe. Find out more in the 10 Best Family Accommodation in The Catlins.
The Catlins for Couples
The Catlins is truly a place for couples to escape the hustle and bustle and reconnect with each other and nature. There is an array of romantic settings between some of the most picturesque waterfalls in the country and various sweeping beaches. For active couples, wildlife tours, kayaking tours and horse riding are amazing experiences to do together, while there are plenty of wildlife and landscape attractions to enjoy together – just the two of you. Find out more about planning the perfect romantic getaway, anniversary or honeymoon in The Honeymoon Guide to The Catlins.
Things to Do in The Catlins for Couples
- Watch the sunset from the Tautuku Estuary
- Walk to the picturesque Purakaunui Falls
- Do an eco-tour with Catlins Scenic & Wildlife Tours
- Admire The Catlins scenery from horseback
- Team up on a kayaking adventure at Nugget Point.
For more details on each experience and others, see the 8 Romantic Activities in The Catlins for Couples.
Romantic Accommodation in The Catlins
Studios soaking up the sun and coastal scenery, a quaint B&B, eco-cottages among a conservation area and farm, glamping tents and more are to choose from as a memorable and endearing accommodation in The Catlins for couples. Check out our top recommendations in the 7 Best Romantic Accommodation in The Catlins.
The Catlins for Foodies
Admittedly, The Catlins doesn’t offer much in the way of foodie experiences. In fact, across the 1,900km² (730 sq mi) that The Catlins covers, there’s only around 10 restaurants and cafes.
A couple of recommendations for foodies include The Whistling Frog Cafe and Bar for their award-winning Kiwi savoury pies to craft beer-battered fish and chips. More excellent seafood can be sampled at The Point Cafe whose seafood platter is a highlight and is ideal to share along with a Catlins Brewery craft beer. For more restaurants recommendations, check out romantic restaurants in The Honeymoon Guide to The Catlins and cheap eats in The Guide to The Catlins on a Budget.