Otago & Southland

The geography, climate, and scenery of the Otago and Southland region vary greatly over relatively short distances. To the west, the land rises steeply from the coast through the thick rainforest to 9,900-ft high mountain peaks in the space of only 25 miles – features that make the Fiordland and Mount Aspiring national parks so spectacular. To the east of these peaks, the ranges and valleys of Central Otago provide a stark contrast. The interior is dry and rugged. Vivid blue lakes nestle among tussock-covered hills and snow-capped mountains to create the scenery and adventure playground that has made resorts such as Queenstown so popular. From the lakes, the land drops down to the eastern and southern coasts and hinterland where extra rainfall has produced fertile farmland to feed the cities of Dunedin and Invercargill.



One of the joys of exploring Dunedin is that there is a great deal to see in a relatively small area. Its buildings are among the most interesting and architecturally diverse in the country. Many that have survived from Dunedin’s heyday following the 1860s gold rush, when the city was the country’s commercial center, are within walking distance of the center. Others are to the north of the city in proximity to Dunedin’s many beautiful parks and gardens. The relatively flat central city, which remains the retail hub, is surrounded by hills, which afford a splendid view of the city and harbor below.

Dunedin’s Railway Station is one of New Zealand’s finest historic buildings and one of the best examples of railway architecture in the southern hemisphere. Dunedin’s extensive Botanic Gardens were the first to be established in New Zealand, in 1868. The area’s varied topography and microclimates are used to grow a diverse range of plants. The displays in the large, Classical-style Otago Museum, opened in 1877, introduce visitors to the region’s human and natural history. There are halls dealing with pre- European Maori life, Pacific culture, marine life, and archaeology of the ancient world. Located 4 miles south of the city, Tunnel Beach is named after the tunnel cut through sandstone cliffs in the 1870s by Edward Cargill so that his family could get down to the pretty beach below. The short but steep walkway to the beach gives breathtaking views of the sandstone cliffs which have been spectacularly sculpted by wind and sea.


The 15-mile long Otago Peninsula offers a wide variety of attractions, including rare and unusual wildlife, historic buildings, woodland gardens, and spectacular harbor and coastal scenery. The 40-mile round trip, taking the “high” Highcliff Road, which runs over the top of the peninsula, on the outward journey, and returning via the “low” Portobello Road along the coast, can take a full day. Highcliff Road offers the best views of the surrounding countryside and coastline.


The Moeraki Boulders, 49 miles north of Dunedin on State Highway 1, have long been the subject of legend and curiosity. Almost perfectly spherical, with a circumference of up to 13 ft, the grey boulders lie scattered along a 164-ft stretch of the beach. They were formed on the sea bed about 60 million years ago as lime salts gradually accumulated around a hardcore. Maori legend claims that the boulders were the food baskets or Te Kaihinaki of the Araiteuru canoe, one of the great ancestral canoes that brought Maori to New Zealand from Hawaiki. The canoe was wrecked while on a greenstone gathering trip. It is said that the kumara on board became rough rocks, the food baskets became smooth boulders, and the wreck turned into a reef. It is not unusual to see small black and white Hector’s dolphins playing in the surf near the boulders. A nearby café and restaurant service the flow of visitors. The tiny, picturesque fishing village of Moeraki, a former whaling station established in 1836, is on the opposite side of the bay from the reserve.


Oamaru is the main town of North Otago and service center for a rich agricultural hinterland. Oamaru is a pretty town with wide, treelined streets, well-kept gardens, galleries, beaches, colonies of rare penguins, and the best-preserved collection of historic public and commercial buildings in New Zealand. The buildings were fashioned in the 1880s from Oamaru stone, a local cream-colored limestone which is easily cut, carved, and molded. Oamaru was the childhood home of the novelist Janet Frame (1924–2004), who had an international reputation, and a walking tour takes visitors past sites featured in her writing.


Lindis Pass is the main inland link between Otago and the Waitaki Basin, the Lindis Pass climbs through rocky gorges before reaching the tussock-covered hills of a Department of Conservation reserve near the summit. Early Maori, like today’s holidaymakers, used the route in summer to get to Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. In 1858, John McLean, the first European to settle in the area, established the 772-sq-mile Morven Hills Station. Many of the original buildings can still be seen about 9 miles south of the summit. These include McLean’s original homestead and a massive stone woolshed, built about 1880, which was capable of holding up to 1,500 sheep.


Tucked among hills and mountains, the bright blue waters of Lake Hawea make it one of the most beautiful of the southern lakes. The lake, which is 1,345 ft deep in places, is separated from the equally beautiful Lake Wanaka by a narrow, 22-mile isthmus, known as “the neck”. Lake Hawea is a popular holiday haven. There are many free camping spots around its shores. It is also well known for its excellent trout and land-locked salmon fishing and for various boating activities. The small town of Hawea on the lake’s southern shores is the main base for outdoor activities.


Located at the southern end of the lake, Wanaka is one of the country’s favorite holiday spots. The willow-lined shores and bays of Lake Wanaka are popular in summer for boating, fishing, and water-skiing, while in winter skiers and snowboarders flock to the local ski areas. Snow-capped peaks provide a beautiful lake setting, and these natural attractions also bring hikers and walkers to the many breathtaking tracks in the nearby Mount Aspiring National Park. Aside from the area’s natural features, there is plenty to visit and see around the town. One of the chief attractions, the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum, located at Wanaka Airport, is home to a variety of World War II fighter aircraft, such as a Hawker Hurricane, Tiger Moth, Vampire, Chipmunk, a replica of an SE5A, and several rare Russian Polikarpovs. Illustrated displays explain the role of New Zealand fighter pilots and crews in several theatres of war. Visitors can also see aircraft being restored in the maintenance hangar. “Warbirds Over Wanaka”, a major biennial airshow involving military aircraft, is held every second Easter in even-numbered years. It features aircraft from New Zealand as well as overseas in acrobatic displays and mock battles. Wanaka’s open skies and dramatic alpine scenery provide a spectacular backdrop. Next to Wanaka Airport is the Wanaka Transport Museum. Its large private collection of more than 13,000 items includes memorabilia, such as toys and models, as well as military vehicles and aircraft. A special exhibit is a huge Russian Antonov AN-2, the world’s largest single-engine biplane. Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World is based around “The Great Maze”, 1 mile of threedimensional wooden passages and under- and overbridges. Other attractions include a Hologram Hall, the Tumbling Towers/Tilted House, and the Puzzle Centre where you can sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and try to solve one of the many challenging puzzles on display. Like many other parts of Central Otago, Wanaka’s climate is proving ideal for grape growing.


New Zealand’s third-largest National Park after Fiordland and Kahurangi, Mount Aspiring National Park enjoys World Heritage status as part of the Te Wahipounamu/Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, which stretches from Aoraki/Mount Cook to the southern tip of Fiordland. Within the park’s 1,350-sq mile area, the scenery ranges from snow- and glacier-clad mountains to rugged rock faces, spectacular forested valleys, and picturesque river flats. The park, close to the tourist centers of Queenstown and Wanaka, is a popular walking, tramping, and climbing destination.


A tiny community on the coast where the broad Haast River meets the sea, Haast is little more than a stopover and supply point for people traveling between the West Coast and the southern lakes, although it does offer good surf and river fishing. The visitor center provides information on walks and tracks in the area, as well as maps, souvenirs, and visitor publications. The staff can also advise on track and weather conditions in this high rainfall area. Fill up with fuel here before driving over the pass to Wanaka.


Situated on the northeast shore of Lake Wakatipu, backed by the Remarkables range, Queenstown enjoys one of the most scenic settings in the world. Since the 1970s, it has developed from a sleepy lakeside town into a leading international resort and a world center for adventure sports, including bungy jumping. Like most towns in the area, Queenstown was established during the 1860s gold rushes. Although the pace of development in Queenstown has been dictated by the demands of tourism, it still has the feel of a small town and proudly maintains its links with the days of the gold boom.


Glenorchy is a small, tranquil township at the head of Lake Wakatipu, 27 miles, or 40 minutes’ drive from Queenstown. The town stands in the shadow of snow-capped peaks with names such as Mount Chaos and Mount Head which rise steeply above the Rees and Dart river valleys. The town is the transit point for trampers entering the valleys, which are part of the Mount Aspiring National Park, and which are among New Zealand’s Great Walks. For the serious tramper, there is a 48-mile loop track which connects both valleys via the 4,747-ft Rees Saddle. Although it takes four to five days and requires proper equipment, it is possible to enjoy a few hours’ return walk up either valley. A variety of outdoor activities are also available at Glenorchy.


Nestled at the foot of rugged hills 13 miles from Queenstown, Arrowtown is the most picturesque and best-preserved gold-mining town in the area. In 1862, a small band of miners, including William Fox and John O’Callaghan, discovered gold in the Fox River and within weeks they had recovered 250 lb of the precious metal. Arrowtown’s population peaked at more than 7,000 and is one of the few boom towns not to have either become a ghost town or been overrun by more modern development. The main street, partly lined with deciduous trees, has many old colonial shops and buildings at one end and, at the other, tiny miners’ stone cottages dating back to the 1860s and 1870s. Chinese miners played a big part in Arrowtown’s history after 1865 when they were invited to fill the vacuum created by European miners who had left for the West Coast gold rush. Their legacy is Arrowtown’s Chinese Settlement with its preserved and restored stone buildings, including tiny cottages, an outhouse, and a store. The Lakes District Museum chronicles both Arrowtown and Queenstown’s past, focusing on gold-miners and their innovations. It includes a display on New Zealand’s first hydroelectric plant, built in 1886 in what is now the ghost town of Bullendale. Other displays cover local geology, agriculture, sawmilling, and domestic life of the gold rush period. The museum doubles as Arrowtown’s visitor center.


Cromwell survived the gold era to become a service town in one of New Zealand’s leading fruit growing areas. In the 1980s, an electricity-generating dam built downriver created nearby Lake Dunstan, flooding much of Cromwell’s quaint and historic main street, although several of the more notable buildings were relocated stone by stone to a new site. Cromwell now makes its living from farming, horticulture, viticulture, and tourism.


For a long time, the little settlement of Kingston served as a railhead and steamer terminal for travelers heading towards Lake Wakatipu from the south. Nowadays, its main claim to fame is the Kingston Flyer, a restored vintage steam train with several coaches and staff in period costume which takes passengers on a 75-minute return trip.


Fiordland National Park’s 2.9 million acres make it the largest of New Zealand’s National Parks, while its special geology, landscape, flora, and fauna have earned it a place in the Te Wahipounamu – Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area. It is a region dominated by forest and water. Its 14 fiords and 5 major lakes – the work of Ice Age glaciers – flanked by steep mountains clad with thick, temperate rainforest, make the interior virtually impenetrable except along its 310 miles of tracks. The park is also known for its wildlife, especially its marine mammals and native birds, including the Fiordland crested penguin.


Doubtful Sound was named by Captain James Cook in 1770, on his voyage to New Zealand when, looking at the narrow entrance to the sound, he was doubtful that he could safely get his vessel in and out. The 25-mile long fiord is Fiordland’s second-largest and, at 1,380 ft, the deepest. It is a remote, unspoiled wilderness of mountain peaks, fiords, and rainforest which supports a rich array of bird and marine life, including crested penguins, fur seals, and bottlenose dolphins. Getting there is an adventure in itself, involving two boat trips and a coach ride over a mountain pass, with a side trip deep underground to the huge Manapouri Power Station generator hall.


New Zealand’s southernmost city, and the commercial hub of Southland, Invercargill is a well-planned city with wide, tree-lined streets and many parks and reserves. Settled in the 1850s and 1860s by Scottish immigrants, the city’s cultural links with Scotland are reflected in the streets named after Scottish rivers and in its many historic buildings. To the west of the city are several sheltered beaches and walking tracks.


Lying 41 miles north of Invercargill, Gore has varied claims to fame: brown trout in the Mataura River and its tributaries (symbolized by a large trout statue in the middle of the town), sheep (the town is surrounded by fertile farmlands and thrives as an agricultural service town), moonshine whisky, and a reputation as the country music capital of New Zealand (country music devotees come each May for the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards). The Gore i-SITE Visitor Centre incorporates the Gore Historical Museum and the Hokonui Moonshine Museum. The latter covers the colorful period when whisky was made illegally in the Hokonui Hills behind Gore. Nine miles west of Gore on State Highway 94 is the Croydon Aircraft Company where they lovingly restore vintage aircraft, such as the Tiger Moth, and offer flights to visitors.


Bluff is New Zealand’s southernmost export port and the departure point for ferries to Stewart Island. It is also the base for fishing fleets that cruise the south and west coasts for fish, crayfish, and rock lobsters as well as the famous “Bluff oysters”. Unique to New Zealand, the oysters are harvested during a limited season from March to the end of August. Bluff has a long history of human occupation, with Maori settlement dating back to the 13th century. The town is named after the 870-ft high Bluff Hill which overlooks Foveaux Strait towards Stewart Island, which lies 20 miles away. Beneath the hill is Stirling Point – the end of State Highway 1 – where there is a much-photographed international signpost. Several walks, including the Foveaux Walkway and the Glory Track, pass through native forest. A 45-minute climb up the hill gives panoramic views of the Foveaux Strait and inland areas. The Bluff Maritime Museum traces the history of whaling, muttonbirding, and oyster harvesting, as well as the development of the port and the Stewart Island ferry.


According to Maori legend, Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third-largest island, was the anchor of Maui’s canoe (the South Island) when he pulled the great fish (the North Island) from the sea. Separated from the South Island by the 20-mile Foveaux Strait, 85 percent of Stewart Island became the Rakiura National Park in 2002. Its unspoiled inlets and beaches, bush-clad hills, rugged coastline, and native birdlife combine to make the 674-sq-mile island a naturalist’s paradise. First settled by Maori in the 13th century, Europeans arrived in the 1820s. Today’s small population makes a living from fishing and tourism.


Natural curiosities and beauty combine to make this southeastern corner of the South Island a scenic treasure. Fossilized trees, beautiful waterfalls, golden beaches, high cliffs, and secret caves are all part of a unique mix of attractions in this area, commonly referred to as the Catlins after one of the early landowners of the 1840s. A varied coastline of cliffs and golden sand surf beaches provides a home to a wide range of wildlife, from rare Hector’s dolphins to penguins, seals, and sea lions. The area is made all the more spectacular by the ancient forests of rimu, matai, totara, beech, and miro which reach almost to the sea, and which are filled with the sounds of native birds.