DUNEDIN – QUEENSTOWN
5-7 Days | 871 KM
Fly into Dunedin – the gateway to the South – and take the road less travelled through Aotearoa’s epic Southern Scenic Route, where you’ll encounter a world of unmitigated natural beauty, remote coastlines, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and charming townships.
DUNEDIN – DAY ONE
With its striking balance of rugged coastlines, unique wildlife, heritage architecture, a thriving arts and design community – Dunedin is one of the world’s UNESCO Cities of Literature – the Gateway to the South offers an impressive first leg of the journey.
Even if you arrive late, Dunedin Airport is just 30 minutes from the city centre, so a place to rest is not far away. There’s an abundance of hotels, motels and boutique apartments dotted throughout Dunedin’s vibrant city centre, or if you’re looking for a coastal getaway, the seaside suburb of St Clair offers idyllic beachfront accommodation.
Start the day with breakfast at Nova in the city’s Octagon, perfectly placed to explore the city post-meal, or head to newcomer Buster Greens where innovative wholesome food is served with love. For seaside dining, head to St Clair and try Starfish for great café fare or Esplanade for Italian and beachfront views. If great coffee is all you’re after, you can’t beat The Daily Coffee on Princes Street, along the road from the Vogel Street precinct’s incredible food offerings – Heritage Café, Vogel Street Kitchen, Precinct Food, The Kind Grocer or Good Good for a (you guessed it, good good) burger.
Before venturing south on State Highway 1 (SH1), there’s a lot to explore in this colourful historic city – whether on foot or three wheels. Hop on a V8 trike with Experience Dunedin for a unique ‘wind in your hair’ exploration of the city’s surrounds or book a Street Art Tour where this small city with big walls comes to life featuring art from around the world – Phlegm, Pixel Pancho, ROA to name a few.
Animal lovers and history buffs alike will enjoy exploring the picturesque Otago Peninsula. This 20km long harbor is world-famous for its abundance of marine wildlife, including the New Zealand Sea lion, Royal Albatross, Blue Penguins and the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin, while also being home to New Zealand’s only castle. Once a private residence dating back to 1871 Larnach Castle has been lovingly restored and is surrounded by award-winning gardens.
CLUTHA – DAY TWO
Dunedin – Waihola | 39km (30 mins)
Home to one of New Zealand’s most spectacular coastal habitats, the site where the world’s largest gold rush took place, and the Clutha Gold Cycle Trail Link – one of New Zealand’s Great Rides – the Clutha district is a highlight of the Southern Scenic Route.
First stop south of Dunedin, visit New Zealand’s most inland tidal lake at Waihola. Surrounded by the Sinclair Wetlands Lake Waihola offers a selection of picturesque day walks among native wildlife habitats, the perfect pitstop to stretch your legs and explore.
Waihola – Balclutha | 40.5km (30 mins)
Continuing along SH1 arrive at Clutha District’s largest town, Balclutha. Famous for its iconic arched bridge over the Clutha River, Balclutha provides a local lunch spot sure to satisfy the hungry traveller. Casafuego Eatery and Bar can be found in a transformed, once-historic fire station and serves up Mexican cuisine adapted to incorporate local ingredients for a Kiwi come Tex-Mex affair.
Balclutha – The Catlins | 75km (1 hour 15 mins)
Enjoy the journey along Owaka Highway before entering The Catlins – a crown-jewel of the Southern Scenic Route and one of New Zealand’s finest eco destinations.
Swathed in lush green rainforest and ruggedly charismatic beaches, The Catlins is known as a sanctuary for New Zealand’s incredible wildlife. Catch a glimpse of the Hoiho (rare yellow-eyed penguins) at Roaring Bay, hear songs of the Tui and Bellbird in the surrounding native forests, and see a display of sea life including dolphins, seals and sea lions.
To capture the best of this pristine paradise – and the next Instagram post – walk out to the famous lighthouse at Nugget Point for uninterrupted views or visit spectacular waterfalls dotted throughout the region such as the triple-tiered falls at Purakaunui or the highest waterfall at McLean Falls. Cathedral Caves – one of the world’s largest sea cave complexes at 30m high with more than 200m of passageways – is a must-do during low tide in the summer season (refer to website for times).
Whether it’s eco cottages nestled in beautiful bushland or powered campsites, cabins and premium chalets, The Catlins’ offers a lineup of grass roots accommodation to choose from.
SOUTHLAND – DAY THREE
Rise and shine. Before heading further south, explore the spectacular Catlins Conservation Park with a guided sunrise tour by Catlins Scenic and Wildlife Tours, or head out to sea with Catlins Kayak and Adventures to take in the remote Catlins coastline at daybreak.
The Catlins – Invercargill | 81kms (1 hour 30 mins)
Just under two hours of scenic driving brings you to Invercargill, one of the southernmost cities in the world. Old-world charm meets a playful tempo in this bustling town where recreation is on the agenda for families, groups and individuals.
Drive straight onto Oreti Beach – one of the only beaches in New Zealand permitting vehicle access made famous by the story of legend Burt Munro and the World’s Fastest Indian – and park up to watch the sunset, or head over to Sandy Point Domain where trails for walking, mountain biking, horse riding, motorcross, and dog sledding wind through bush and across beaches.
Invercargill – Bluff | 28kms (30 mins)
A short 30-minute drive leads to Bluff, an industrial coastal port, gateway to Stewart Island and home to two New Zealand icons: The Bluff Oyster and Stirling Point’s insta-famous signpost at the end of SH1.
This bottom-of-the-world destination offers travellers respite with a number of short walks along the Bluff Hill peninsula, such as Foveaux Walkway and Motupohue, each serving up panoramic vistas and a Pacific breeze.
OPTIONAL (ADD ONE DAY) –STEWART ISLAND/RAKIURA
Bluff – Stewart Island |Ferry: 1 hour
Cross the Foveaux Straight for an overnight departure to Stewart Island, also known as Rakiura in Maori which means ‘glowing skies’ after the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) sometimes on show. A detour not to miss, Stewart Island’s 1570 square kilometers is 85% National Park with heavy protections in place to ensure this untouched landscape remains just that – a preserved eco-system of native flora and fauna.
Take your pick of guided walks that are designed to showcase native birds in their natural habitat, including the Wild Kiwi Encounter operated at dusk for maximum kiwi exposure, or water taxi over to Ulva Island – a predator-free coastal environment for the most rare and endangered species.
Visitors can either choose to immerse themselves in the island life and stay at one of the many hosted B&Bs for a true local experience or book a night at one of the motels in Oban and Halfmoon Bay.
Kaimoana (seafood) is on the menu, with Blue Cod, exclusively found in the southern waters of New Zealand, crayfish and oysters in season just some of the local delicacies on offer. Try Church Hill Restaurant for a fresh and local gourmet meal.
Invercargill – Riverton |50.7kms (40 mins)
The quaint seaside town of Riverton is popular with locals and travellers alike offering a relaxed, holiday vibe. The ‘Riviera of the South’ boasts an assortment of art galleries, second-hand shops and eateries – try local establishments Beachhouse Café or The Crib. A great spot to stop and soak in the genuine laid-back charm New Zealand is renowned for.
FIORDLAND – DAY FOUR
Riverton – Te Anau |150kms (1 hour 45 mins)
Set the GPS north and start your step counter as you’re heading to Fiordland. Fiordland is home to the world famous fiord Milford Sound, and the lesser known but equally as impressive Doubtful Sound. Fiordland also boasts over 500 kilometres of walking tracks, it is a hikers and explorers dream destination! Visit the Kepler Mountain View Alpaca farm on your way through Manapouri for your fix of cuteness. 20 minutes later get your caffiene fix in Te Anau at the Sandfly Café and grab a bao or sushi to go from local faves Bao Now! or Fumi. To enjoy a slice of elegance and history take a cruise on Lake Te Anau on the Faith in Fiordland. A trip to the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves with Real Journeys or tick your Lord of the Rings box with a spin on the Waiau River with Fiordland Jet! There are many dining options and accommodations in Te Anau and Manapouri, take your pick!
MILFORD SOUND – DAY FIVE
Te Anau – Milford Sound |118kms (1 hour 45 mins) one way, 236 kms (3 hours 30 mins) return
Departing Te Anau, journey along the lakeshore and deep into Fiordland National Park for two hours before emerging at the iconic Milford Sound– toted by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. To capture the best of this natural beauty, you can take a day cruise, go kayaking, dive through natural black coral or treat yourself to a scenic helicopter trip – glaciers guaranteed! Top tip #1 – Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most iconic attractions – so book ahead to ensure you don’t miss out. Top tip #2 avoid distraction on the scenic Milford Road by taking a coach and cruise trip from Te Anau.
QUEENSTOWN – DAY SIX
Te Anau – Queenstown |171kms (2 hours)
A playground for the adventurous, with a mecca of instagrammable locations, Queenstown, one of Aotearoa’s most celebrated destinations, is where the journey ends.
Set on the shores of Lake Wakatipu at the foot of the Southern Alps, Queenstown offers both high-stakes adventure for the adrenaline junkies – think bungy jumping, jet boating, canyoning, parasailing and heli-biking – or unadulterated luxury for the hedonists with its world-class wineries, 5-star lodge and spa retreats, and an assortment of fine-dining establishments.
At least one or two nights’ stay is recommended to take full advantage of Queenstown’s diversity. There’s no shortage of accommodation options to suit most preferences, from 5-star hotels and luxury lodges to budget backpackers, the key is to forward plan and book in advance to get in with your first pick.
And that’s a wrap. After a week exploring this majestic Kiwi landscape your time in the lower south has come to a close. Be sure to take in one final breath of fresh alpine air before catching your flight home.