The Catlins is one of my favourite remaining 'hidden gem' regions in NZ.
“It is almost axiomatic that as soon as a place gets a reputation for being paradise it goes to hell,” wrote Paul Theroux. Many of New Zealand's beauty spots suffer from this problem – their popularity means they have become completely overrun with tourists, spoiling the inspiring sense of being alone in nature that made them so enjoyable in the first place.
The Catlins does not fall into this category – it's one of the places in NZ where you can still find a wild, expansive beach off a side road and have the whole place to yourself. Rock formations, waterfalls, wildlife – this part of the lower Southland is perfect for the traveller seeking solitude and a connection with the natural environment.
Below I'll cover some of my favourite things to do, places to visit, and accommodation choices in the Catlins.
The most famous attraction in the Catlins, the Cathedral Caves are a series of impressive natural rock formations that look like epic works of architecture.
The biggest township in the Catlins, with a population of around 400 people (this gives you a bit of an idea of how isolated this region is!).
Owaka has a handful of nice cafes and restaurants and some good accommodation options (see the accommodation guide below for more details). You'll also find an i-Site here, where you can pick up free brochures about the region (it's located at the Owaka Museum/Library).
It's also the only place around with a supermarket (the Four Square), so if you need to stock up on supplies, do it here. Read more about Owaka here.
A secluded and peaceful tiered waterfall a short drive from Owaka – this one seems to be less busy than McLean Falls, below, so if you want some peace and quiet along with the sound of rushing falls it's worth checking out – only a 10 minute walk from the carpark to the falls. Jack's Point Blowhole is also nearby. Learn more about Purakaunui Falls here.
The tallest waterfall in the region – this is right beside the Whistling Frog Cafe and Holiday Park where I like to stay (more on this below).
It's a 20 minute walk to the falls from the carpark (I made the mistake of walking the 3km road to the carpark as well, in the blistering sun – not recommended!).
There are broad flat rocks you can sit on beside the falls here, making it a great place to hang out for a picnic lunch.
Read more about McLean Falls here, including how to get there.
My favourite 'hidden gem' in the area – just off the road between Purakaunui Falls and the Whistling Frog there is a gravel road that leads down to Tautuku, a huge broad beach with golden sand and breathtaking surroundings.
And the best part is, hardly anyone comes down here so you can pretend you can have the whole beach, or at least a big part of it, all to yourself.
A nice little seaside town with a good, low cost camping ground – see the accommodation info below for more.
'Sun, Sand and Scenery' is the slogan on the sign as you drive into Kaka Point, and it delivers on all three. A good place to stop off for a night or just take in the scenery and get some good photos.
There is a cool little spot in Papatowai where 'the Lost Gypsy' sells curios made from recycled materials, and good coffee – good for a rest stop as you're driving through the southern scenic route.
The southernmost point in mainland New Zealand, and a habitat for the rare New Zealand sea lions, which can sometimes be spotted on the beach here. It's also the scene of a famous shipwreck. See the accommodation page for more info on freedom camping at Waipapa Point.
The Catlins is right down at the bottom of NZ, which means it's quite cold for most of the year.
I recommend visiting during the summer months, December through February, if you want to get the best weather. Also, in summer the sun doesn't go down until around 9.30pm so you have more time to explore. (I recommend exploring in the evening, 5pm-8pm, since there's usually no one else on the road).
Because it's an outdoors-oriented destination, it can spoil the fun a bit if it's cold and rainy the whole time you're there.
Now that you're familiar with a few of the things to see and do around the region, let's look at the best places to stay.
Because the region is not yet “touristed-out,” most of the accommodation is in the form of backpacker hostels, a few motels and holiday houses, and camping grounds.
I prefer the campgrounds, but it all depends on what you need and what you're planning to do. Below are my recommendations for accommodation in the Catlins.
To see more details on all these places, check out the complete Guide to Catlins Acccommodation.
The Whistling Frog/Kiwi Holiday Park
Cost: $25/night (powered camping, one person)
Pounawea Motor Camp
Cost: $17/night (powered camping, one person)
The Split Level – Owaka
Cost: from $30/night
Cost: from $38/night
Slope Point Backpackers
Cost: dorms from $25 – also have camping sites starting from $15 per person
Lazy Dolphin Lodge – Curio Bay
Cost: dorms from $38/night
For information on the exact locations where you can freedom camp, get the Campermate app for your phone or pick up the 'Camping in Clutha' brochure from the Info Centre (the library) in Owaka.
The following spots have freedom camping areas:
Curio Bay is a very popular part of the Catlins, so I have given it a whole section to itself. Read more about activities and things to do around here in the Curio Bay Guide.
Click here for a quick guide to the options for accommodation and camping in and around Curio Bay, including the Lazy Dolphin Lodge Backpackers.
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