The Catlins region of New Zealand is one of New Zealand's best kept secrets. It is one of the most beautiful and best places to visit in this amazing country. It has such variety, including stunning waterfalls, amazing wildlife and beautiful beaches. It is also 'off-the-beaten-track' and so much quieter than other parts of New Zealand (and given how quiet New Zealand is in general that is really saying something!).
The drive from Queenstown down to the Catlins follows the Southern Scenic route and is a very beautiful drive - this links all the way up to Dunedin on the east coast. It passes alongside the striking Lake Wakatipu via Kingston, on to Te Anau and the gateway to Milford Sound, Tuatapere (New Zealand's sausage capital!), and passes hidden gems such as Gemstone Beach. Detour off the Southern Scenic to get deep into the heart of the Catlins to areas such as Curio Bay.
Check out this map for things to do in this area. My highlights of the region include:
★ Seeing yellow-eyed penguins in the wild - At the petrified forest in Curio Bay the yellow-eyed penguins come ashore and waddle across the beach to nest. It takes a bit of patience, but if you get your timings right (ask at the local campground store for advice on the best time as this varies seasonally) then it is a really magical sight. Make sure not to disturb the penguins - keep your distance and a zoom lens on your camera comes in handy for getting photos of them (also do not use a flash).
★ Cathedral Caves - only accessible at low tide these caves are a spectacular sight. The walk that takes you to the caves down through the forest and along the beach is beautiful - it is through private land so a NZD$5 fee is payable.
★ Slope Point - this is the most southern point on mainland New Zealand and the scenery here is beautiful. You take a 20 minute walk from parking your car along a track through some fields, and can pose with the signpost indicating the distance to the equator and the south pole. Check out the famous windswept trees on the drive out here.
★ Purakaunui Falls - one of the most photogenic waterfalls in New Zealand this waterfall is a little hidden away down a gravel track but definitely worth the effort. Only a 10 minute walk from the car park this three-tiered waterfall is simply stunning.
★ Seeing hector dolphins at Porpoise Bay - summer and autumn are the best times of year to see the resident population of the world's smallest and rarest of dolphins - the hector dolphins - playing in the surf in the Curio Bay area.
★ Florence Hill lookout - located along the southern scenic route near Papatowai, pull up and stop here for incredible views down to Tautuku Bay. The waves rolling into shore and the beautiful beach make for a picture postcard photograph.
★ Mclean Falls - another wonderful waterfall in this area. Take the narrow and windy gravel road not too far from the turnoff to Cathedral Caves. Falling 22 metres in total this waterfall is very picturesque and descends a number of terraces.
★ Nugget Point Lighthouse - pass Roaring Bay on the drive up and wait in the hide there to see yellow-eyed penguins from a distance. Carry on the road up to Nugget point, where a short walk takes you to the lighthouse, with great views all around.
The Catlins feels like such a special and unique place - it is an incredibly varied and beautiful area and one of the true off-the-beaten-track hidden gems of New Zealand.
All photographs are copyright of Nicola Barnard Photography.
Nicola works as a personal travel counsellor and has over 15 years experience of planning and booking trips - including her own destination wedding to Lake Tahoe, California, and her round-the-world honeymoon. Nicola has specialist experience in planning bespoke off-the-beaten-track New Zealand itineraries.