Things to See and Do
Beaches & Bays
The coastal Southern Scenic Route dishes up plenty of drama, between big weather, pounding seas, and rich coastal habitats ranging over beaches, cliffs, estuaries and forest. Swimming spots are somewhat sparse, with visitors advised to go where the people are (such as Dunedin’s St Clair) and seek local advice elsewhere. Surf breaks roll up all over the place, although none are as special as Porpoise Bay where Catlins Surf School gives lessons amongst pods of frolicking Hector’s dolphins.
There are countless untouched beaches to explore alone, most easy to reach via campervan or on short walks. Highlights include Allans Beach on Otago Peninsula and Purakaunui in the Catlins, although some of the best will be discovered on an unplanned detour. The Invercargill coast has plenty of interesting seaside spots, including 26km-long Oreti Beach and sleepy Colac Bay.
As well as memorable beaches, the southeast coast is punctuated by some peculiar landforms. Within an hour’s drive of Dunedin are such spectacles as Tunnel Beach’s giant arch, and the perfectly spherical Moeraki Boulders that emerge from the eroded shore of Koekohe Beach.
Further south are the Nuggets, rocky islets dressed in swirling kelp, viewed from a cliff-top lighthouse.
The Catlins has stacks of freaky and fabulous stuff, including numerous forest waterfalls such as Purakaunui and McLeans Falls. Sea spray shoots upwards through Jack’s Blowhole, a very weird chasm in a paddock, while the ocean invades Cathedral Caves, spooky hideaways that can be visited at low tide from a gloriously isolated beach. Low tide also reveals the ancient fossilised forest at Curio Bay.
This coast is heaven for seabird spotters. Otago Peninsula has two particularly special reserves – the Royal Albatross Centre where the big birds nest up, and Penguin Place that protects rare Yellow Eyed Penguins. At Oamaru’s Blue Penguin Colony, birds can be viewed waddling ashore at sundown. Among scores of other resident and visiting species are spoonbills, stilts, terns and shearwaters, plus forest birds such as the beautiful native pigeon (kereru) and cheeky kaka, a parrot.
The Catlins coast is frequented by various marine mammals including migratory whales. Residents include awesome Hooker’s sea lions that hang around the dunes of Surat Bay, and sizeable populations of New Zealand fur seals around rocky spots such as The Nuggets and Waipapa Point. The best chance of seeing dolphins is on a wildlife cruise or fishing charter, or by heading to Porpoise Bay where they practice surfing on a regular basis.
Art & Culture
The south’s relatively small communities support an impressive cultural scene, from widespread grassroots through to significant institutions such as Oamaru’s Forrester Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the Southland Museum gallery in Invercargill. The country town of Gore is home to the small but excellent Eastern Southland Gallery, which holds a collection of significant works by national luminaries Ralph Hotere and Rita Angus, amongst others.
Gore is also home to the highly entertaining Hokonui Moonshine Museum, just one of many excellent museums throughout the region, most of which feature hands-on fun for children. Local, natural and maritime histories predominate at larger provincial museums in Dunedin and Invercargill, and brilliant Te Hikoi in Riverton. At the crazier end of the scale is Oamaru’s Steampunk HQ where the junkyard has been spectacularly refashioned into new ideas for nightmares. Similarly bonkers are the eye-popping kinetic creations of Papatowai’s Lost Gypsy Gallery in the Catlins.
Wine & Food
Many of Dunedin's restaurants have won national recognition for the standard of their food. The variety is exciting with cuisine styles from many parts of the world including Italy, Japan, Turkey, and Thailand.
Dunedin's location, close to the sea and a rich agricultural hinterland, means fresh, high quality produce, be it venison, lamb or fresh seafood just out of the Pacific. Complement your choice with the best of Otago, New Zealand or overseas wines.
The flair and creativity of the food is matched only by the interior design. Many of the restaurants have a style and atmosphere of their own - from funky to folky - and non-conformity seems to be the norm.
Nature & Scenic
- The Catlins, Stewart Island, Hump Ridge Track (Western Southland)
Your first glance of Dunedin will tell you it is a city of gardens. The Town Belt cuts a green swathe across the width of the city, with native forest, exotic trees and a wealth of sports fields and recreational reserves.
Dunedin’s Botanic Gardens is New Zealand's oldest botanic garden, opened in 1869. It remains one of the country's finest with an extensive rose garden, Japanese garden, bird aviary and the famous rhododendron dell. This is alive with colour and vibrancy during Dunedin's Rhododendron Festival in November each year.
Nearby, on the banks of the Water of Leith, is New Zealand native Woodhaugh Garden. Anzac Square in front of the Railway Station has a commemorative Flemish garden theme. And there are dozens of private gardens open to the public.
Art & Culture
- Hokonui Moonshine Museum, Eastern Southland Art Gallery, Croydon
- Aircraft Company, Southland Museum and Art Gallery and the Tuatarium, Anderson
- Park Art Gallery, Peugeot Hokonui Fashion Design Awards
Dunedin's cultural heritage runs deep, especially for a city which is young by world standards.
Dunedin is New Zealand's centre of learning, arts and culture. The University of Otago is New Zealand's oldest university and together with Otago Polytechnic and the Dunedin College of Education, contributes to a vibrant student culture.
Dunedin Public Art Gallery is breathtaking with both classic and contemporary works, and Otago Museum is one of New Zealand's finest, with a magnificent collection of treasures from around the world. For an insight into Otago's beginnings, visit the Otago Settlers Museum.
Beach & Coastal Encounters
Nugget Point, Oreti Beach, Curio Bay.
- Ulva Island bird sanctuary, kiwi spotting on Stewart Island,
- Penguin viewing at Curio Bay, Sea Lions at Nugget Point
Few cities anywhere on earth have such a richly diverse coastal wildlife population, including many Antarctic species that prefer Dunedin's kinder climes. Taiaroa Head is the world's only mainland albatross breeding colony, amazingly within sight of the city's skyscape..
Visit the Royal Albatross Centre for an insight into these majestic ocean wanderers. There is a large colony of Shags perched on the cliffs below. Visit the home of the world's rarest penguin, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin and peer in on the shy Little Blue Penguin. Pilots Beach and Otago Peninsula have New Zealand Fur Seals, and sometimes young pups perform aquabatics in the tidal pools.