An unspoilt, greens-were-never-so-green, blues-never-so-blue ride from New Zealand’s tartan town, to the southernmost point of the South Island, and on to the country’s famous adventure playground, your journey along the Southern Scenic Route is sure to be a spectacularly memorable holiday. Dramatic and rugged, lush and peaceful, whether you are looking for relaxed solitude or days packed with biking, walking, skiing and surfing, the Southern Scenic Route is the best of the southern wild and an essential part of any New Zealand adventure.
Because there’s just so much to do, we have curated the best mixture of natural wonder, charming wildlife and quirky attractions to fit into a perfect two-day road trip from Dunedin to Queenstown. If you crave more southern goodness (and let’s be honest, once you get started you’re sure to be left wanting), check out our Dunedin to Fiordland version of this trip, but in the meantime, put your foot on the pedal and experience New Zealand’s awe-inspiring deep south.
This epic journey starts in Dunedin, a tartan town founded in 1848 by a boatload of Presbyterians who left Scotland to create the ‘Edinburgh of the South.’ Whilst there, make sure you head to The Octagon, the city’s social and cultural hub, for breakfast at Nova Café and to pay a visit to the iconic statue of Robbie Burns. Dunedin’s architecture is also something pretty special, so, whilst wandering in and out of the shops filled with fabulous fashion and food, make sure to look up and check out the pillars, porticos and pilasters of the city’s unique and impressive Greco-Roman/Victorian/Gothic mashup.
Your first stop along the Southern Scenic Route is on the other side of one of the many memorable bridges which straddle the mighty Clutha River, the concrete arched Balclutha bridge. And whilst in the town, stock up on groceries, fuel and lip gloss; you’re heading into the retail-less wilderness that is the Catlins. Balclutha is also one of the many great places along the Southern Scenic Route to try the ‘sushi of the south,’ cheese rolls. These enormous bread rolls are toasted and slathered in melting butter, and down here they’re made with a secret ingredient - onion soup mix. Trust us, they’re delicious.
Next stop is the southern centre of the Catlins, Owaka, an old-school country town with a history of mining, sawmilling and whaling. This is likely to be your last chance to post a jealousy-inducing Facebook update for a while, as phone service in the Catlins can be a tad patchy. Visit the Catlins History Museum to learn about the hard-knock lives of the settlers in the 1860s; tough, resourceful buggers with muscles on their muscles. Owaka is also home to Teapot Land, a strange grassy knoll covered in hundreds of teapots laid out in an arrangement so bonkers the Mad Hatter would consider it over-the-top.
Further into the deep south from Owaka is a turn-off to the spectacular Purakaunui Falls, a spot you are not likely to forget in a hurry. Enjoy an easy 30-minute return rainforest walk to New Zealand’s most photographed waterfall, a cascading, three-tiered 20 metre scene of pure, natural beauty. It’s pretty easy to understand the hype.
After stretching your legs, head back to along the main highway to Papatowai and, whatever you do, do not miss a chance to visit the Lost Gypsy Gallery, a magical must-see collection of handmade ‘rustic autorama’ straight from the genius mind of gadget-making owner, Blair. The retro bus gallery is a free taster for the modestly-priced Winding Thoughts Theatre, a crazy collection of quite possibly the maddest creations anywhere on Earth.
Pop over the hill from Papatowai and you will discover Tautuku Beach and Estuary, a spectacular sweeping bay backed by a wall of forest which is a local favourite for surfing, swimming and walking. The Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk is a peaceful 20-minute return walk along a boardwalk, meandering out onto the estuary among the stunning jointed reeds, which make an incredible whistling sound when the wind blows across them. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to spot the very rare fernbird in its natural habitat.
Just down the road from Tautuku is yet another incredible coastal attraction, the jaw-dropping Cathedral Caves. Etched by the sea over centuries, the caves’ entrance towers 30 metres above the beach, so it’s not hard to see where the name came from. This incredible sight can only be accessed at low tide, so the caves possess all the isolated charm that New Zealand is cherished for, but that also means the track is only open for an hour each side of low tide. Start walking down to the caves well before, so you don’t miss out on witnessing the astonishing power of the sea, its timeless patience and creative destruction.
A long, safe beach ideal for swimming and surfing, Porpoise Bay is home to the Catlins Surf School and, in the summer, a pod of Hector’s Dolphins who hang around acting like complete show-offs. These very rare little dolphins have sensitive skin, so don’t touch them or go anywhere near, especially if you are wearing sunblock or insect repellent, and when entering the water do so from at least 50m away from them. Above Porpoise Bay is the Curio Bay Campground, which is an incredible spot to pitch your tent, sleep like a log and then awaken early to witness the sun rising over the ocean. The facilities are fairly basic, but the outlook is worth a million dollars.
A stone’s throw away on the other side of the campground lies Curio Bay. This is where the outgoing tide reveals a Jurassic forest – one of only three such accessible fossil forests in the world. Walk back in time, from lush green living forest to its 170-million-year-old predecessor, hopscotching your way across the trunks of giant trees laid down to sleep in stone. This is also a great place to see sea lions and the rare but distinctive hoiho/yellow-eyed penguin coming ashore at dusk.
Dramatically guarding the entrance to Foveaux Strait, Waipapa Point, home to a sea lion colony, once witnessed New Zealand’s worst civilian shipping disaster. The wreck of the SS Tararua in 1881 ran aground on the rocks on a dark and stormy night, tragically causing the loss of 131 lives. Pay your respects to some of its victims who are buried in the small graveyard a short walk from the lighthouse, and picture the farmer’s son’s terrible horseback ride through the night to sound the alarm and summon help, ultimately too late.
If you’ve always wanted to see a real-life dinosaur, leap into the car and drive to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest pyramid, the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, which is nestled in the 81-hectare jewel in the centre of Invercargill, Queens Park. Unfortunately, the museum’s building and exhibitions are now closed due to earthquake risk, but the 80 Tuatara can still be viewed through the glass enclosure walls. The last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs, peering through the windows feels a bit like Jurassic Park, but you are much less likely to have your jeep squashed.
Now, get ready, because it’s time to head to New Zealand’s adventure playground, Queenstown. The options to eat, drink and have a long night out are innumerable, partnered with endless opportunities for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, cruising on the lake, jet boating the shotover... the list just keeps going. But before you get there, enjoy the spectacular 2.5 hour drive through rolling farmland hills, quaint country towns and along the infamous ‘Devil’s Staircase’ which steers you between the depths of Lake Wakatipu and the staggering Remarkables mountain range.
Once you arrive in the busy resort town, head straight up the famous Skyline Gondola, leading you to the best place to feast on breathtaking views of the lake and mountains. At the top of the gondola, you are spoilt with choices for activities, from cultural activities, to the fun and exhilarating luge ride, to the more adventurous ledge bungy or mountain biking. There are also lots of pretty special dining opportunities up at Skyline Queenstown, so the fun doesn’t have to end when you get hungry.