In this post, I’m sharing my Dunedin to Invercargill via The Catlins road trip itinerary. During my time in New Zealand, some of the most unexpected gems were found while driving the Southern Scenic Route, so I hope you enjoy this drive as much as I did.
Please note that this blog post most likely contains affiliate links to products or services I use and love! If you click on the links, it means I get a little extra pocket money at no additional cost to you.
This is what keeps my website ticking over – thank you!
I spent three days (plus an extra evening at Moeraki Boulders) enjoying this road trip. However, you could easily spend two to four days exploring The Catlins, especially if you enjoy walking, waterfalls, and coastal views.
From the incredible wildlife at Curio Bay to gazing at a spectacular sunset at Nugget Point Lighthouse, walking to some of New Zealand’s prettiest waterfalls or seeing a petrified forest from millions of years ago, there are many things to see and do while driving along the Southern Scenic Route.
While not as iconic as New Zealand’s epic Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, hiking the Tongariro Crossing or visiting Rotorua’s hot springs, there’s something really special about adding The Catlins to your South Island road trip.
So if you’re looking for the best stops between Dunedin and Invercargill, I hope you find some inspiration from this post and have a wonderful trip.
Best stops on a Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins Road Trip:
DAY ONE: DUNEDIN OR MOERAKI BOULDERS TO THE CATLINS
Moeraki Boulders Beach
Driving time from Moeraki Boulders to Dunedin is approx one hour (75km).
The first destination on this Dunedin/Catlins itinerary is technically North of Dunedin. While Moeraki Boulders is a unique spot, if you don’t plan on travelling North of Dunedin, feel free to skip to the first Dunedin attraction below!
Before I arrived, I wasn’t sure what I’d make of the Moeraki Boulders, but these unique rocks are almost perfectly round, making them very peculiar to see. Stranger still is their size – each boulder is up to two meters high.
You’ll find yourself wondering how these spherical rocks were formed and why so many closely gathered together along the beach. With the boulders weighing several tonnes, it’s obvious that humans didn’t put them there. According to scientists, the boulders were formed millions of years ago from calcite concretions.
But whether or not you’re interested in geology, this is certainly not your ordinary beach. The boulders have an almost alien-like feel, with some half-cracked open like eggs or somehow half-attached to rockfaces.
Address: Moeraki Boulders Beach, Moeraki Boulders Road, Hampden 9482, New Zealand
Lanarch Castle & Gardens
Driving time from Dunedin to Lanarch Castle is approx 20 minutes (13.2 km)
Dunedin is home to New Zealand’s only castle!
This magnificent building definitely stands out amid the surrounding woodland hills! If you’re familiar with castles, you may immediately notice something is a little ‘off’ about this castle; as a Brit, I could recognise it looked very different from the fortresses back in my birth country.
And, of course, this is because Lanarch Castle was never built to be a fortified stronghold but rather the home of a rich man who wanted a castle. And I don’t say that with judgment – who can blame someone for fancying themselves a castle?
Built in 1871, there is still plenty of history to be found within the castle walls, and the Victorian interiors have been restored to showcase the New Zealand craftsmanship from years gone by.
But perhaps the 7-acre gardens are the site’s main attraction. Rated a ‘Garden of International Significance, you’ll find plenty to see from the Patterened Garden, Serpentine Walk, South Seas Garden, and many Alice in Wonderland features to find while exploring.
If you’re eager to treat yourself, high tea or dinner is also available in the garden or beside the fire in the Ballroom Cafe.
Ticket price for castle and grounds: $39
Ticket price for grounds only: $19.50 (this is the ticket I got)
Most activities on this Dunedin/Catlins road trip itinerary are free, and Lanarch Castle is the exception.
Opening Times: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm daily (including public holidays)
Address: Larnach Castle Camp Road, Larnachs Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand
Aside from Lanarch Castle, there are more things to see and do on the beautiful Otago Peninsula.
First of all, Otago Peninsula is an unmissable spot if you’re a nature lover! Home to the various animal-friendly lookouts, this is a great place to view or learn about New Zealand’s wildlife.
Take a tour to see the blue penguin, or take the scenic road around Pilots Beach, where you can see fur seals from the platform. From here, you can also watch large numbers of gulls, shags, and albatrosses soaring around the Waiwhakaheke Seabird Lookout before visiting the Royal Albatross Museum.
(If you’d prefer to see the penguins without a tour, scroll down to read about Curio Bay – this is where I saw my first ever penguin!)
Other things to see and do in Dunedin:
- Explore the Dunedin Street Art Trail or one of the beautiful coastal walks
- Visit the Otago Museum and Toitu Otago Settlers Museum
- Stroll around the beautiful Dunedin Botanic Gardens or Dunedin Chinese Garden
- Enjoy the famous Dunedin historic buildings, such as the railway station, university, and cathedral. Next to the Romanesque St Paul’s Cathedral is also the Dunedin Municipal Chambers, which dates back to 1880 and is New Zealand’s only remaining Victorian town hall.
Drive to Kaka Point
Driving time from Dunedin to The Catlins Kaka Point is approx 1.5 hours (100km).
After exploring Dunedin, it’s time to begin your drive to The Catlins.
On the way, you could also stop at Lake Waihola, a stunning freshwater lake.
Here, you can walk to the beautiful Whale Fossil Lookout to see prehistoric dolphin and shake fossils dating back 30 million years. Or simply relax by the shore and watch the black swans skim across the surface of this reflective tidal lake.
Continue on to Kaka Point, a stunning coastal village on the edge of The Catlins.
The town is a popular base for those visiting The Catlins. It is close to many scenic sights and fascinating wildlife spots and has some wonderful accommodation options to choose from.
Day Two: Exploring The Catlins
NUGGET POINT LIGHTHOUSE.
Nugget Point Lighthouse has to be one of the most photogenic spots in The Catlins, if not Zealand. No Dunedin to Invercargill drive would be complete without a stop at this enchanting coastal lookout.
Like many others before me, I visited this iconic spot for sunrise to make the most of the panoramic views of the Nugget rocks from the lighthouse platform. The Tokata lighthouse dates back to 1870 and remains a dramatic spectacle on the edge of cliffs.
The rocks got their name from Captain Cook, who likened them to nuggets of gold! Look carefully to spot fur seals using them as a sunbed. Occasionally you can also spot Hector’s dolphins – the smallest dolphins in the world.
You’ll also see amazing birdlife, ranging from spoonbills to gannets and (if you’re lucky) yellow-eyed penguins at nearby Roaring Bay.
Address: Nugget Point Lighthouse, The Nuggets Road, Ahuriri Flat 9271, New Zealand
Tunnel Hill is the world’s Southernmost railway tunnel!
I even saw a cave weta hiding deep in the tunnel. These endemic New Zealand insects are the namesake for Weta Workshops, the iconic kiwi visual effects company! (If you’ve already visited the top New Zealand Lord of the Rings locations – or are a big movie fan like me – then you’ll already be familiar with the name Weta.)
The historic Tunnel Hill Track is an easy 1km return trail from the car park – take a torch if you’re afraid of the dark!
Address: Tunnel Hill Track, 9586, 2390 Owaka Highway, Katea 9586, New Zealand
WATERFALLS IN THE CATLINS
Waterfall walks are undoubtedly one of the best things to do in The Catlins – the region is famous for them. While you might not see all of these during your trip, it’s worth adding at least one or two to your itinerary.
You’ll see this three-tiered, 20-meter-tall waterfall on postcards across New Zealand – it’s a staple activity on any Catlins itinerary for a good reason. To reach the falls is just a 20-minute walk through the forest from the car park.
Address: Purakaunui Falls Road, Purakaunui 9586, New Zealand
An easy 2.1km return track winds through native bush before arriving at the 22-meter tall waterfalls.
Address: McLean Falls Walk, Otago 9586, New Zealand
This smaller 10-meter tall waterfall still packs a punch as it cascades through mossy forest scenery. It’s another easy walk – just a 1.2km return from the car park.
While visiting the Matai Falls Walkway, you can also visit Horseshoe Falls, which lies just a little further along the track.
Address: Matai Falls Walk, Caberfeidh 9586, New Zealand
Although the trail is only 0.6 km long, the walk can be slippery, muddy, and more challenging than the others. As a result, it’s less visited than the other three, but perhaps the most beautiful.
The track was built by locals who wanted to help other explorers enjoy this kiwi gem.
Address: 2800 Chaslands Highway, Progress Valley 9884, New Zealand
PS – if you spot signs to Niagara Falls, it’s a local joke, and you won’t find anything reminiscent of the more famous Niagara Falls in The Catlins! They’re actually considered to be the smallest falls in the region, and thus the name is ironic!
This cute town is known for its forest, coastal scenery, and quirky cafes.
But for me, it held a particular interest: Papatowai is the antipode to where I was born!
That means Papatowai is on the opposite side of the world to where I grew up in the Midlands, England! Never again will I be able to utter the words:
‘If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.’JRR Tolkien
(Unless I go to the moon, of course.)
Forgive me for the personal anecdote!
Here are some fun things to see in Papatowai:
- Florence Hill Lookout – a gorgeous roadside lookout with views over Tautuku Bay
- Long Point – a beautiful surf spot, though we just had a little walk around to enjoy the scenic views
- The Lost Gypsy Gallery – take a look inside artist Blair Somerville’s eclectic collection of treasures. Considered a quirky local gem, you can grab a coffee while looking through the trinkets and antiques.
- Cathedral Caves at Waipati Beach: Just 15km from Papatowai, you’ll discover Cathedral Caves. These huge sea-formed caves are 200 metres long and 30 metres tall, making them a unique attraction along the Catlins coastline. (Note there is a small parking fee, and the caves are only accessible at low tide.)
At Curio Bay, I saw a penguin in the wild for the first and (thus far) only time in my life. Not only that, but I saw a yellow-eyed penguin (or Hoiho), the rarest penguin in the world!
The council has set up a viewing platform, so you can safely watch the penguins return from the ocean at the end of a long day when they shuffle back across the shorelines to make their way home.
The area is also home to a petrified forest that dates back to the Jurassic period, in which the ocean uncovers every low tide. That means the strange fossilised tree stumps date back over 180 million years!
Nearby, you can also relax at the stunning Porpoise Bay, go surfing or look out for Hector’s dolphins and seals.
Please treat New Zealand wildlife with respect.
- Do not feed or approach the dolphins. Do not touch them, as they have sensitive skin. There are only 7000 hector’s dolphins left.
- Sea lions can be aggressive, especially during mating season – don’t disturb them or take dogs nearby.
- Don’t approach the penguins again; there are only up to 7000 left in New Zealand. They’re very timid, and being startled by dogs or humans can cause them to trail off from their correct route home.
DAY THREE: THE CATLINS TO INVERCARGILL
The total driving time from Curio Bay to Invercargill is approximately 1.2 hours (90km).
Slope Point is the South Island’s southernmost spot, which is why people visit. It’s an easy 20-minute walk across farmland to the specific point.
One of the most distinctive highlights of the area is the dramatic bent-over trees. Due to the location, the area is exposed to strong winds howling over from the Antarctic Ocean.
The coastal scenery is also beautiful, as you may have come to expect from the Southern Scenic Route, with wild cliffs towering over the endless ocean beyond.
Address: Slope Point Parking, 500 Slope Point Road, Slope Point 9884, New Zealand
Just south of Invercargill, you’ll find the oldest European settlement in New Zealand. Bluff is also famous for its oysters and a history of whaling and dramatic shipwrecks (which you can learn about, among other things, at the local Maritime Museum).
Bluff is also one hour from Stewart Island, which you can reach by ferry from the shipping port.
Also known as Rakiura (meaning the ‘land of glowing skies’ in Maori), Stewart Island is where lucky visitors can spot the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis! The island is a hotspot for hiking and wildlife, with 85% of the land being a protected National Park.
On the way from Slope Point, you can also visit Fortrose, another historic European town with a history of whaling, shipping, and trading. You can also stop at the historic Waipapa Point Lighthouse, dating back to 1884.
Once you’ve arrived in Invercargill, you can head home, continue your road trip, or spend some time enjoying New Zealand’s most southern city.
Whether you’d prefer to relax at the sandy Oreti Beach after a long drive, stroll through the 80-hectare Queens Parks and its stunning gardens, or enjoy one of the city’s family-friendly attractions. You could also look for multicoloured rocks nearby at the aptly named Gemstone Beach.
DUNEDIN TO INVERCARGILL VIA THE CATLINS Q&A
Where to travel next?! (from Invercargill)
If you’re not heading home after your Dunedin to Invercargill drive, there are many more scenic roads to discover nearby.
In fact, the Southern Scenic Route continues from Invercargill and goes North to Te Anau, where it branches off towards Milford Sound and Queenstown.
With that in mind, if you want to continue your travel itinerary, I recommend the following options:
- Drive one hour to Tautapere for hiking along the 3-day Hump Ridge Track, outdoor activities, and eating sausages. (There are pictures of cartoon sausages all over Tautapere, so I’m guessing it’s a thing?)
- See New Zealand’s oldest suspension bridge in Clifden, dating back to 1988.
- Head North to Te Anau to hike in Fiordland National Park or take the spectacular Doubtful Sound Cruise.
- Gaze in wonder at the beautiful sights along the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive.
- Visit the lesser-known Lord of the Rings location in Otago
- Head to South Island’s famous tourist hub and visit these spectacular Queenstown attractions.
- Take the ferry to Stewart Island to awe at New Zealand’s wildlife (and perhaps the Southern lights).
What’s the distance from Dunedin to Invercargill?
The distance between Dunedin and Invercargill is 204.5km if you drive directly between the two cities. The drive would take around 2.5 hours.
However, driving time from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins NZ takes slightly longer and is closer to 250 km, depending on which specific stops you choose. Without stops, this route would take around 3.5 hours.
What’s the distance from Dunedin to The Catlins?
Dunedin is approximately 150km from The Catlins, with a driving time of around 2 hours (without stops) along the Southern Scenic Route.
While this road trip itinerary could be completed in two or three days, to make the most of driving from Dunedin to The Catlins and Invercargill, you could easily spend longer in the area.
Where to Stay in the Catlins
There is a lot of wonderful Catlins accommodation to choose from, from stunning campsites with coastal views, budget motels, or lovely hotels. Here are some recommendations of where to stay (including where I stayed myself).
KAKA POINT SPA ACCOMMODATION at Kaka Point – the lovely, luxurious and self-contained accommodation at Kaka Point Spa Accommodation is just 100 yards from the nearest beach, with many walks to explore nearby. You can look out for fur seals, sea lions, and yellow-eyed penguins or relax and enjoy the coastal views from your private deck.
NUGGET VIEW MOTELS at Kaka Point – There are various different accommodation types available at Nugget View Motels, with sea views from your private balcony, BBQ facilities, TVs and kitchenettes in most.
CURIOSCAPE CAMPGROUND at Curio Bay – I loved the beautiful Curioscape campground, moments from the beautiful beach at Porpoise Bay and the petrified forest – perfect for spotting the yellow-eyed penguins at sunset before heading in for the night).
Powered and unpowered sites are available, along with a communal kitchen and dining space, laundry facilities and showers. The onsite cafe and tourism office makes for a seamless stay in the area.
CATLINS NEWHAVEN HOLIDAY PARK in Owaka – Just 5 minute walk from the long and sandy Surat Bay, you’re moments from New Zealand wildlife when staying at the Catlins Newhaven Holiday Park.
Each chalet comes with a balcony, TV, and tea/coffee balcony, and you can choose one with a private bathroom, kitchenette and ocean views. Powered and non-powered campervan and tent sites are also available from $35.
THE SALTY BUSHMAN B&B – If you’re looking for quality accommodation with a local touch, you’ll love The Salty Bushman B&B. Every stay comes with a comfortable room and a yummy breakfast before heading out to the nearby beach and walking tracks. Guests love the 180-degree views, great showers, and lovely design touches.
If you’re looking for budget campsites, make sure you download the Campermate app to stay updated on free camping sites, cheap DOC sites, or modern, well-maintained powered sites throughout The Catlins.