How to Visit The Catlins on a Budget
The Catlins is so easy to explore. Even if you’re on a budget, there’s hardly anything that stands in your way. Budget campgrounds, hostels and motels are easy to find, while all of the natural attractions, except for one, are free to visit. Waterfalls, beaches, wildlife hotspots, a fossilised forest, lake walks, caves, lighthouses, forest walks and more scatter this stretch of ruggedly beautiful coast that spans from Balclutha in Otago to Fortrose in Southland. All you need to budget for is food and fuel/bus tour tickets to explore this off-the-beaten-track destination in the South Island.
Get all the details on how to plan a visit to The Catlins on a budget in this budget travel guide.
Budget Tips for The Catlins
- Visit The Catlins in the low season (May to September) to find cheaper accommodation deals (or free room upgrades)
- There’s plenty of budget accommodation in The Catlins, which will help you save money on accommodation
- Stay in self-catering accommodation so you can save money on food. It’s best to bring supplies from the supermarkets in Dunedin, Balclutha or Invercargill. However, there are still general stores in some of the villages and a Four Square in Owaka where you can pick up groceries at a premium
- There are plenty of affordable Department of Conservation campsites in The Catlins too. Check them out in Camping in the Catlins
- It’s best to have your own vehicle to make the most of The Catlins. However, you can visit some of the sights on tours with Intrepid Travel and Headfirst Travel.
For more general budget tips, check out the 11 Ways to Save Money When Backpacking in New Zealand.
Free Activities in The Catlins
Free attractions are what The Catlins is all about. Almost everything that most travellers want to see costs you nothing but the fuel expenses or the bus tour to get there.
Some of the free attractions of The Catlins are the waterfalls – so many waterfalls! You have Purakaunui Falls, which is a three-tiered waterfall that features on many postcards for New Zealand. You have McLean Falls, which is accessed on a stunning 40-minute return walk through the forest. Matai Falls is another goodie, while Niagara Falls is, well, kind of laughable. Find out about visiting all of these waterfalls in the 18 Amazing Attractions You Can’t Miss in The Catlins and the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in The Catlins.
Another free highlight of The Catlins is the lighthouses, or at least, the stunning scenery and wildlife surrounding them. Nugget Point and its lighthouse are an iconic landmark of the area, accessed on a 20-minute walk to a viewing area overlooking nugget-shaped rocks and a seal colony in the rock pools below. Waipapa Point Lighthouse not only has an interesting history, which you can read about in the information stand but it also a good place to watch New Zealand sea lions on the beach. Remember to keep your distance and check out the 5 Tips for Watching Wildlife in the Catlins for viewing advice.
Speaking of sea lions, free wildlife encounters are pretty easy to come by in The Catlins. More sea lions can be observed along the beaches of Surat Bay and Cannibal Bay, both a short drive from Owaka. If you’re more of a penguin person, check out the rare yellow-eyed penguins waddling across the shore in the late afternoon at Curio Bay or Roaring Bay – the latter has bird hides for a better and less obtrusive viewing experience.
For more free stuff, check out the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in The Catlins.
Cheap Activities in The Catlins
Luckily, the only reason our “cheap” section of this budget guide to The Catlins is so short is because most attractions are free. Nevertheless, there is one natural attraction that you do have to pay for, but many would say it’s still worth the visit…
Cathedral Caves on the pristine Waipati Beach are an impressive sight – two sea-formed passages that are 200m long and 30m tall. Needless to say, exploring the caves and their gorgeous beach is a rewarding experience, especially after venturing down a 1km (0.6-mile) bush track to get there. As the trail and beach are on Maori freehold land, there is a charge to use the car park and bush trail, costing NZ$10 per adult and NZ$2 per child. EFTPOS is available. Note that this attraction is only accessible at low tide.
Cheap Eats in The Catlins
Admittedly, travellers don’t tend to come to The Catlins for the culinary experience. In fact, most bring supplies with them from Dunedin, Balclutha or Invercargill and cook their own meals. Nevertheless, if you’re tired of cooking for yourself, there are a couple of cheap eats along the coast that you could stop by.
The BakeHouse Takeaway (8 Waikawa Road, Owaka) is a cool food truck set-up with undercover seating and affordable burgers, pizzas, Japanese curries and fresh fish and chips! For rivalling fish and chips, Blue Cod Blues (610 Niagara-Waikawa Road, Waikawa) is a food truck that operates throughout summer. Hit them up for fresh fish, paua patties and local mussels.
Finally, for your classic Kiwi country tavern experience, stop by Tokanui Tavern (18 McEwan Street, Tokanui). They have affordable food, like pizzas, seafood or chicken baskets, wedges, pies and fries, and child-friendly meals on their blackboard menu.