The Catlins is a hilly, forested coastal area in the south-eastern corner of the South Island of New Zealand. Its attractions include coastal scenery, marine mammals such as fur seals, sea lions and rare Hector's dolphins, rare yellow-eyed penguins, native forest walks and birdlife, and the Jurassic fossil forest of Curio Bay. Much of the area is protected in the Catlins Conservation Park.
The Catlins are sparsely populated (even by New Zealand standards). The largest town is Owaka, with a population of 400. The North Catlins is the southern corner of Otago, and the South Catlins is the south-eastern corner of Southland.
Get in and around
Self-drive is the main way visitors get around. The main route into and through the Catlins is the Southern Scenic Route from Balclutha on the Otago side and from Invercargill on the Southland side. Petrol is available at Owaka and Papatowai in the North Catlins, and Tokanui and Fortrose in the South Catlins.
The Bottom Bus is the only public transport. It runs from Dunedin through the Catlins to Invercargill (not the other way) on M, Tu, Th, Sa, Su, departing about 8am and arriving about 7pm. It's a hop-on hop-off service, so you can spend nights in the Catlins and catch the bus again another day. It stops at Nugget Point, Surat Bay/Cannibal Bay, Owaka, a forest & waterfall walk, and Curio Bay. Cost is $225 (adult).
- Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay, Waikawa-Curio Bay Rd. This whole area is called "Curio Bay", but includes the long sandy enclosed Porpoise Bay, and the small rocky Curio Bay that directly faces the open ocean. On the road running along Porpoise Bay, there are houses and accommodation and several access points onto the beach. To see most of the attractions, continue to the end of the beach where the road ends in a T intersection. Left takes you to the camping ground, the beach store, beach access and cliff-top lookout. Porpoise Bay has a resident population of the endangered Hector's dolphin, and the delight is that in summer and autumn they can often be seen easily from the beach as they swim in or just beyond the surf. Turning right at the T intersection takes you to the Curio Bay car park, interpretive panels and a walk down to the rocks. Here are fossilized logs and tree stumps from a forest that stood in the Jurassic period 180 million years ago. It is one of the best examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world. You can walk around the fossils when the tide is out. The second attraction in this small bay is endangered yellow-eyed penguins that nest here and can be seen returning from the sea in the late afternoon and early evening and walking up the rocks or just standing around. Also in these bays, fur seals can sometimes be seen, usually on rocky shore, and the larger sea lions, usually on sandy shore.
- Florence Hill Lookouts, Chaslands Highway (the main road). After passing through the village of Papatowai heading west, the road runs up Florence Hill, where there are two parking spots with great views of the coast. The second one is even better than the first, as it has great views of Tautuku Bay and Tautuku Peninsula, where there was once a whaling station, plus information boards.
- Nugget Point, The Nuggets Rd (south of Kaka Point). A spectacular sea scene with a lighthouse (built 1869–70) and the Nuggets (a group of rocky islets), which can be viewed from the lighthouse (a 10–20 min return walk from the end carpark). If you look down from the walk, well below near sea level are breeding colonies of royal spoonbill birds and fur seals. Sea lions come here, and sometimes elephant seals in summer. Roaring Bay (20 min return) can be accessed from a carpark before the main one. Yellow-eyed penguins come ashore in the bay in the late afternoon. There is a hide from which you can view them – avoid going on to the beach in the late afternoon. There is a picnic area and toilets near the end carpark.
- Owaka Museum & Catlins Information Centre, 10 Campbell St, Owaka, ☎ +64 3 415-8323 (Museum), +64 3 415-8371 (Information Centre). M-F 9:30am-4:30pm, Sa-Su 10am-4pm.
- Slope Point. This is the most southerly point of the South Island, and has dramatically wind-sculpted trees. An unsealed road runs off the Curio Bay-Haldane Rd, taking you six km to the parking site for a marked walk across private farmland to the Slope Point light. On a rare still day it can be absolutely stunning here. The walkway is closed for lambing in Oct and Nov.
- Surat Bay, Newhaven Rd, New Haven (5 km from Owaka). Drive to New Haven, then walk over a bridge crossing a small creek and follow the poled route through the dunes to Surat Bay. Usually there is a colony of New Zealand sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) on the beach or in the dunes. The walk is 20–30 mins return. You can also walk to the end of the bay and over to Cannibal Bay, or you can drive to Cannibal Bay.
- Tunnel Hill, Owaka Highway (5 km north-east of Owaka). Walk through a 250 m disused brick-lined railway tunnel that was dug by hand in the 1890s. It is now an historic reserve. Taking a torch is recommended.
- Waikawa Museum & Information Centre, 604 Niagara Waikawa Highway. Local history, accommodation bookings, Internet. A handy stop between the main highway and Curio Bay.
- Waipapa Point. The still-active lighthouse was built in 1884 in response to the wreck of the SS Tararua here in 1881, country's worst civilian shipwreck. Sea lions come ashore on the beach here.
- Cathedral Caves Walk, 214 Pratt Rd (off Chaslands Highway). 30 minutes walk each way. Open two hours each side of low tide from late Oct to May. Temporarily closed due to a large waterhole inside the caves as of Dec 2015. Adult $5, child $1.
- Catlins River walk. Absolutely beautiful and costs nothing except the fuel to get to Tawanui camping-group from where the five-hour walk starts. You really need a car at the other end (The Wisp) so that you don't have a ten-hour tramp! Swap keys at the half-way point and meet back at Owaka. If you're lucky you might see a mohua (yellowhead), a rare and beautiful little native bird. You will certainly see some tomtits which, clinging to tree-trunks look for all the world like black and white butterflies. The bed of the river in places is sheer rock which gives it a unique look. There are some scary wire bridges but no-one has fallen in off one as far as we know.
- Catlins Wildlife Trackers, 744 Catlins Valley Rd (10 km from Owaka), ☎ +64 3 415-8613, toll-free: 0800 CATLINS, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Two-day, three-night small group eco-tours to see and learn about The Catlins rainforest and coast. Subantarctic penguins and marine mammals are seen. Tours are fully catered in comfortable home-stay accommodation and home-cooked meals. Tours are personalised and guided by hosts Fergus and Mary Sutherland who have 20 years experience in hosting visitors to the Catlins and are well qualified with Masters degrees and conservation credentials.
- McLean Falls Walk, Rewcastle Rd. A beautiful nature's garden leads to the highest of the local waterfalls. 40 minutes return.
- Purakaunui Falls Walk, Purakaunui Falls Rd. A 10-minute walk each way through primeval forest to the 20m, three-tiered falls. The walk through the forest alone is worth the trip.
- Waipohatu Forest Walks. Close to the turnoff for Slope Point, Waipohatu offers a sheltered contrast to the wild coast. There are two walks: a 1-km walk of wheelchair standard, with diverse ferns, podocarps and broad-leaved trees; the other a 3-hour adventure to two hidden waterfalls.
In a sparsely populated rural area, outstanding dining options are few and far between. Two that may stand out from the rest are Niagara Falls and Whistling Frog.
- Catlins Cafe, 3 Main Rd, Owaka, ☎ +64 3 415-8040, e-mail: email@example.com. Dinner mains $23–33, lunch dishes $15–25, breakfast $11–22.
- Lumberjack Bar & Cafe, 3 Saunders St, Owaka, ☎ +64 3 415-8747, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dinner mains $27–32, lunch dishes $15–23.
- Niagara Falls Cafe/Gallery, 256 Niagara Waikawa Rd, Niagara, ☎ +64 3 246-8577, e-mail: email@example.com. Quality food and service in an informal friendly setting. They use local ingredients where possible, growing their own vegetables and catching whitebait.
- The Point Cafe & Bar, 58 Esplanade, Kaka Point, ☎ +64 3 412-8800. 8am–8pm. The blue cod is recommended; also the chowder. This is the only restaurant in Kaka Point – the other option in the village is takeaways.
- Stirling Tides Food and Fuel, 5 Moray Terrace, Fortrose. Right on the Fortrose waterfront, looking over the Mataura estuary.
- Whistling Frog Cafe & Bar, Rewcastle Rd, Chaslands (cnr of the main highway), ☎ +64 3 415-8338, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily except 25 Dec. Breakfast through to dinner. The wood-fired pizzas are only served 4:30–6pm. Fully licensed bar with craft beers – McLean Falls Ale and Whistling Frog Golden Lager. Dinner mains, including pizzas, mostly $23–28; 250g steak $33.
- Catlins Backpackers, 24 Main Rd, Owaka, ☎ +64 3 412-8111. Two cosy and beautifully renovated cottages with 3 individually decorated rooms each. The Cat room really is the proverbial whiskers and the Bee room is really buzzing. No bunks here and shared rooms have no more than 3 beds. Sunny lawns and decks, comfortable lounges, a log fire and heaters in every room make this accommodation a popular choice with travellers from all over the world all year round. An excellent base to explore the Catlins. $23/56 (bed in a shared room/double, twin).
- Catlins Mohua Park (Catlins Wildlife Trackers), 744 Catlins Valley Rd (15 km south of Owaka), ☎ +64 3 415-8613. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 13:00. Set deep in the heart of The Catlins, Mohua Park offers luxury self-catering accommodation in a tranquil natural setting. Eco-friendly solar design cottages all have great views and access to a private native forest reserve. Mohua Park is within walking distance of the Catlins River for trout fishing and the Catlins River Track for bush walking. Within 20 min drive is the wildlife-rich Catlins coast. Cottages $190 for up to 2 guests, $20 for extra guests.
- Hilltop Accommodation, 77 Tahakopa Valley Rd, Papatowai (turn inland between the store and the estuary), ☎ +64 3 415-8028. Two refurbished character farm cottages, set against native forest and with spectacular sea and valley views. En suite, double, twin and bunks. $38 (bunk) and up.
- Kaka Point Camping Ground, 34 Tarata St, Kaka Point, ☎ +64 3 412-8801, e-mail: email@example.com. Camping sites and two cabins, with native forest around it. Bellbirds and tuis provide a dawn chorus. There are tracks through the forest reserve that start nearby.
- Newhaven Holiday Park, 324 Newhaven Rd, New Haven. Sea lions come to adjacent Surat Bay. Tent sites ($16 pp) to tourist flats ($100–120 for two).
- Pounawea Accommodation Centre and Keswick Camping Ground, 43 Park Lane, Pounawea. Located right on the estuary of the Owaka River and the Catlins River. Tent sites ($10 pp) to motel units ($98 for two).
- Surat Bay Lodge, 19 Surat Bay Rd, New Haven. Hostel on the Catlins Estuary, next to Surat Bay. Sea lions come here, sometimes right outside the hostel. From $30.
- Whistling Frog Resort, 29 Rewcastle Rd (just off the main highway). Has a range of accommodation from tent sites through cabins to cottages. Also known as the "McLean Falls Holiday Park" and "Catlins Kiwi Holiday Park". See the "Eat" section above for the Whistling Frog Cafe & Bar, which is next door. Further along the road is the McLean Falls Walk.
- Curio Bay Holiday Park, 601 Waikawa-Curio Bay Rd. Camp amongst the flax bushes on a small peninsula between Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay and close to the beach. You may see the endangered yellow-eyed penguins and Hector's dolphins, and also sea lions. Has a shop with groceries and hot food. Facilities very basic, so not for the delicate. Powered site $30, unpowered tent site $20.
- The Garden House near Fortrose, ☎ +64 3 246-9526, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Holiday home set in large garden on coastal farming property, everything supplied, just bring your food and wine.
- Lazy Dolphin Lodge, 529 Waikawa-Curio Bay Rd, ☎ +64 3 246-8579, e-mail: email@example.com. Almost right on the Porpoise Bay beach. Bed in shared room $38, twins & doubles $80 for two.
Cellphone reception has been non-existent in much of the Catlins, but cell towers have been added in a few places in 2013–15.