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When it comes to New Zealand, going off the grid isn’t particularly difficult. To the rest of the world (I’m looking at you, Australia) New Zealand IS off the grid. In fact, it often is omitted from the map!
But when it comes to traveling around this beautiful island nation at the edge of the world, there are well-trodden paths and, well, not-so-well-trodden paths. The Catlins fall into the latter. At the bottom of the beautiful The South Island, you will find a rugged and remarkable coastline. Some of the country’s most unique wildlife call the Catlins home.
Humans have occupied the Catlins for at least a thousand years. Named after the Catlin River, named after Captain Edward Cattlin, a whaler who settled here, it was known and occupied by Maori for much longer.
Peaceful and serene, the Catlins is the place that deserves a slow visit, where you park and stay for a while.
Except Stewart Islandnothing stands between the Catlins and Antarctica, which sometimes means the weather gets wild, which I secretly love.
I love waking up to the sound of rain on the roof. As the sky darkens, it heralds the arrival of a storm. It makes me think of my childhood in the southern US with our daily afternoon summer thunderstorms. For me, dramatic weather has always evoked a sense of nostalgia.
It speaks to my introverted nature and excuse to bundle up and stay in and read by the glow of a warm lamp. To light candles and go to sleep. I think the weather has a strong influence on our emotional well-being, and winter storms make me feel relaxed.
If you’re like me and looking for stunning yet relaxing places, look no further Catlins. Here you have the sea, wild beaches, unique wildlife, ancient forests, beautiful waterfalls, epic weather and not many people. It’s a recipe for relaxation.
Get off the grid at Beresford Heights
First, if you’re going down south to the Catlins to relax and unwind, go straight to Beresford Heights. You guys know that charming, off-the-grid getaways are my thing. Beresford Heights ticks all the boxes and then some.
Inland near Owaka, it’s a charming new lodge built 400 meters above sea level, overlooking the rolling hills of the Catlins. Tucked away on the best view of the third generation Burgess family farm, you can see how much love went into building it. Since it is a working farm, they will transport you and all your belongings in a comfortable ATV up to the cabin.
Unlike many places in the Catlins, there is phone reception and wifi, so it’s super easy to plan to get around. Not that you want to leave.
Did I mention the outdoor spa on the deck? Sky. Go for at least two days, but the longer the better.
Get up bright and early to look for rare penguins with the amazing people at Mohua Park
Another top choice for places to nest while down in the Catlins would have to be Mohua Park, which has super cute eco cabins overlooking the rolling hills of the Catlins. Tucked away in the bush, it’s like getting away in nature without camping.
Mohua Park offers four kilometers of private natural walking trails to explore and enjoy.
With a passion for wildlife and caring for the countryside, Tracy and Mike love the Catlins through and through. There are even QE11 covenants on the ground at Mohua Park. They run many conservation and sustainability initiatives in Mohua Park, such as trapping pests, conserving energy and water, even the building materials, working towards producing zero waste and replanting native trees.
If you get the chance, sign up for one of them sunrise tours to go out to a secret place to look for the rare ones hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin. Considered to be the rarest penguin in the world, the hoiho can be found in the Catlins by those who know where to look.
With only a few thousand yellow-eyed penguins left in the world, they are considered to be in decline. The main causes of the declining population are dogs, human disturbance, climate change, fishery interactions, predation and disease. Fortunately, DOC, Ngāi Tahu and local trusts have been working hard to protect the hoiho.
This work includes predator control, monitoring their nests, treating them for disease and injury, intervening to prevent starvation and restoring their native habitats.
Chase some waterfalls
For me, I always think of the Catlins as the land of waterfalls and rainbows. Both can be found in abundance here.
This past summer was one of the driest summers I can remember here in New Zealand. Down in the Catlins, the falls had shrunk from their usual thunderous fall. Nevertheless, they are just as beautiful and this meant you could get up close and personal with them.
The showstopper of waterfalls in the Catlins is absolute Purakaunui Falls, an iconic three-tiered waterfall you’ll likely recognize from Instagram. McLean Falls, Matai Falls and Koropuku Falls are others that are equally beautiful.
Visit the most famous lighthouse in New Zealand at Nugget Point
Along with the waterfalls and yellow-eyed penguins, Nugget Point is probably the second top contender for Catlin’s must-dos. A game reserve looked after by DOC; the views are just incredible. An easy and flat walk takes you out to the headland from the car park. There is a fantastic view along the whole trip. If you pause to look down, you will see many fur seals playing in the surf, their barks echoing in the wind.
With its precarious position and good location, you can often see many of our iconic seabirds here, from tītī, penguins, gannets and even royal spoonbills. Roaring Bay is home to a few pairs of yellow-eyed penguins on the south shore of the tip of Nugget Point. The best time to see them is in the late afternoon from a hide when they come back from being at sea all day feeding.
Like so many places in New Zealand, the English names are about as lazy as you can get. This steep headland has a lighthouse on its tip, surrounded by rocky islands, also known as Nuggets. Otago was famous for its gold rush a century ago; I suspect the rocks reminded people of gold nuggets, including Captain Cook, who named them long before settlers arrived. In Māori it is known as Tokatā.
Shipping has found the Catlins coast notoriously unsafe. The big Antarctic southerly winds also produce some big swells. Many shipwrecks have occurred on the headland that juts out into the sea. The lighthouse at Nugget Point was built in 1869 to protect the boats working around the wild Otago coastline.
The lighthouse, which sits meters above sea level, was built from local stone and is just under ten meters high. First lit by an oil boiler, then diesel-generated electricity for central power, it was finally automated in 1989.
Today, as people flock to the lighthouse, they come more for the view beyond, which is spectacular.
Go for a walk in the woods
When people think of the Catlins, they often think of the sea. I totally get it; The Catlin coastline is stunning.
But if you ask me, I love the inner forest here. So much of the original forests have long been cleared on the South Island to make way for large-scale farming. This area is now home to the largest area of native forest left on the South Island’s east coast. The forests of Catlin were one of the last places the giant flightless bird, the moa, called home. In legend, maeroero (wild giants) inhabited the forests of the Catlins further inland. Even today it evokes a sense of mystery here.
Large and old podocarps (hardwoods) such as rimu, matai, totara and kahikatea decorate the lower reaches of the Catlins. One of my favorite hikes in the Catlins is around Lake Wilkiea bog/swamp home to many native trees and birds.
Check out the sea lions at Cannibal Bay
One of my favorite places to look for the large lumbering sea lions that call Catlin home is at Cannibal Bay. Another candidate for a PC name change, Cannibal Bay, is down eight kilometers of dirt road. Beautiful white sand meets beautiful blue water, but it’s not particularly inviting for a swim, unless you fancy swimming with the sea lions.
At the far end of Cannibal Bay you will find a track that leads over the dunes to Surat Bay. Sea lions are common in both places; just don’t get too close. The general rule is 20 meters distance. Keep an eye on them; they like to relax even up in the dunes and cover themselves with sand.
They are surprisingly fast considering their size. I know from experience.
The Catlins is one place in New Zealand I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting. The Catlins are beautiful in the sunshine and beautiful in the rain. It doesn’t matter the weather or the season. It’s always special this way.
From the lovely long beaches to the untouched forests, the ancient fossils and the unique wildlife, the Catlins beckon all those who enjoy and appreciate nature. The Southland is home to so many epic adventures; just be sure to put the Catlins on the list!
Have you ever been to the Catlins? Do you have a place you like to go to by the sea to relax? Share!
Many thanks to Great South for hosting me in Southland; As always, I keep it real – as if you could expect any less from me!