Rocky islands in the ocean at Nugget Point in the Catlins, one of the best stops along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill
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Dunedin to Invercargill Drive via the Catlins: 22 Best Stops

Rocky islands in the ocean at Nugget Point in the Catlins, one of the best stops along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill

Are you planning a road trip between Dunedin and Invercargill (via the Catlins), and need some help?

If so, you’ve come to the right place!

Driving from Dunedin to Invercargill through the Catlins is one of the best scenic road trips on the South Island. 

In fact, this drive is part of the “Southern Scenic Route,” a driving route that traverses through the gorgeous southern part of the South Island.  

If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a beach lover, or a surfer (or all of the above!), you will absolutely love the Catlins. 

The Catlins is home to some of the South Island’s most beautiful wild beaches, and is arguably the best place in the country to see rare wildlife—including yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho), Hector’s dolphins, sea lions, and New Zealand fur seals. 

To top it all off, you’ll find some of the South Island’s best waterfalls in the Catlins

A lot of people miss out on seeing the Catlins because it’s a bit out-of-the-way for most South Island itineraries. However, if you can make the time for this beautiful drive, you won’t regret it!

I visit the Catlins a lot and have so many tips for you to make the most of your trip. 

So let’s get to it…read on for an insider’s guide to the ultimate Catlins road trip!

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🚗 Need to hire a car for your road trip? I recommend checking out Rentalcars.com to find the best deals on car rentals in New Zealand.

Distance & Driving Time from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

Cliffs and penguin lookout above the Curio Bay petrified forest and ocean
Curio Bay is one of the many stops you’ll want to see along this drive!

From point to point, the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins will take approximately 4 hours over 263 kilometers (163 miles).

However, this doesn’t include any stops along the way—and you’ll definitely want to make lots of stops! 

If you only have one day for a Dunedin to Invercargill road trip, give yourself the entire day for your drive. Leave Dunedin early in the morning so you have plenty of time for stops along the way.

Ideally, though, you’ll spend a night or two in the Catlins along your drive. Trust me, you’ll be happy you did! 

Below are estimated driving times for the main towns & villages on the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill:

  • Dunedin to Balclutha: 1 hour
  • Dunedin to Kaka Point: 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Dunedin to Owaka: 1 hour 25 minutes
  • Dunedin to Curio Bay: 2 hours

Note: There’s a quicker way to get from Dunedin to Invercargill: SH1, which takes around 2.5 hours with no stops. However, in this guide, I’m covering the Dunedin to Invercargill scenic route, which goes through the beautiful Catlins area.

Map of the Drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

Quick Trip Summary 

Don’t have time to read this whole guide? No worries. Here are the absolute top stops you shouldn’t miss along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins!

  • Nugget Point
  • The Lost Gypsy Gallery
  • Purakaunui Falls
  • McLean Falls
  • Porpoise Bay & Curio Bay

Want to learn more? Then keep reading…I’ll cover these spots plus lots more in-depth in this guide!

The 22 Best Stops on the Drive from Dunedin to Invercargill (via the Catlins)

1. Dunedin 

tunnel-beach-hike-dunedin
The beautiful Tunnel Beach walk in Dunedin

Let’s start this guide with some quick ideas on things to do in Dunedin, the starting point for your journey!

Dunedin is my favorite South Island city. It’s super close to some seriously amazing natural attractions, boasts a thriving food scene, and has a vibrant atmosphere thanks to the many Otago University students who call this city home.

Before you leave Dunedin for your Catlins road trip, make sure to fuel up with a good breakfast.

I recommend Beam Me Up for a fantastic bagel, Side On Bakery for a pastry or a sit-down brekkie, or Buster Greens for a hearty brunch filled with tons of local produce.

If you haven’t already been, make sure to pop by the Tunnel Beach Track before you head out of town. You’ll want to try and time your visit with low tide so you can access the beach. 

The Tunnel Beach walk takes about 20-30 minutes one-way and gives you gorgeous views over the coastline and a natural archway over the sea.

If you’ve timed your walk with low tide, you can walk through the historic man-made tunnel to reach the hidden beach below. Look out for seals, though, as they often bask on the rocks on the beach and don’t like to be startled!

After your walk, it’s time to hit the road for the Catlins! 

To be honest, the first bit of the drive isn’t all that exciting (sorry but it’s true!). After about 1 hour and 20 minutes, though, you’ll reach Kaka Point…and that’s where the good stuff begins 🙂

2. Kaka Point 

A hand holding a paua (abalone) shell at a sandy beach in the Catlins
I love admiring paua (abalone) shells at beaches in the Catlins

Kaka Point is a wee seaside village and the gateway to Nugget Point, a must-see Catlins destination I’ll cover in #3 below.

I’ve included Kaka Point here because it’s a good spot to spend a night, and also because it’s a nice place to visit the beach and/or grab a meal before heading to Nugget Point!

In summer, the Kaka Point Beach is a good spot for a swim, but note that is never not cold. You might want a wetsuit, just sayin’.

For a delicious meal, head to the Point Cafe & Bar. Tuck into some seafood chowder or loaded nachos, or grab takeaway fish & chips to enjoy at the beach.

If you’d like to stay a night in Kaka Point, do ensure to book in advance, especially in the summer months. Accommodation is limited in the Catlins!

Recommended accommodation: the Kaka Point Views apartments are modern, comfortable, and in an excellent oceanfront location.

📍Google Maps Location: Kaka Point

3. Nugget Point (Tokatā) Lighthouse

*Must-see*

A winding trail leading to the Nugget Point lighthouse with a red flax flower in the foreground and the ocean in the background

Nugget Point (Tokatā) is one of the most picturesque places on the Catlins—and that’s saying a lot, as there’s no shortage of beautiful spots in this area!

If you’ve researched the Catlins at all, you’ve likely seen a photo of Nugget Point. It’s a favorite with photographers and travelers alike, and is an iconic part of the Catlins region.

Nugget Point is a beautiful peninsula with the historic Tokatā Lighthouse at its helm. The peninsula juts out over the wild ocean, with little rocky islands (the “Nuggets”) dotted below it. 

There is a ton of wildlife around Nugget Point, including New Zealand fur seals, seabirds, and penguins (see the next entry for more on penguin-spotting around here!).

The walk to get to Nugget Point is pretty easy and takes around 10 minutes one-way. However, you’ll probably want to hang out for a while to enjoy the scenery and snap some epic photos.

Any time of day is a good time to visit Nugget Point. If you’re after some seriously stunning photos, though, you might want to time your visit for sunrise or sunset. Dawn and dusk also happen to be the best times to see yellow-eyed penguins in this area (see #4 below). 

For that reason, you may want to consider staying a night in nearby Kaka Point so you can easily access Nugget Point in the early morning or evening hours.

📍Google Maps Location: Nugget Point

🥾 Trail Guide

4. Roaring Bay Hide

A yellow-eyed penguin ashore on a rocky beach at Roaring Bay in the Catlins
If you look closely, you’ll see a yellow-eyed penguin in this photo 😉

The Roaring Bay Hide is just down the road from the Nugget Point Lighthouse. This is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) in the wild, but you do need to time it right.

To get to the “hide”—which is a viewing shelter above rugged Roaring Bay beach—you’ll take a short but steep path from the parking area. 

For the best chance of seeing penguins, you’ll want to be at the hide in the early morning or evening. Before 7 am or after 3-4 pm is usually best, depending on the time of year.

However, I actually spotted a penguin at Roaring Bay around 2 pm one day…so sometimes I guess it also just depends on luck!

I recommend bringing some binoculars to help with your penguin-spotting; if you’re lucky enough to see one, you’ll be viewing from afar.

If you don’t spot a penguin here, don’t worry—you’ll have another chance to see yellow-eyed penguins at Curio Bay later on in the road trip! 

📍Google Maps Location: Roaring Bay Hide

5. Cannibal Bay & Surat Bay

A New Zealand sea lion yawning while sitting on the sand at Cannibal Bay in the Catlins

If you want a good chance of seeing sea lions, you might want to check out Cannibal Bay and/or Surat Bay.

You can walk from one beach to the other over a sand dune path, so if you’re up for a nice, long beach walk then this is a great place!

I typically walk to Cannibal Bay from Surat Bay (because I like camping there at the Newhaven Holiday Park!). For a quicker stop, you might want to just go to Cannibal Bay. You can access Cannibal Bay via an 8km gravel road about 3km north of Okawa.

You’ll have a high chance of spotting sea lions at these beaches, but you’ll want to take some precautions.

Sea lions can be quite aggressive and do not like being approached, nor do they like it when their path to the ocean is blocked. Keep your distance and admire these massive creatures from afar (a 20-meter distance is a good rule to follow).

📍Google Maps Location: Cannibal Bay

🥾 Trail Guide

6. Purakaunui (PK) Bay

Grass-covered cliffs over a blue ocean and golden-sand beach at Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins, New Zealand

If you’re craving some beach time, Purakaunui (“PK”) Bay won’t disappoint.

This gorgeous beach is a beloved destination for surfers and campers. There’s a popular beach break here and a great back-to-basics DOC campsite here. If you’re planning to camp in the Catlins, definitely consider staying at PK Bay. It’s an amazing spot.

PK Bay is so stunning that it was used as a filming site in the Chronicles of Narnia movies—the castle Cair Paravel was CGI’d onto the clifftops here. Speaking of the cliffs…they’re truly striking and frame the bay in an epic way.

Even if you’re not a surfer or camper, you’ll still enjoy this beach. If you go at low tide, you can go for a nice beach walk and keep your eyes peeled for fur seals sunning on the sand. It’s also an excellent place for a picnic!

📍Google Maps Location: Purakaunui Bay

7. Purakaunui Falls

*Must-see*

The tiered Purakaunui Falls in the Catlins surrounded by green forest

Purakaunui Falls is a super-photogenic three-tiered waterfall set amidst lush beech forest. 

This is one of the best waterfalls in the Catlins, so definitely make time for this stop if you can!

To get to the waterfall, you’ll walk for about 10 minutes on a well-formed path through the forest. On a sunny day, sunbeams shoot their way through the trees and light everything up in a magical way. On a drizzly day, it’s equally wonderful in there, with a moody, misty feel to the trail. 

The trail is mostly flat until you get close to the waterfall, at which point you’ll need to descend down some stairs to reach the falls.

Bring a camera with you, because this waterfall is the perfect opportunity for a slow shutter speed photo!

📍Google Maps Location: Purakaunui Falls

🥾 Trail Guide

8. Jack’s Blowhole

This is a nice coastal walk to a 55-meter-deep blowhole. The blowhole itself isn’t actually all that impressive (head to the West Coast’s Punakaiki for that!) but the walk is gorgeous.

The walk to/from Jack’s Blowhole takes around one hour round-trip and provides epic ocean views, plus opportunities to spot penguins and seals.

📍Google Maps Location: Jack’s Blowhole

🥾 Trail Guide

9. Cathedral Caves

A coastal cave with a rock arch reflecting in the sand at Cathedral Caves in the Catlins, New Zealand

The Cathedral Caves are the Catlins’ most popular commercialized natural attraction. Similar in some ways to Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula, here you can walk through giant sea caves on the beach.

You do need to time it right to access Cathedral Caves: 1 hour on either side of low tide, to be exact. Water-ready sandals like tevas are really handy to wear here!

There’s an entry fee of $10 per adult and $2 per child to access the Cathedral Caves. It’s worth mentioning that the caves are often closed even when they’re advertised online as being open…so do be prepared for that to possibly happen to you. 

📍Google Maps Location: Cathedral Caves

10. Lost Gypsy Gallery

*Must-see*

The Lost Gypsy Gallery in the Catlins is a quirky stop along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill

The Lost Gypsy Gallery is a quirky, wonderful Catlins attraction that shouldn’t be missed.

Created by artist Blair Somerville, this is not your typical art gallery. Instead, you’ll find an array of interactive gadgets, sculptures, mechanical devices, and other curiosities, all meant to spark your imagination and creativity.

There are three components to the Lost Gypsy Gallery: the Little Rocket coffee cart, the bus gallery (which is free), and the Theatre ($8 entry). Definitely visit all three locations—grab a coffee, then explore the free bus gallery, then enter the Theatre for the ultimate experience here!

Supervised kids are allowed in the bus gallery, but only ages 13+ are allowed in the Theatre. The Lost Gypsy Gallery is closed in the winter months (late April through late October) so you’ll need to visit the Catlins during the summertime to experience this spot.

📍Google Maps Location: Lost Gypsy Gallery

11. Florence Hill Lookout

A view of a golden-sand beach and the ocean from the Florence Hill lookout along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

For one of the best scenic viewpoints along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill, make sure to stop at the Florence Hill lookout. 

From the lookout, you’ll get awesome views over the sandy golden crescent of forest-fringed Tautuku Bay.

Have your camera ready to go, because you’ll definitely want to snap some photos here!

📍Google Maps Location: Florence Hill Lookout

12. McLean Falls

*Must-see*

McLean Falls - One of the Best Waterfalls in the Catlins

In addition to Purakaunui Falls (see #7 above), McLean Falls is a must-visit waterfall in the Catlins. In fact, this is my favorite waterfall in the whole area—and one of the best waterfalls in New Zealand, really!

You’ll need to hike a bit to get to the waterfall, but the trail isn’t too challenging. There’s a bit of uphill walking on the trail, but it’s a gentle incline.  It’ll take about 15-20 minutes of walking through a gorgeous forest before you reach the waterfall. 

Once you get to the waterfall, prepare to be wowed: this 22-meter cascade is simply magnificent! If you’re feeling adventurous, you can scramble up the rocks from the lower waterfall pool to reach the upper falls (but please take care if you do that!).

To get back to your car, retrace your steps along the same trail. 

📍Google Maps Location: McLean Falls

🥾 Trail Guide

13. Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls

Matai Falls, a small trickle of a waterfall in the Catlins region of New Zealand

These two little waterfalls are accessed from the same trailhead, and getting to them requires a short, easy walk (around 30 minutes return). 

If there’s been a lot of rain recently or if you’re a waterfall fanatic, then consider checking out Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls. 

However, if it’s been dry lately and/or you’re pressed for time, you can give these falls a miss. In that case, head to the impressive Purakaunui Falls & McLean Falls instead!

📍Google Maps Location: Matai Falls & Horseshoe Falls walk

🥾 Trail Guide

14. Koropuku Falls

Koropuku Falls - a Hidden Catlins Waterfall

If you’re the type of person who loves secret spots (okay, don’t we all?) then you’re gonna love Koropuku Falls.

This hidden gem of a waterfall is barely signed and easy to miss, so make sure you have coordinates plugged into your phone before setting out!

There’s parking space for only a few cars at the Koropuku Falls trailhead. If you’re lucky enough to get a carpark, though, then you’ll get to enjoy a trail and waterfall that’s not crowded at all.

The walk to the waterfall is slippery, with ponga (tree fern trunks) laid down on the ground to form the trail. You’ll want to wear sturdy shoes with good grip, and take care along this walk.

📍Google Maps Location: Koropuku Falls

🥾 Trail Guide

15. Niagara Falls Cafe

Niagara Falls Cafe in the Catlins

For the best place to eat in the Catlins, head to the Niagara Falls Cafe. Set in a restored schoolhouse with a spacious garden, this is a lovely spot to pop into for a coffee and treat or a filling lunch. 

The cafe features locally-grown produce and serves up big portions of healthy, hearty food. In addition to a full menu, they have a cabinet filled with delicious homemade treats, including cakes, slices, and sandwiches. 

On a sunny day, sit outside in the garden and if it’s drizzly out, enjoy your meal or snack inside in the cactus conservatory!  

📍Google Maps Location: Niagara Falls cafe

16. Blue Cod Blues

Fish & chips at the Blue Cod Blues food caravan in the Catlins, New Zealand

The Blue Cod Blues food caravan is an awesome place to try some classic New Zealand fish ‘n chips…in particular, you’ll want to sample the blue cod here, as it’s just SO good.

Blue cod is a mild-flavored, firm white fish that’s a specialty of the Southland region, and this is seriously one of the best budget-friendly places to try it.  

If you’re camping at nearby Curio Bay, consider picking up a takeaway dinner from here to enjoy back at camp! They’re also open for lunch on some days of the week (check on google beforehand), so you can pop by for a quick lunch before continuing on your Catlins adventures. 

📍Google Maps Location: Blue Cod Blues

17. Porpoise Bay

*Must-see*

Two people standing in wetsuits in the ocean while watching Hector's dolphins at Porpoise Bay in the Catlins, New Zealand
This is a moment I’ll never forget—my sister and I being visited by Hector’s dolphins at Porpoise Bay!

If you’re looking for the best beach in the Catlins, then look no further: Porpoise Bay is simply unbeatable!

At this long stretch of sandy beach, you’ll of course have opportunities to swim, surf, and go for a nice long beach walk. But the real draw is that it’s one of the best places in all of New Zealand to see rare Hector’s dolphins!

Hector’s dolphins are one of the smallest and rarest dolphins on the planet, and they’re incredibly playful and amazing to watch. They love surfing in the waves and jumping out of the water—and they’re also super curious and friendly. 

This means that if you swim or surf at Porpoise Bay, you just may have some dolphin friends come to check you out up close…how unbelievable is that?! This is, quite honestly, the best place to swim with dolphins in New Zealand—and it’s completely free. 

Tips for Visiting Porpoise Bay

In spilling the beans on this hidden gem of New Zealand, I also need to offer a word of caution. Don’t ever approach the dolphins and instead, let them come to you if they want to (or simply admire them from afar!). 

If you see dolphins in the water and decide to go swimming, enter the water at least 50 metres away from them and don’t try to attract their attention. If they want to check you out, they’ll do it on their own terms. And definitely do NOT try to touch the dolphins (germs on your skin can make them ill).

One more word of caution: New Zealand sea lions also like to hang out at Porpoise Bay and they can be a little intimidating (although they’re also neat to see). As with the dolphins, don’t ever approach a sea lion (and in fact, give them a wide berth). 

The last time I went swimming at Porpoise Bay, there was a very curious sea lion who took great pleasure in chasing people out of the water (myself included). If that happens to you, the best thing to do is to slowly and calmly exit the water.

It’s also worth noting that the water at Porpoise Bay is quite cold year-round, so you’ll probably want a wetsuit unless it’s a hot summer day (and even then, you might still want one). If you don’t have your own wetsuit, contact Catlins Surf to enquire about hiring a wetsuit and maybe a SUP or surfboard, too! They’re open from November to April.

While you’re at Porpoise Bay, make sure to also pay a visit to the adjacent Curio Bay—see #18 below for more on that!

📍Google Maps Location: Porpoise Bay

18. Curio Bay

*Must-see*

Yellow-eyed penguin walking on a rock shelf at Curio Bay in the Catlins, New Zealand
A yellow-eyed penguin returning to shore at Curio Bay!

Curio Bay is one of the most unique natural places in all of New Zealand. Its home to a prehistoric petrified forest that’s estimated to be around 180 million years old. How neat is that?!

To top off the uniqueness of this spot, I should also mention that its one of the BEST places to see rare yellow-eyed penguins in the wild in New Zealand. 

Seriously—at the time of writing this, I’ve spotted penguins at Curio Bay on about five different occasions! 

The penguins return to land at Curio Bay after being out in the ocean all day. So, if you’re lucky, you might catch one (or several) making their way onto the shore. They like to slowly hop their way back to their nests in the cliffs behind the bay.

Tips for Visiting Curio Bay

To best see the yellow-eyed penguins at Curio Bay, you’ll want to time your visit just before dusk. 

There are several penguin lookouts on the cliffs up above the bay. There will usually be a DOC ranger or two who will cordon off the area where the penguins are, so visitors don’t scare them away. This means that you’ll be watching them from afar.

Bring a pair of binoculars with you, as you’ll be able to see the penguins much better that way! 

My other top tip is to spend the night in Curio Bay…that way, you can wander to/from the penguin viewing spot at your leisure. 

Accommodation is super-limited in Curio Bay, so do make sure you book in advance.

Recommended accommodation: I love staying at the Curio Bay Salt House or this incredible Airbnb. If you’re looking for a campground, I recommend the Curio Bay Campground (its location is unbeatable).

📍Google Maps Location: Curio Bay

19. Waipohatu Waterfalls Loop Walk

Punehu Falls - Catlins Waipohatu Waterfalls Track
Punehu Falls along the Waipohatu Waterfalls track

The Waipohatu Waterfalls walk is an off-the-beaten-track day hike in the Catlins region. This 3-hour-long,  6km (3.7-mile) loop trail takes you through dense native bush to view two spectacular waterfalls: Punehu Falls and Pouriwai Falls. 

While the waterfalls along this hike are truly gorgeous, this is a rough tramping track that is often muddy and slippery, with overgrown foliage to navigate through. For this reason, I only recommend that adventurous and experienced hikers attempt this track! 

If you do tackle the Waipohatu Waterfalls walk, you’ll be rewarded with a lot of solitude along the trail. This walk is not usually crowded (in fact, I only saw one other person on the entire trail when I hiked this recently!). 

While I don’t think this is a “must-do” attraction in the Catlins, you might really enjoy the Waipohatu Waterfalls walk if you’re after an adventure without any crowds.

📍Google Maps Location: Waipohatu Waterfalls walk

🥾 Trail Guide

20. Slope Point 

A yellow sign pointing to the equator and south pole at Slope Point along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

Slope Point is the southernmost part of the South Island and is worthy of a visit for that fact alone. 

This is a quick stop for most people, as there’s not much to see at Slope Point besides grabbing a photo of its iconic signpost and windblown trees.

The easy walk to the Slope Point signpost takes around 20 minutes round-trip and offers some gorgeous ocean views as you walk over grassy, sheep-dotted farmland.  Just be aware that it can get extremely windy at this spot, so make sure you have a wind-resistant jacket on hand!

📍Google Maps Location: Slope Point

🥾 Trail Guide

21. Waipapa Point Lighthouse

A white lighthouse with a red door called the Waipapa Lighthouse in the Catlins Region of New Zealand

As the easternmost attraction in the Catlins, the Waipapa Point Lighthouse is often overlooked by visitors to the region. However, if you’re visiting nearby Slope Point, make sure to also stop by Waipapa Point. It’s beautiful and well worth a visit!

At Waipapa Point, you’ll find a golden sandy beach and tide pools to explore. Fur seals and sea lions often hang out here, so do keep an eye out for them (and make sure to admire them from a distance!).

The main draw at Waipapa Point is the picture-perfect lighthouse, which looks like something from a Wes Anderson movie. With its white paint and red door, and a backdrop of wild blue ocean, the Waipapa Point Lighthouse is a worthy subject for some gorgeous photo ops.

📍Google Maps Location: Waipapa Point Lighthouse

🥾 Trail Guide

22. Invercargill 

A basil and tomato bagel from Toasted in Invercargill
My favorite thing to do in Invercargill: grab a bagel from Toasted!

So you’ve reached Invercargill! While Invercargill isn’t exactly a top tourist destination, it’s a handy place to stay if you’re planning to visit Stewart Island. It’s also a good place to stop for a short break before continuing onto Te Anau/Fiordland.

My #1 recommendation in Invercargill is to grab some delicious food. There are heaps of good eateries in this South Island city! 

If you’re in Invercargill around breakfast or lunchtime, I recommend going to Toasted for a bagel. They make the best bagels I’ve had in New Zealand, hands down (only rivaled by Beam Me Up in Dunedin). While you’re there, grab a bag of their day-old bagels to take with you on your travels. You’ll have breakfast sorted for several days!

For a wonderful sit-down brunch, go to the Black Shag: they make incredible food featuring local produce, and also do excellent coffees.

If you’re looking for lunch, head to Thai Thai for their lunch special. For dinner, Buster Crabb makes amazing seafood and steak meals.

After sampling Invercargill’s food offerings, walk it all off in the beautiful Queens Park.

This lovely park has so much to offer, including a rose garden, cute farm animals, a playground, and even a free disc golf course (bring your own discs, though). 


Need to Hire a Car for your Dunedin to Invercargill drive?

If you need to rent a car, I recommend looking at Rentalcars.com to find the best deal!

They compare car prices from New Zealand’s top car rental companies so you can find the best price possible.

Check car prices here!

Tips for Driving from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

A golden-sand beach with a tree in the foreground and cliffs in the background at Purakaunui Bay in the Catlins
Cell service is scarce in the Catlins…but you’ll get to unplug at beautiful places like this!
  • You might not get cell service throughout much of the Catlins area. I recommend downloading an offline map of the area on Google Maps before you set out!
  • There are not many places to buy groceries in the Catlins. Before hitting the road, stock up on all of your road trip snacks and other food/drinks in Dunedin. If you need to buy groceries in the Catlins, you’ll find a small Four Square supermarket in Owaka, and an even smaller general store in Papatowai. 
  • Petrol stations are a bit few and far between in the Catlins, but there are petrol stations in Owaka and Tokanui.  Set out from Dunedin with a full tank of petrol, though, just to be on the safe side—or fill up in Balclutha before you get to the Catlins. 
  • Make sure to pack a raincoat and some warm, windproof layers—the Catlins is prone to windy and rainy conditions. If you want to swim or surf, you’ll definitely want a wetsuit (even in summer). Also bring a pair of binoculars for penguin-spotting!

Where to Stay on the Drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

If you have two nights to complete your road trip, I recommend staying one night at Kaka Point (so you can visit Nugget Point at sunrise or sunset), and one night at Curio Bay (for the best chance of spotting penguins).

Alternatively, stay both nights in Curio Bay. And if you have just one night…stay in Curio Bay! (it’s my favorite place in the Catlins if you can’t already tell).

Do note that accommodation is extremely limited in the Catlins, and you’ll want to book far in advance. If you’re planning to camp, on the other hand, you’ll have plenty of options. 

Below, you’ll find my recommended accommodation & camping spots along this road trip.

Where to stay in Dunedin

The Majestic Mansions apartment hotel in Saint Clair, Dunedin

858 George Street Motel: I always love staying at the 858 George Street Motel in North Dunedin. It’s in a great location in the city within walking distance to everything! 

Majestic Mansions: If you’d prefer to stay by the beach (always a good choice, too), I recommend the Majestic Mansions in Saint Clair. Their vintage-meets-modern apartment-style rooms are quirky and comfortable.

Where to stay in the Catlins

A view of Porpoise Bay beach from the green lawn at the Curio Bay Salt House motel in the Catlins, New Zealand
This is the view from the lawn at the Curio Bay Salt House, my favorite motel in the Catlins

Kaka Point: The Kaka Point Views apartments are in a fantastic beachfront location and have kitchens in case you want to self-cater. They have two apartments to choose from, but do book well in advance as they fill up fast! The studio (apartment 2) is perfect for a couple.

Curio Bay: The Curio Bay Salt House is always my top pick—this motel is in the perfect beachfront location. From your room, you can watch dolphins swim in the ocean and easily go for beach walks and swims. It’s also a quick walk to Curio Bay for evening penguin-spotting. 

Camping in the Catlins:  I recommend the Newhaven Holiday Park (in Surat Bay), the Purakaunui Bay DOC Campsite, and/or the Curio Bay Campground, depending on where you’d like to base yourself from. 

Where to stay in Invercargill

Ascot Park Hotel: The Ascot Park Hotel is just a 10-minute drive from the city center in a peaceful location. They have an onsite indoor pool and sauna, and their rooms are new and modern. Make sure to book a room on the hotel side, not the motel side (they have both)—in my experience, the hotel rooms are far nicer than the motel rooms. 

Homestead Villa Motel: For a more budget-friendly option, try the Homestead Villa Motel. The rooms here are comfortable and the location couldn’t be better: you’ll be right next to Queens Park and just across the road from my favorite Invercargill restaurant (Buster Crabb).

Catlins Road Trip Itinerary Ideas

The golden-sand beach at Porpoise Bay: one of the must-visit stops along the drive from Dunedin to Invercargill
Whatever you do, don’t miss a stop at Porpoise Bay & Curio Bay!
  • 1 night on a Catlins road trip: Stay overnight in Curio Bay. Give yourself a full day to drive from Dunedin to Curio Bay, as there are so many attractions to see along the way (pick and choose what interests you most from this guide, and plan accordingly!). 
  • 2-3 nights on a Catlins road trip: Stay 1 night in Kaka Point and 1-2 nights in Curio Bay. That way, you can visit Nugget Point at sunrise (for amazing photo opportunities!) and you’ll be able to look for penguins at Curio Bay in the evening.

If you’re wanting to…

  • See the “must-do” Catlins attractions: Visit Nugget Point, Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls, the Lost Gypsy Gallery, and Porpoise Bay/Curio Bay. 
  • Go on a camping trip in the Catlins: Spend 1-2 nights at either the Newhaven Holiday Park (Surat Bay) or Purakaunui Bay Campsite, and 1-2 nights at the Curio Bay Campground.
  • See yellow-eyed penguins: Visit the Roaring Bay Hide (near Kaka Point) and Curio Bay. The best time to see penguins is in the early morning or evening, so do plan to stay overnight in either Kaka Point or Curio Bay.
  • Go surfing: Check out Purakaunui (PK) Bay and Porpoise Bay. 

FAQs for the Drive from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins

A New Zealand sea lion sitting on the beach at Surat Bay in the Catlins, with windblown trees and yellow flowers in the background
You’ll have epic wildlife-spotting opportunities along this drive—this is an NZ sea lion at Surat Bay.
What is there to see between Dunedin and Invercargill?

Between Dunedin and Invercargill you’ll find the Catlins, a coastal region filled with rare wildlife, beautiful beaches, and stunning waterfalls.

Where do you stop between Dunedin and Invercargill?

The absolute best stops between Dunedin and Invercargill are Nugget Point, Purakaunui Falls, McLean Falls, and Curio Bay.

However, there’s even more to see and I’ve covered it all extensively in this road trip guide!

Are the Catlins worth visiting?

Yes! The Catlins are 100% worth visiting if you’re interested in coastal scenery and wildlife. 

When is the best time to visit the Catlins?

The best time to visit the Catlins is between late October through April (spring through autumn). 

This will give you the best chance for decent weather (although the weather can still be windy, cold, and rainy year-round!) and it’s also the best time of year for visiting beaches and attractions. 

Some places in the Catlins—like the Lost Gypsy Gallery and Cathedral Caves—close during the winter months, so do keep that in mind if you decide to road trip in the winter.

How long does it take to drive through the Catlins?

Give yourself a minimum of 4 hours—but preferably at least an entire day—to drive through the Catlins. 

There is so much to see on a Catlins road trip and you’re going to want to stop a lot to make the most of it!

How many days do you need in the Catlins?

You need 2-3 days to fully experience the Catlins.

While you can technically drive through the Catlins in one day, it will be a rushed trip without much time to enjoy all of the scenic stops along the way.

Is Invercargill worth a visit?

Invercargill is worth a short visit if you’re driving along the Southern Scenic Route, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to stay overnight in Invercargill.

It’s a good place to stop for lunch on your way to Fiordland from the Catlins, or if you plan to visit Stewart Island.

Is Dunedin worth seeing?

Yes, Dunedin is well worth a visit. 

Dunedin has an excellent food scene and a ton of natural attractions within easy reach, including the beach at St Clair, the Otago Peninsula, and some excellent surf beaches and bush walks within day-trip distance to the city.

Where is the best base to explore the Catlins?

The best base to explore the Catlins is Curio Bay. 

While accommodation is limited, it’s close to a wealth of Catlins attractions, including the petrified forest and yellow-eyed penguins at Curio Bay, and the beautiful beach at Porpoise Bay.

What is the Catlins known for?

The Catlins is known for its rare wildlife, including yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand fur seals, New Zealand sea lions, and Hector’s dolphins. 

It’s also known for its wild golden-sand beaches, surf breaks, and picturesque waterfalls. 

As for the #1 attraction in the Catlins, that title likely goes to Nugget Point, which features a historic lighthouse on a scenic island-dotted peninsula.

Where to go next after your Catlins Road Trip

te anau to milford sound road
The epic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound
  • Invercargill to Te Anau drive: from Invercargill, head up to Te Anau. This drive takes about 2 hours. Stay in Te Anau for a couple of nights, and do the epic drive to Milford Sound!
  • Invercargill to Queenstown drive: another option is to drive from Invercargill to Queenstown, which takes about 2.5 hours. Queenstown has an epic amount of activities on offer;  if you’re keen on more scenic drives, though, don’t miss the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy!

    My recommendation would be to drive to Te Anau first, spend 2 nights there, and then make your way to Queenstown. You’ll then have completed the full Southern Scenic Route!

Interested in More South Island Itineraries?

Here are some other epic South Island road trips to check out!

>>Christchurch to Queenstown Road Trip Itinerary

>>Picton to Queenstown Road Trip Itinerary

Thanks for Reading my Guide to Driving from Dunedin to Invercargill via the Catlins!

Jac Michael from Weekend Path standing with the yellow sign at Slope Point

I hope you’ve found this guide helpful. 

If you have any questions about this Dunedin to Invercargill road trip, please let me know in the comments, or send me an email and I’ll be happy to help!

8 Comments

  1. This list is not all in order of where you will find the sites, so read ahead to make sure you don’t miss anything and don’t have to double back.
    After MANY holidays in the Catlins, I would swap out Jack’s Blowhole for Lake Wilkie.
    There’s many other stops and walks, which would be nice to do if you have enough time. (Owaka Museum, Long Point, Old Coach Road, Picnic Point at Papatowai, Tautuku Beach, Lenz Reserve Historical site, Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk…)

    1. Hi Ems—thanks so much for your comment! So glad you found the guide helpful, and hope you have the best time in the Catlins!

      Cheers,
      Jac

  2. great guide, was just going to drive from Dunedin to Invercargill on main highway but will definitely be taking in the Catlins now. are most of the roads sealed or gravel roads?

    1. Hi Lee!

      Thanks so much for your comment—glad to hear you liked the guide.

      The main highway along the Southern Scenic Route is fully sealed, but some of the side roads to attractions are gravel (like the roads to McLean Falls & Purakaunui Falls). They always seem to be in good condition though and I’ve never had an issue.

      Hope that helps and have a great road trip!

      Cheers,
      Jac

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