Writer Diana Noonan lives in the Catlins. She shares the insider’s guide to experiencing the quirky beauty of the 115km strip of coastal magic.
Few localities display our pristine forests and beaches better than the deep south’s remote and ruggedly beautiful Catlins. A 115 kilometre-long strip of raw, coastal magic, the region yields up its treasures to all who dare trade the well-trod tourist routes for its isolated charms. With so much to see, we explore The Catlins’ best-kept secrets.
Allow two days to take in The Catlins, which is 1.5 hours drive south of Dunedin via the Southern Scenic Route. Plunge straight into the region’s rugged beauty with a morning visit to Tokata Lighthouse at Nugget Point. Bring your binoculars with you on the 10-20 minute return walk that leads to views of stacks, seals and seabirds (including the occasional yellow-eyed penguin). Be prepared to be wowed by the sheer drama of the scenery.
If your appetite for coastal cliffs has been whetted, book in with Cara Meyer’s Catlins Horse Riding Te Taunga Adventures (41 Newhaven Road, New Haven). Operating just out of the tiny hamlet of Pounawea, the stable offers riders a range of horses to suit their levels of ability and the chance to enjoy Catlins coastline, quiet country roads, farmland and native forest.
Surat Bay, a stone’s throw from Pounawea, is home to one of the rarest sea lion species in the world. Take up the opportunity to see some of the handful of these magnificent animals that frequent the mainland. To get a glimpse, from the end of the no-exit road leading to Surat Bay, make your way from the car park to the river estuary and walk quietly towards the sea. The large mammals, which are almost the same colour as the sand can be well camouflaged so proceed with caution and observe all Department of Conservation signage instructions. On a fine day, extend your walk from Surat Bay to Cannibal Bay.
The small township of Owaka is the place to put your sightseeing into perspective, with a visit to the community’s architecturally-designed, state-of-the-art museum, gallery and information centre.
South of Owaka, the scene gets quirkier when you stop off at the village of Papatowai’s and the Lost Gypsy Curios & Coffee (Papatowai Highway, Papatowai). The Lost Gypsy Gallery and Museum of Winding Thoughts Theatre of Sorts (closed Wednesdays) is the brainchild of automata-artist Blair Somerville and the wind-up, button-pressing experience is not one to be missed. Relax with a coffee and home-baking from the adjacent Little Rocket Cafe (2532 Papatowai Rd, Papatowai) – a coffee caravan with covered seating and the friendliest barista you could ever hope to meet. If you’re feeling indulgent, have your portrait sketched by the artist-in-residence Sandra van der Sommen as you enjoy your refreshments.
While most explorers head straight from the Gypsy to the well-known sites of Cathedral Caves, some of The Catlins best treasures are just a few minutes south of Papatowai. Watch out for signposts leading to Lake Wilkie, a magical little lake sur-rounded by rata forest), and the Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk, a nature lover’s eye-candy trail which leads over jointed rush and estuary to rich fern bird habitat.
Complete your Catlins experience with a low-tide visit to Curio Bay’s petrified forest. If you want to learn more about the area, call in at Tumu Toka Curioscape (590 Waikawa-Curio Bay Road, Waikawa) close to the campground for a recorded self-guided tour. Right next door to the petrified forest is Porpoise Bay. Named for its resident population of Hector’s dolphins, the bay is popular with international visitors who often brave the cool sea conditions in the hopes the dolphins see fit to grace them with their presence.
Locally-sourced, fresh ingredients and surf-to-turf cuisine is a Catlins’ hallmark and it is bound to impress. Dine at The Point Café & Bar (58 Esplanade Balclutha), Kaka Point’s busy diner and be sure to sample the local brewery’s stouts, ales or scrumpy.
For casual dining, try the Owaka’s Bake House Takeaways (8 Waikawa Road, Owaka) caravan for a tasty wood-fired pizza, burger or old fashioned fish and chips. When you’re ready for a brew just stroll up the main street to Tahatika Coffee Traders (2 Main Road, Owaka). Barista-owner Dave boasts the cutest little wild-west-style shop frontage in town!
Further south at the fishing village of Waikawa, Blue Cod Blues (610 Niagara-Waikawa Road)serves up the crunchiest seafood and fries and real fruit ice-creams. Arrive towards evening and you’ll likely find yourself in the company of locals, and being entertained by the pro-prietor’s fisherman spouse, Wayne, and his seafaring yarns.
Beresford Heights (361 Puketiro Road, Puketiro): This boutique off-the-grid hideaway offers the kind of luxury and views that are bound to make memories. Owned and operated by the Burgess family who has been farming on the land for three generations, the eco-cottage boasts a hot pool, farm-cooked meals, indulgent platters on request, massages and facials, and hands-on farm tours. There is no road access to Beresford Heights (you’ll get there by off-road buggy) so solitude is guaranteed!
Curio Bay: Accommodation can be found overlooking surf which is often frequented by Hector’s dolphins.
Caitlins Mohua Park Echo (744 Catlins Valley Road, Tawanui): Enjoy the tranquility of a native forest backdrop and outstanding views over rural pastureland.
Tahakopa Bay Retreat (361 Puketiro Road, Puketiro): This recent-build, off-grid, hydro-powered accommodation comes with all the features you might expect from boutique luxury – and it’s dramatic views are the icing on the cake. Relax on the expansive deck, and watch the rollers crash onto the golden sands of Tahakopa Bay, far below. Enjoy the trail leading to the beach, and keep your eyes peeled for sea lions, seals, and the early-morning deer that occasionally frolic in the breakers. Continental breakfast and catering available.