The Catlins, New Zealand - an insider's guide

Part of the Southern Scenic Route, The Catlins area takes in rural heartland, podocarp forests, rugged coastlines, hidden lakes, stunning waterfalls and rare wildlife

Coastal drive to The Catlins, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Coastal drive to The Catlins, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).


The Catlins, a coastal region in New Zealand's South Island, is a must-do for anyone who loves an off-the-beaten-track adventure, just ask local farmers and tour operators Dani and Nick Stratford.

An insider's guide to The Catlins

In the summer of 1999, German tourist Daniela Schempp faced a difficult dilemma.

Should she avoid the rain predicted for The Catlins and take refuge with a friend further inland? Or should she risk the poor weather and camp at the one place in New Zealand she'd never been to but most wanted to visit?

Camping in The Catlins won out. And, what started as a fascination with the region's rugged, isolated coast and unique wildlife, soon turned into a love affair with the people of the area too.

Well, one person in particular - local farmer and tourism operator Nick Stratford.

Dani, 51, explains, "I met Nick at his parents' place - a popular B and B in Progress Valley. I'd stopped by to use the internet and ended up extending my holiday by a month to work on Nick's farm and stay at his backpackers. A year and a half later, Nick came to Germany and proposed."

In March 2002, Dani and Nick were married on the white, windswept shores of Curio Bay where Dani had stayed in 1999 and where the couple lives today, with children Noah (15) and Zoe (11).

The wild, pristine setting is home to a tiny population of just 10 permanent residents - although it is regularly visited by boisterous sea lions, a pod of Hector's dolphins (one of the world's smallest species) and a colony of rare yellow-eyed penguin.

Curio Bay, The Catlins (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Curio Bay, The Catlins (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Nick's original backpackers is still up and running (as a beachfront rental cottage called Curio Cottage). The couple has since added a beachfront apartment and two studios to their tourism business. They also run a 660 hectare beef and sheep farm, as well as being involved in a 200 hectare dairy farm.

Nick, 45, says after years of travelling in his 20s and 30s - initially to Japan (to play rugby), followed by the United States and United Kingdom - he's happy to call The Catlins home again.

"I'm a sixth generation Kiwi. My mother was born in Otara, 30 kilometres from here. My dad came here from South Canterbury as a teenager. I grew up on my parent's farm just 12 kilometres away - mine was very much a boyhood of whizzing down homemade mudslides, damming up creeks, building huts and surfing the local breaks.

"I still love the freedom and beauty of this place. In summer, Dani and I'll take the kids body surfing after school. In the weekends, we'll walk the beach or wander the Waipohatu Track. Even our local church has spectacular views over the ancient petrified forest."

"We feel very blessed to be here. There's the incredible scenery and wildlife. But the people are warm and hospitable too. I think our attitude comes from being stuck at the bottom of the world and getting a genuine kick out of meeting new people and learning about distant places."

"I knew to live here I'd need a business that would bring people to me. And that's what we've got here. It's our place, but it's a place that others are welcome to share and experience too."

Surfing school caravan, Curio Bay (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Surfing school caravan, Curio Bay (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Stratford's top must-dos

  1. Walk the beach from Porpoise Bay to Curio Bay. But rug up. You're in the deep south, now.

  2. Enjoy the wildlife by keeping a safe distance. Stay at least 10 metres from the sea lions lolling about on the foreshore and sand dunes. They might look sleepy and relaxed. But they're known to roar and charge when people get too close.

  3. Take a surf lesson with Catlins Surf School - the wave at Curio Bay is perfect for learners.

  4. Check out Curio Bay's 180 million-year-old fossilised forest of petrified stumps, fallen trees and fern imprints from the Jurassic period. In summer, you'll see yellow-eyed penguins waddling across the forest, making the trip to-and-from their nests.

  5. Walk the Waipohatu track. It's a great option for getting out of the brisk southerly and seeing one of the country's rare primeval rainforests.

  6. Get your free wi-fi and coffee fix at Niagara Falls Café, a 5-to-10 minute drive from Curio Bay (Niagara Falls is the tongue-in-cheek name given to an area known for its modest waterfalls).

Directions to Curio Bay, The Catlins

  • To get to Curio Bay from Dunedin (one of the main centres in the South Island), drive 2 1/2 hours south of Dunedin, pass through Balclutha and wend your way 60-odd kilometres southwest through farmland and native bush along the picturesque Southern Scenic Route.

  • When you glimpse the stunning white sands of Tautuku Bay, you'll have reached The Catlin's unofficial mid-point and have just 40 kilometres to go.

  • Take the turn off to Niagara, pass Waikawa museum and the historic St Mary's Anglican Church and drive along Curio Bay Road, a coastal road dotted with snug-looking beach houses.

  • If you're staying at Curio Bay Cottage, look for the sign, then pull gently into the drive - you don't want to scare resident moggies (and your unofficial hosts) Lilly and Moby! Grab an armful of firewood from the shed before heading into your private, coastal sanctuary.