Why I Love The Catlins


The Catlins, New Zealand

When it comes to travel, I will always nominate myself to do the research. There’s nothing I love more than losing days to poring over hundreds of articles and photos, scouring guidebooks, gazing at maps and plotting itineraries. No matter where I am in the world, I always have dozens of ideas of where to head to next. I often have people confused because I can talk about places I’ve never visited as if I’ve spent months travelling through them.

New Zealand was the first country I visited where I’d done little research. With a Kiwi boyfriend who knew far more about his home than I could ever hope to, I was happy to take a backseat for once, and let him do all the planning. For everyone’s safety, Dave would also be in charge of logistics, leaving me to spend an awful lot of time napping enjoying the spectacular views.

Much of what I saw in New Zealand was therefore a surprise. I knew about the main tourist attractions — the glowworm caves of Waitomo, the smelly geothermal activity of Rotorua, the glaciers, the volcanoes, the beaches, the (shudder) earthquakes, the adrenaline activities (like the jetboating incident that made me cry), and even Baldwin Street — the steepest street in the world. To my surprise, however, those weren’t the highlights from my time in New Zealand.

Instead, my highlights came from the places I’d never heard of before arriving. Sunbathing in the surfing haven of Raglan, spotting two wild kiwis on my hike through the Bay of Islands, surviving my Tongariro Crossing hike, eating amazing food in Wellington, spending a night in Doubtful Sound (and learning to fish!), eating whitebait patties as we drove along the west coast of the South Island.

And The Catlins. I’d never heard of it. Dave told me that it was at the bottom of the South Island so I assumed it would be cold, and expected I’d spend most of my time there shivering.

The Catlins, New Zealand
The Catlins. Not cold.

An hour before arriving, the signal on my phone died. It wouldn’t return for the next three days while we drove around the bottom of New Zealand. We’d have no Wi-Fi, either. I’d be spending all my time offline — something that always makes me happy.

I popped a couple of Dramamines as the asphalt turned to gravel and Dave made his rallying skills known. Our car skidded around narrow bends, bounced over bumps and potholes, and eventually led us to one of the prettiest views from anywhere I’d stayed in New Zealand so far.

We’d booked at the Hilltop, which offered Dave and I a double room for just $85 a night — great value for New Zealand. It turned out to be money well spent when we discovered we were only people staying in the house and had the entire place to ourselves.

The Catlins, New Zealand
Sunset view from Hilltop
The Catlins, New Zealand
Fresh morning views
The Catlins, New Zealand
You could even see the sea from our bedroom!

So, The Catlins is beautiful. But I’d still seen close to nothing when it came to its beauty. We had three days to explore without the distraction of our technology.

It hadn’t taken long for me to discover that this part of New Zealand was rarely visited — we had most of the attractions to ourselves — but at our first stop, Nugget Point, I got to see more than a dozen people in the same place. This didn’t happen again.

Nugget Point, The Catlins
Nugget Point: dozens of small rocks (nuggets) scattered off the coastline.
The lighthouse at Nugget Point
The lighthouse at Nugget Point
Catlins-cold-Lauren
It was windy. I wasn’t dressed for it. It was hard to keep control of my hair.

Next on our agenda was Tunnel Hill, an old abandoned railway tunnel that turned out to be the place of my nightmares. It’s not that I’m scared of the dark. It’s just that, well, okay, yes, being in places where I can’t see my hand in front of my face makes me nervous. Was there an axe murderer lurking in the tunnel? Would there be an earthquake while I was in there, causing me to spend my last moments being pelted by rocks as the darkness grew ever stronger? Dave thoughtfully switched on the torch on his phone, the dim light struggling to reveal our surroundings. I wasn’t sure if sort-of being able to see was better than not being able to see at all. We traipsed ever onward.

It was a 250 metre tunnel, built by picks and axes in 1879. I wondered if it was haunted.

When we reached the light of the other end, we spent a few minutes playing around with our cameras and I ended up with what is possibly my favourite photo of me and Dave. Was it worth having to whimper my way through the tunnel of fear? Perhaps.

Lauren and Dave in the railway tunnel
Favourite photo ever.

I recovered from my dark and damp experience by skipping around Cannibal Bay, famed for having a beach full of aggressive sea lions. Taking note of the sign, “Warning: sea lions may be present. Stay well clear of them.” I galloped across the sand, tripping only once I saw the beach was full of them.

Sea lion, the catlins
Watch out. They’re dangerous.

Now galloping with care, I padded my way across the beach, marveling at the beautiful rocks surrounding the bay. The deafening roar of the large sea lion I didn’t see hiding beneath a heap of sand alerted me to the fact that it was probably time for me to leave Cannibal Bay. A fleeting visit would be best for someone as clumsy as me.

After so much excitement in one day, we drove back to the house and had fallen asleep by nine.

Sea lions everywhere
Sea lions everywhere
Everywhere
Everywhere!

The following morning, I awoke with a nervous anticipation. After such an action-packed first day in The Catlins, I couldn’t wait to see what the next day would hold for us. First stop: Jack’s Blowhole.

As with much of New Zealand, the pleasure was in the driving (although perhaps not if I’d been allowed behind the wheel), and we pulled over to take photos of the scenery every few minutes.

The Catlins, New Zealand
New Zealand is not ugly.

Jack’s Blowhole was kind of crap. The description of it sounded badass. 55 metres deep, and 200 metres inland from the sea, I had visions of waves hurtling through a chute, smacking against the sides of Jack’s Blowhole (snicker), resulting in an enormous surge of water blasting into the air.

Not so much.

We lingered and watched the water drift in and back out again. It wasn’t dramatic.

Jacks Blowhole
Jack’s Blowhole. More hole than blow.

What was more exciting, though, was the collection of reeds and bright red flowers that I discovered close by. I spent more time snapping photos of these than I did a hole in the ground that was occasionally filled with water.

The Catlins, New Zealand

The Catlins, New Zealand

We boosted our energy after a disappointing first attraction with a trip to Purakaunui Falls, probably the most famous attraction in The Catlins — and definitely more exciting than a blowhole.

Supposedly it’s the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand, which isn’t such an amazing accolade, but I loved the waterfalls regardless. Just like at Nugget Point, we ran into a few people here — maybe as many as five or six — as we sat on a nearby rock and spent far too long taking photo after photo after photo.

Waterfalls in The Catlins
Purakaunui Falls

It was back on the road again for our final stop of the day: Cathedral Caves. As per usual for New Zealand, we drove past dozens of stunning beaches with not a single person on them.

Beach in The Catlins
Why is nobody on this beach?

The caves are only accessible for two hours either side of low tide, so you have to time your visit right. For us, this meant arriving just before sunset.

Cathedral Caves, New Zealand
Cathedral Caves at sunset
The entrance to Cathedral Caves
The entrance to the caves
Cathedral Caves, New Zealand
Looking out from the caves

Moving on! How could I not love a place where wild penguins roam free?

There are several spots in The Catlins where you can find wild penguins. After striking out a couple of times as we drove around the coast, we hit the jackpot on the morning of our final day, at Curio Bay.

Wild penguin in The Catlins
Penguin. Circled because this is not a good photo and I wouldn’t want you to think I was making it up.

Curio Bay isn’t just about the penguins, though. There, you can also find a petrified forest, dating back 200 million years. I’ll be honest, though. While I was excited about standing somewhere with so much history, fossils of trees just don’t look very interesting. I expected to see withered, gnarled branches twisting up from the depths of the ocean. Instead, the trees looked like rocks.

I preferred the penguins.

Petrified Forest, New Zealand
The Petrified Forest

I can’t think of a single time when I’ve ever been impressed by a visit to the extreme points of a country, but for some reason, if ever I find myself close to the something-most point of a country I’ll make the effort to visit. I’ve seen the southernmost point of the United States (Hawaii), the south-westernmost point of Europe (Portugal), the southernmost point of Vietnam, and various others. The one thing they all had in common was that there was nothing there. You’ll usually just find a small sign and an overpriced cafe, and that’s about it.

Not deterred by my increasing collection of dull points around the world, in New Zealand, we had made it our aim to visit the northernmost point of the North Island, the southmost point of the South Island, and the centre of the country.

While Slope Point wasn’t particularly exciting to look at, and was probably one of the windiest places I’ve ever visited, reaching the furthest point south was strangely exciting, especially now that I’ve had to put my Antarctica trip on hold. I don’t know when I’ll next travel this far south again.

I particularly loved that I was able to stand closer to the south pole than the equator — and the howling gale told me I was probably better suited to the latter.

Slope Point, New Zealand

Then, sadly, it was time to leave. We’d reached the bottom of the South Island and it was time to travel back up the west cost. Our next stop would be Manapouri, where we had booked an overnight trip in Doubtful Sound.

It’s a shame that not many people decide to see this part of New Zealand. Or maybe not? Perhaps part of the joy in visiting is feeling like you have it all to yourself. Either way, the three days I spent at the bottom of New Zealand were some of my favourite. If you’re looking to (literally!) head off the beaten track, and visit a gorgeous part of the country that so few people get to experience, you can’t go wrong with The Catlins.

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54 Comments

  1. August 18, 2014
    Reply

    Fantastic pictures. I’ve never heard of the Catlins before reading your article but now I will remember the name for a long time.

    • August 21, 2014
      Reply

      I’m glad I could introduce you :-)

  2. August 18, 2014
    Reply

    New Zealand is so ridiculously gorgeous. Definitely adding the Catlins to my ever-increasing travel wishlist!

    • August 29, 2014
      Reply

      Pleased to hear that! It’s definitely worth a visit.

  3. Those pictures are amazing. Sea lions and penguins?! What more can you ask for? Looks like a fantastic trip!

  4. August 18, 2014
    Reply

    You’re right… New Zealand is not ugly at all! Your pictures make me want to drop everything and go there now!

    • August 29, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Nikita! You totally should :-)

  5. August 18, 2014
    Reply

    I’d never even heard of this place before but it sounds wonderful. The scenery, the penguins, the sealions, the caves, the waterfalls, it all just looks and sounds so perfect! Love the fact that there’s not many people around too, bet it wouldn’t be the same if there were hundreds of tourists at every stop. Were you there in what is considered high season or low season? Would be interested to know if it’s this deserted all year round.

    PS. I love the photo of you and Dave, I can see why it’s your favourite, it’s absolutely adorable!

    • August 29, 2014
      Reply

      It was so spectacular for a place that nobody has heard of. We were there in February, which is high season. In low season, I’d imagine you wouldn’t see anyone at all!

  6. August 18, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing! I always thought New Zealand was like a world full of mountains and scenery, and indeed it is! I just never expected it could be as breathtaking. It’s a place I look forward to travelling now, so again thanks.

    • August 29, 2014
      Reply

      It’s probably the most stunning place I’ve visited — and so diverse as well! Mountains, beaches, glaciers, volcanoes… it has everything.

  7. August 18, 2014
    Reply

    Haha, the Catlins ARE cold! But I’m an Aucklander who can’t handle South Island temperatures.

    What stunning photos. Seriously blown away.

    • August 21, 2014
      Reply

      Hahaha, we actually had amazing weather while we were there, which I believe is pretty rare! Slope Point was FREEZING though.

  8. The Catlins are the main area in NZ that I haven’t been that I am dying to go to. Hopefully in October next year.

  9. August 19, 2014
    Reply

    Wow, this looks beautiful. And I have to say that the photo of you and Dave in the cave is absolutely adorable.

  10. August 19, 2014
    Reply

    Amazing landscapes!! I’ve never been to New Zealand, but love it already.
    The photo in the tunnel is lovely!

    • August 21, 2014
      Reply

      Thank you! You’ll have to get to New Zealand soon :-)

  11. Rodrigo
    August 19, 2014
    Reply

    Oh my, those are some gorgeous beaches! And deserted, just like I like them. Tbh, NZ has never been a priority on my list of countries I’d like to visit, since I much prefer tropical climates, but this post made me rethink my stance on Kiwi-land!

    • August 21, 2014
      Reply

      I much prefer tropical climates too, but New Zealand is so ridiculously beautiful that it’s hard not to fall in love with it! Fortunately, we experienced a massive heatwave for the two months we were there and it ended up not being very cold at all!

  12. August 20, 2014
    Reply

    I’m am very similar, I love nothing more then trolling through articles for research… though is it just me or do you find that it can get pretty overwhelming… I find myself hiding from daylight behind my computer trolling through information and making spreadsheets of places, festivals and things to see and do

    it always amazes me at how much beauty there is in NZ so underrated and so hidden.

    • September 1, 2014
      Reply

      So overwhelming! Especially when I decide to research one small fact and end up drowning in articles five hours later!

  13. August 20, 2014
    Reply

    I wish we’d visited this part of New Zealand when we visited – it looks incredible. I feel like I could spend a year in New Zealand and still not see all of its sights; you’ve just reminded me how much I love that country!

    • August 21, 2014
      Reply

      I agree! We visited something like 45 places over our two months in the country and felt like we could have continued that pace for a year and not run out of things to see! It’s one of the reasons why I’m so keen to return :-)

  14. Miriam of Adventurous Miriam
    August 23, 2014
    Reply

    Great photos, Lauren – I especially like the waterfall! I’m thinking of adding New Zealand to my upcoming travel plans and you just gave me another reason to go. Thanks :)

    • August 29, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Miriam! Definitely add New Zealand to your list :-)

  15. Dan B
    August 23, 2014
    Reply

    We’re headed to the South Island in the new year to explore for a few months. Definitely adding this to the list. The problem is that list is pretty long at the mo as the South Island looks amazing. I just hope our clunker of a car can handle all the steep roads!

    • August 29, 2014
      Reply

      We were driving a car that was 20 years old and managed perfectly! In fact, the crappier the car the better on all those gravel roads! :-)

  16. Cristy
    August 25, 2014
    Reply

    Oh my goodness! I just love the view that are simply breathtaking. Now wonder New Zealand is the best place for filming medieval movies. It simply reminds me of a scene/plot in the Lord of the Rings movie. (By the way I’m a mountain person and I really appreciate what you have shared a lot. Makes me wanna go to NZ pronto. LOL

    • September 1, 2014
      Reply

      New Zealand is a great country for people who love mountains :-)

  17. You have made me miss New Zealand so much! It’s so beautiful. I wish I made it to Slope Point though. I LOVE that photo of you and Dave, that’s one for a frame! :)

    • September 1, 2014
      Reply

      Sorry for making you miss New Zealand! It’s made me want to return, too :-)

  18. August 28, 2014
    Reply

    Awesome pictures. This is the first time am hearing about Catlins. Loved it. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • September 1, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Sofia! Glad you enjoyed :-)

  19. August 28, 2014
    Reply

    You’re making me so jealous! I absolutely LOVED the Catlins, they are one of my favorite places in New Zealand, although I agree about Jack’s Blowhole, completely underwhelming. The rest makes up for it though!

  20. John @ GoodPlanetLiving
    August 28, 2014
    Reply

    New Zealand is so extremely stunning. I always believed New Zealand was like a globe complete of hills and landscapes, and indeed it is! I just never predicted it could be as spectacular.

    • September 1, 2014
      Reply

      There are very many hills!

  21. What beautiful scenery! Every time I see pictures from anywhere in that country, I always wonder why I haven’t made it here myself. Soon, hopefully very soon! Thanks for re-sparking my inspiration.

    • September 7, 2014
      Reply

      I hope so too! It took me a long time to get there but now it’s my favourite country.

  22. Lily Lau
    September 11, 2014
    Reply

    Oh my, you made me fall immediately in love with The Catlins! The photos are spectacular, I’m seriously considering to travel there before this month ends…!

    • September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Wow! Have a great time! :-)

  23. AR
    October 19, 2016
    Reply

    Not sure if you ever check on here anymore, but as a Deep South NZ local i gotta ask where that first pic was with the path leading down – looks like you got it really nice compared to the usual side-ways hail!

    • October 19, 2016
      Reply

      I do still check my comments! Unfortunately, though, I took this trip back in 2012, so I have no idea where it would have been taken — sorry!

  24. Priyanka
    March 28, 2017
    Reply

    NewZealand is simply gorgeous!! U cant take any ugly picture. No chance of it. Spectacular pics. i love this place

    • March 30, 2017
      Reply

      I fully agree! It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

  25. Peter
    March 30, 2017
    Reply

    At the Catlins right now ….for the first time … came recommended by my kiwi mate in the north island … best advice ever …. we thought Nugget point was the most amazing place we have visited so far in the Catlins … ot in all of NZ for that matter…yes the weather has been perfect for us but with so many bueatifu places to see in such close proximity and so much history… it is a standout … to us this represents the true NZ of days gone bye… even cows on the road …my advice … to those who want to see nature at it best the Catlins has no equal in NZ … to those who want luxury all the way … go to the overdone Queenstown or Rotorua .. .. 40 years they were once like the Catlins …underdone and amazing …. let’s hope it stays that way forever .

    • March 30, 2017
      Reply

      Completely agree! The Catlins is one of my favourite regions of New Zealand :-)

  26. Shelley
    April 6, 2017
    Reply

    I’m so glad you love it, I have been going there for 33 years of my life, my family holiday house is there!! Like you I have travelled the world but this my favourite spot in the world!! Growing up as kids all our holidays were there and they are some of my best memories of my life!! But now as an adult it’s somewhere I can go and me be!! Find myself and reflect on what’s actually important in my life!! Glad you loved it there ?

    • April 18, 2017
      Reply

      Ah, that’s amazing! It’s a very special place and one I can’t wait to return to :-)

  27. Adam
    April 7, 2017
    Reply

    As i grew up in this area using the catlins as our playground…. i think papatawai is worth a mention quaint village with a cool museum and tautuku beach which you photographed is amazing also beautiful walks thru old forests try the wisp live in aussie now thanks for reminding me what im missing

    • June 12, 2017
      Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Adam! I’d love to return to the Catlins to check out more of the area when I’m in New Zealand later this year.

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