The Catlins is often overlooked when travelers are planning their New Zealand itinerary. I get it, it’s kind of out of the way and when you’re short on time then it’s easy to cut this region out. But if you’re able to fit it into your travel plans, there are so many beautiful places to go in the Catlins that you won’t regret it!
If you fly into Christchurch, an itinerary I would recommend would be driving down the Otago Coast through Dunedin then hit the Catlins before making your way to Queenstown. Head back to Christchurch along the 8, stopping at Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki.
There is so much beauty packed into this tiny corner of the island, it’s mind-blowing! The Catlins quickly became one of my favorite places in all of New Zealand. These nine must-see locations are sure to make you fall in love with the Catlins too! And if you’re looking for other amazing locations on the South Island, be sure to check out our South Island Bucket List and South Island Hidden Gems.
1. McLean Falls
New Zealand has some spectacular waterfalls. However, I think McLean Falls is the best waterfall in New Zealand and one of the most beautiful places to go in the Catlins. To get there, turn off Chaslands Highway onto Rewcastle Road 11.6 km south of Papatowai. Follow the road for about 3 km to the parking lot.
The hike is relatively easy, about 40 minutes round trip with little elevation gain. You will initially pass by fields with grazing cattle, then you’ll cross a bridge over the creek.
The track continues gently uphill under a canopy of trees. I would suggest going early in the morning to catch the sun rays filtering through the trees.
Once you reach the lower cascades, a sign will point the way up a set of switchbacks until you reach the viewing platform.
2. Purakaunui Falls
The Purakaunui Falls are one of the most photographed falls, not only in The Catlins but in all of New Zealand.
In my opinion, they’re not as impressive in person as the McLean falls, but are still worth a visit.
Purakanui Falls can be accessed from two roads off the Papatowai Highway. Turn off onto Purakaunui Falls Road 6.3 km south of Owaka, or turn off onto Warnock Road 10.8 km south of Owaka. The falls are signposted at both turn-offs.
It is a short 10 min walk to get there. My kids especially loved climbing into the hollow trunk of a tree on the path down.
3. Cathedral Caves
The Cathedral Caves is one of the largest sea caves in the world and one of the most popular places to go in the Catlins. It is quite impressive to witness in person. However, there is some important information that you need to know before you go:
The Caves are open for visiting between late October and May. Sometimes spring tides delay the opening for a few weeks.
Access is limited to two hours before low tide and up to one hour after low tide. It is not open before 7.30am or after 8.30pm.
There is a small fee to park.
Cathedral Caves is located 15km south of the village of Papatowai and 2km off the highway.
To access the caves, take a 3/4 mile track through the native coastal forest until you reach the beautiful Waipati beach.
Walk across the sand to reach the caves located on the northern end of the beach.
Be prepared to get your feet wet, there are often pools of seawater in the cave.
It would also be helpful to bring a flashlight (or your phone would work too) if you want to explore further back.
If you’re lucky, you may even see sea lions or penguins. Be sure to give them space and don’t disturb them.
4. Nugget Point Lighthouse
Nugget Point is my favorite lighthouse, and I’ve seen plenty of lighthouses! The views are out of this world.
Take the scenic 5-10 minute walk from the parking lot to the sheer jagged cliffs overlooking the rocky islets in the water below.
If you look down onto the rocks directly below the lighthouse you’ll often see fur seals playing in the rock pools.
Bring binoculars and you may even spot yellow-eyed penguins on the shore, or hector dolphins swimming in the ocean.
As you stand at the edge of the ocean, you’re sure to experience one of those moments. Those moments where you just sit in silence soaking up the serene beauty and feeling grateful that you get to experience it in person.
To get there, follow the coast road from Kaka Point up to the Kaimātaitai parking lot.
5. Purakaunui Bay
This beautiful bay is the filming location for Cair Paravel where the kings and queens are crowned in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The bay is located at the Purakaunui Bay Campsite. To get there, turn off SH1 at Balcutha. Drive south past Owaka until the Ratanui turnoff. Follow Purakaunui Falls Rd to Long Point Rd, then follow Purakaunui Bay Rd until it ends. The road is narrow and unpaved so take care.
6. Curio Bay
If you visit Curio Bay at low tide you’ll be able to see the remains of a Jurassic era petrified forest that has been uncovered by the ocean.
Curio Bay is also one of the best places to go in the Catlins to see penguins. This area is a protected nesting ground for Yellow-eyed penguins.
An hour or so before sunset, you can see them making their way back from the ocean to nest in the bushes behind the beach.
7. Porpoise Bay
One of The Catlins best hidden gems is Porpoise Bay. Porpoise Bay is located not too far from Curio Bay. The bay is home to the world’s rarest dolphins, the Hector’s Dolphins.
What makes this beach even more special is that the dolphins often come near the shore to play in the waves with surfers and swimmers.
It is a rare phenomenon, nowhere else in the world do dolphins spend so much time near the shore without being fed. Rumor has it that if you click two metal spoons together it helps call them to shore.
I mean, how cool is that to be able to swim with dolphins in the wild at the beach?! Just be sure to never approach the dolphins and wait for them to come to you.
Porpoise Bay is also a great surfing beach, with some right-hand breaks on the eastern side of the bay and smaller breaks for beginners close to the homes lining the beach.
8. Slope Point
Slope Point is home to an amazing phenomenon. This region is the southernmost point of New Zealand.
The fierce Antarctic winds coming from the ocean cause the trees to twist and warp until they grow at a permanent angle.
Slope Point is located just south of Waikawa (about 15 minutes from Curio Bay) and can be accessed by a 20-minute walk through rolling green pastures.
9. Waipapa Point
Waipapa Point is a beautiful beach with a charming historic lighthouse. I mean, you had me at red door, but add in the wild tussock blowing in the breeze and it is pretty much picture perfect.
You can find plenty of tide pools for discovering crabs and baby starfish. It is also common to spot sea lions lounging around on the shore.
Waipapa Point is located at the southern tip of The Catlins region. It is found at the end of a gravel road, about 25 minutes from Slope Point.
If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand, I hope you make it down to The Catlins. These 9 beautiful places to go in the Catlins are sure to blow you away!