Exploring the Catlins coast on the South Island of New Zealand is an unforgettable experience and a must-do for anyone looking for off-the-beaten-path locations. Spanning the coastline from Balclutha to Invercargill this 170km stretch fits so much in that you can spend days exploring. While you could drive it all in a day, there are so many things to do in the Catlins that we recommend spending at least 2-3 days enjoying all the area has to offer.
Our Catlins itinerary took three days but this could easily be extended or condensed depending on your time frame. If you’re hiring a car, Dunedin makes a good starting point and you can easily make it back there from Invercargill at the end of your Catlins trip. You can compare car rental prices and options here.
Accommodation in the Catlins
Guesthouses and B&Bs
The towns in the Catlins are small but all offer some form of accommodation. There are plenty of lovely B&Bs and guesthouses. In the summer months I would strongly recommend booking in advance, below are some suggestions in the main towns.
Papatowai - Hilltop Accommodation Catlins
Chaslands - The Whistling Frog Resort
Curio Bay - Lazy Dolphin Lodge
For a full list of accommodation options in the Catlins have a look here.
Camping in the Catlins
The Catlins is campers’ paradise. The lack of public transport means that most people are road tripping anyway so it just makes sense to combine it with your accommodation. There are more parking options for self-contained vehicles but there are both free and paid campgrounds for non self-contained vehicles and tents.
The free DoC (Department of Conservation) campgrounds have toilets and access to water. We stayed at both the Weir Beach and Fortrose free camp grounds and loved our stay. They are both in gorgeous locations and have everything you need for a comfortable night stay including toilets and water access. In the peak season they can get busy so make sure you turn up by about 5pm to get a good spot but there will always be space if you show up late. There are also paid DoC campsites at Purakanui Bay and Papatowai which cost $8 per person.
As well as the DoC campsites there are several privately owned campsites including Kaka Point, Curio Bay and Papatowai. We spent one night at Hill View Campground which was only $10 per person and had a kitchen, plenty of space and hot showers ($2 for 5 minutes). The Curio Bay Campground is right on the beach and offers private spaces with powered and non-powered sites from $15 per person.
Roads in the Catlins
This area has only recently been promoted as a tourist route and as a result they aren’t world standard highways. Many of the smaller roads are still unsealed and the main roads are narrow and often windy. Factor a bit more time than usual when driving through the Catlins but it doesn’t really matter as you’ll be stopping off along the way at regular intervals! Expect to travel at an average 60km an hour throughout the journey.
Facilities in the Catlins
At the information centre in either Balclutha or Invercargill (depending on where you start your trip) get your hands on the official Catlins map or you can download it here.
The Catlins is a rugged coastal area with small towns and not a lot of infrastructure. There are a few small shops along the way but it’s best to stock up in Balclutha or Invercargill before you begin your road trip in the Catlins.
There are no petrol stations in the Catlins so make sure your car is full before you head off. Luckily the driving distances are small (170km the entire way) so it’s not far to the next town with full services.
There are a few cafes in the towns but not many restaurants open in the evenings. If you’re camping we recommend planning to cook yourself in the evenings.
Cellphone signal is temperamental in the Catlins and there are many patches with no signal. WiFi is available at most of the cafes and info centres along the way. Most of the private campgrounds also offer some (limited) WiFi connection.
Things to do in the Catlins
Catlins Itinerary Day One
If you’re starting from the north Balclutha will be your first stop and is the gateway to the Catlins. This is the last place to stock up on food and petrol before your road trip in the Catlins. There are services along the way but things are more expensive and there’s limited shopping options.
Kaka Point and Nugget Point Lighthouse
Around 30 minutes from Balclutha you’ll find yourself at the picturesque Kaka Point. This is a great beach to stop for a dip or a wander if the weather is nice. There is also a bar, café and campground right next to the beach.
Further along the same road you’ll come to Nugget Point, home to a colony of fur seals and a rather picturesque lighthouse. On a clear day you can see out towards Stewart Island from the end of the walkway. The walking track takes around 20 minutes each way and leads you right along the steep cliff of the coastline with some stunning views. Bring a jacket as it gets windy out there!
This 5 minute walk through gorgeous native bush is well worth the photo stop. The wedding cake falls are beautiful and if there’s been recent rain the cascades flow rapidly over the different layers and there are great views from the viewing platform. Make sure you bring a reusable coffee cup and grab a caffeine fill or snack and the friendly little coffee cart in the car park.
This is another of the Catlins postcard-perfect bays with white sand and clear blue ocean. There is a DoC campground ($8 NZD per person) as well as a couple of other accommodation choices making this a great place to relax and spend the night at the end of your first day in the Catlins.
We decided to stop a little earlier (it was raining and we had started late). We spent the night at Hill View Campsite on Ahuriri Flat Road ($10 NZD per person) with access to a kitchen area and hot showers ($2NZD for 5mins). We then popped in to the Purakaunui Falls the next morning and continued with our Catlins Itinerary.
Catlins Itinerary Day Two
Lost Gypsy Caravan
As you head into Papatowai you’ll see a sign for the Lost Gypsy caravan. Make sure to pop in for a look. This old house bus is filled with all kinds of interesting contraptions and inventions and is lots of fun for kids and adults. You can also pay $8 to go into the garden to see the full exhibition (adults only). On site there is a small café and a stall selling ice cream and some lunch options. The perfect pitstop on a Catlins road trip.
Niagra Falls Café
When you’re in need of sustenance you can’t beat a stop at the Niagra Falls Café. Although the falls themselves are not much to behold the café is well worth a stop. The beautiful old school house set in a beautiful garden is the perfect spot for an afternoon coffee or refreshing drink. They also have a food menu and serve an excellent range of counter food.
Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay
Curio Bay is home to a petrified forest a rare phenomenon where an entire forest was burnt and preserved as fossils. At low tide you can wander along the shore to examine the fossils close up, you can see tree stumps, logs and the grain of the wood beautifully preserved.
In the evenings you can head to this area of the beach and if you’re lucky you’ll spot penguins returning to shore. Both yellow-eyed and little blue penguins live in this area and nest in the surrounding bush. There is usually a DoC worker around to answer questions and a rope on the beach marks where to stand behind so as to not disturb or frighten the penguins.
Just across the way is the stunning Porpoise Bay. This beautiful stretch of beach is a popular beginner surf spot and also often has kayakers and paddle borders heading out. But the real attraction is the pod of Hector’s dolphins which make themselves at home in the bay and can often be seen frolicking around in the shallows. It’s allowed to go out and swim with them but keep your distance and let any interaction be initiated by the dolphins. Having said that, they are playful and curious and were swimming right up to people when we were there.
This area was perhaps our favourite stop in the Catlins. It’s small but there’s plenty to see and do and we recommend spending a night here to fully appreciate it. There’s a well set up campground as well as several accommodation options from a backpackers to lovely guest houses. For a free option you can do what we did and drive a little further to the free DoC campsite at Weir’s Beach and drive back the next morning to enjoy some more time at the beach.
Catlins Itinerary Day Three
Waipohatu Walking Track
This is a perfect morning activity and offers a little bit of exercise and rewarding views in peaceful surroundings. The 2 hour long loop track takes you through gorgeous native bush to two beautiful waterfalls. The track itself is fairly easy going and if you arrive early enough (we started at 9 am) you’ll have the place to yourself.
This is the Southern most point of the South Island and is extremely windy! It involves a drive followed by a 15-minute walk to the actual point. We chose to skip this we were heading further south to Stewart Island a few days later.
This is another short stop off on your trip in the Catlins. It takes a couple of minutes to walk from the carpark down to the striking lighthouse perfectly placed at Waipapa point. There are a few areas you can take a short walk and if you head down towards the beach there are often seals and sea lions. The information point in carpark offers lots of interesting information about the history of the area including ship wreks and the lighthouse workers.
There is not a lot in Fortrose except a decent café and an excellent free camping spot. We drove 10 minutes further to Tokanui for some fish and chips and took them to the beach front campground to enjoy while watching the abundant bird life in the estuary. This is the perfect peaceful spot to spend a night before heading onwards out of the Catlins and into the next city – Invercargill (unless you continue through to Queenstown or Te Anau).