Tucked just below Dunedin on the South Island’s lower east coast, the Clutha region is a nature lover’s wonderland – all dramatic coastlines, dense native forest, tumbling farmland and scenic waterfalls. It’s also considered somewhat of an under-the-radar destination.

Many travellers take what’s known in ski tourism as the Powder Highway from Christchurch to Queenstown – encountering Mount Hutt, the McKenzie ski areas and Mount Cook before finishing up at Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Cardrona and Treble Cone. If you’re after a different but no less memorable adventure, Clutha has an unspoiled feel that allows you to experience the South Island at its most rugged and untamed – without the crowds, and no skis required.

Between Dunedin and the Catlins (a picturesque area with many forests, walks and surf beaches), a 10-minute drive off the Southern Scenic Route leads to Cascade Creek Retreat. It’s a secluded, rustic and comfortable log cabin that is perched on a plateau in the middle of a 2000-hectare working sheep and beef farm. This is an off-grid experience, powered completely by solar and hydropower – and there’s no cell phone coverage, internet or television, so you can really switch off. Enjoy the outdoor baths (there are two) without worrying about the neighbours, as the nearest people are kilometres away.

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Mohua Park Catlins Eco Accommodation is run by high-school sweethearts Tracy and Mike Bell. Their four cottages overlook farmland in the heart of the Catlins, and are environmentally conscious from the eco body wash in the bathrooms to the rainwater running from the taps. Each cottage is also comfortable and modern, with amenities such as air-con and heating, free unlimited wi-fi, catering options and private balconies.

Brooklands has all of the charms of a classic country farmhouse. The exposed wood interior and bright garden are homey, there are three bedrooms, and a host of amenities. It’s only 10 minutes from the heritage-rich town of Lawrence, meaning there’s plenty to explore on and off the property after a morning spent on the sun-drenched veranda.

See and do
There is no shortage of wildlife and nature to explore. Take it at your own pace, or follow the locals' lead at Earthlore Nature Tours or Catlins Horse Riding.

Standing on the platform next to Nugget Point Lighthouse, you will witness some of the most dramatic seascapes in Aotearoa. Pods of Hector’s dolphins might cruise by in the surf. If you look closely, between the famous “nugget” rocks (so named by Captain Cook because they look like pieces of gold) you might spot elephant seals clambering onto the shore. A short descent from the lighthouse leads to Roaring Bay. If you arrive at sunrise or sunset, you will have the best chance to spy on one of the world’s rarest penguin breeds – the Hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins.

Continue your journey south to Surat Bay, find a spot to perch in the dunes and quietly observe the large colony of the Whakahoro (New Zealand sea lions) dozing on the beach. An hours’ drive even further south, go for a wander through Cathedral Caves which were formed by the waves over millions of years. The popular attraction (accessible at low tide only between late October and May) is one of the world’s largest sea cave complexes, spanning 200 metres long and 30 metres high. Get there via a stroll from the carpark through native rainforest to the beach; a small charge applies for upkeep of the carpark, toilets and access.

For more world-class natural phenomena, visit Mclean Falls. The cascading waterfall reaches 22 metres and is framed by dark green mossy rocks and thick bush, where you can listen to native birds calling from the trees. Another of the many impressive waterfalls hidden in the Catlins, Pūrākaunui Falls must feature on your itinerary. The triple-tiered cascade is said to be one of New Zealand’s most photographed sights – and you’ll see why once you admire the water rushing over the three levels among the native forest.

If you want to leave the car behind, hire a bike to explore the Catlins close-up via the Clutha Gold cycling and walking trail. You will follow the powerful Mata-au Clutha River through rugged and varied landscape, which is filled with gold-mining history. Enjoy the changing scenery as you cruise through a secluded gorge before popping out into green farmland.

Eat and drink
Founded by husband-and-wife team Nicole and Tom Peake in late 2021, Peake’s Kitchen is a gourmet food truck in Papatowai that will fill the gap after a day spent roaming. The Peakes also own the Papatowai Country Store, and their food truck is parked just behind the main building. Fill up on seasonal specials like this summer’s BLT burger: a fluffy bun loaded with the team’s hand-ground steak patties, bacon and locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Make sure you leave room for a three-scoop sundae with candy sprinkles or a 1950s-style thickshake topped with a cherry. It’s also a great spot to bring the family – kids can entertain themselves at the free-to-play arcade machine inside while you finish off your dessert (or you can have a game yourself).

Head to The Lost Gypsy for a quirky stop on your Clutha trip. Founded by artist Blair Somerville and run with his partner Sandra van der Sommen, it’s an offbeat gallery inside a house bus where you can admire and interact with Somerville’s clever gadgets and gizmos. On the same site, you can order a flat white from Little Rocket coffee caravan, run by Carol Geissler who serves fresh baking such as Belgium biscuits and muffins packed with rhubarb and apples picked from her garden.

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