Things to do in The Catlins, New Zealand

There are plenty of things to do in The Catlins, New Zealand. It’s not as lively as Queenstown, as scenic as Fiordland or as cultural as Rotorua, yet still as worthy of a visit. The Catlins have their own particular brand of rustic beauty, with hungry waves crashing against pebbled sands,  an oasis of waterfalls worthy of Evian adverts,wind-swept trees that appear to defy natural science and Goliath Cathedral caves that make you feel insignificant and humble and awestruck all at the same time.

In one afternoon stroll, this place can flip between the nautical and the pastoral without warning.  The landscape alone is worth prioritising on the ol’ itinerary. And yet, to my admittedly limited knowledge, it’s not seething with tourists. It’s not shoved in your face like Milford Sound or The Glow Worm Caves. I didn’t hear every second backpacker rave about it. It was only on the recommendation of my Kiwi housemate that I adjusted my travelling trip to squeeze it in.  And here’s why I think you should too.

Things to do in the Catlins: Go to Waipapa Beach
Waipapa Beach

Things to do in The Catlins

The Waterfalls

We actually stumbled upon  Pūrākaunui Falls like they were some undiscovered hidden gem. Little did we know they are actually iconic in Otago, and one of the most photographed sights in the South Island. Well, excuse me. I’m grateful for the surprise, as you don’t get many when you have your whole trip planned on Pinterest but I’m even more grateful that we didn’t drive by and miss it.  You can do a tour of the waterfalls in the Catlins which takes in  Pūrākaunui, McLean falls and Matai falls but all are well signposted so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding them yourself.

McLean waterfall in the Catlins
McLean waterfall in the Catlins

The Cathedral Caves

The name comes from their resemblance to European cathedrals, which you will see more clearly when you look up to the 30 metre high ceilings inside. The 20 minute rainforest walk down to the caves on Waipati beach is almost as good as the caves themselves. Bring a torch if you have one as it does get quite dark in there. The caves are inaccessible when the tide is high so check the website before you go for the best time to arrive.

Cathedral Caves on Waipati Beach
Cathedral Caves on Waipati Beach

See Wildlife in their natural habitat

One of the things to do in The Catlins is to see wildlife. This place is home to some incredible species, including the endangered hector dolphin, the yellow-eyed penguin and a whole lot of sea lions. Unfortunately all we saw were the sea lions, which aren’t renowned for being the life and soul of the party. There were little baby cubs though which made up for inertia in cuteness. And it’s refreshing to see animals in their natural habitat that aren’t being exploited for tourism. If you surf in Curio Bay you have a good chance of spotting, or even swimming with the dolphins.


The Petrified Forest

As well as the dolphins and the penguins and the surf school, Curio Bay is home to the Petrified Forest, which is a fossilised forest of trees which were flattened by an active volcano. From a distance they look like rock and have the texture of stone but you can still see the rings from the trees engraved inside.

Things to do in the Catlins: Explore the Petrified Forest
Petrified Forest, Curio Bay

Other things to do in The Catlins

A random stroll in The Catlins will inevitably lead to an unexpected find which if you’re me, you’ll later learn is a world renowned phenomenon. Ever since I was little, I’ve detested the word ‘picturesque’ and I hate when travel bloggers use it. It feels lazy. But it comes to mind over and over when trying to describe The Catlins New Zealand on the Southern Scenic Route. So i’ll leave you with a few ‘pictures’ to round up a trip to The Catlins that left me with some of my fondest memories of New Zealand. It’s worth it to stay a few nights on a car rental self-drive trip, campervan or motorhome rental holiday around the area to really take everything in.

Things to do in the Catlins: See Tautuku Bay
Tautuku Bay

About keeva

Wandering freelance copywriter from Ireland. Trying to squeeze in as much travel into my twenties as I can. Right now, that involves a lot of camping in New Zealand, my home away from home.

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