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Road Trip New Zealand: Go Central Otago & Clutha

If you had to name 20 New Zealand places in 60 seconds, Clutha may not make it into your answer. Nor Central Otago, Cromwell or Naseby or Lawrence for that matter. However! We're here to tell you that these lower South Island local towns are as worthy of space in your hippocampus as Auckland, Queenstown and Nelson. Here's why.

If you had to name 20 New Zealand places in 60 seconds, Clutha may not make it into your answer. Nor Central Otago, Cromwell or Naseby or Lawrence for that matter. However! We’re here to tell you that these lower South Island local towns are as worthy of space in your hippocampus as Auckland, Queenstown and Nelson. Here’s why.

Get ready for some pure South Island adventures in Central Otago and Clutha – far away from the stresses and strains of everyday life amongst one of the world’s most spectacular and untouched regions.

Ready to set off? Let’s go.

7-Day, 457 km Ultimate Clutha Getaway

Many travellers rush through the Clutha district. We recommend, instead, the Ultimate Clutha Getaway. Our way, you get to see the best historical attractions, expansive scenic wonders, and learn a thing or two from the locals (they love a good yarn).

Kick off your road trip from Queenstown to historic Clyde, an hour east. Clyde is at the foot of a river gorge, with craggy rocks and rolling hills forming an enticing natural setting. In the late 1800s, gold rush settlers thought Clyde was enticing, too. The gold you’ll strike these days is in its mellow cafes, historic buildings, and quaint boutiques.

Next, rent a bicycle and cycle the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold Trails. Both give you great insights into the region’s pioneer history with a backdrop of the incredible scenery.

The Clutha Gold Trail is a unique heritage cycling and walking experience along the mighty Clutha Mata-au River in Central Otago. Image credit: James Jubb / Tourism Central Otago

Lawrence is next, the site of the world’s largest and fastest gold rush. Spend time exploring the historical gems, including Anthem House, where New Zealand’s national anthem was composed. Continue and ride the free ferry at Tuapeka Mouth, once the inland port for paddle steamers.

Head to the Catlins coast from here. Don’t miss Kaka Point, nor Nugget Point and its lighthouse. Witness broad sandy beaches, outstanding views, and even a chance to see the rare yellow-eyed penguins at Roaring Bay.

Continue through the Catlins, stopping at Owaka and Papatowai. Owaka’s population stands around 400, so you’re not here for the buzz of the crowds. Instead, the lush rainforest, white sandy beaches, and picturesque lake create a different sort of buzz. Papatowai woos with penguins, sea lions, and warbling birds. From here, it’s under two hours to reach Invercargill.

We’ve travelled from Queenstown to Invercargill; feel free to reverse! For a more detailed itinerary, head here.

Tuapeka Punt. Image credit: Clutha
The Punt at Tuapeka Mouth is the only one of its kind in New Zealand (and the Southern Hemisphere)

4-Day, 341 km Central Otago Touring Route

This beaut of a road trip takes you from Ōtepoti Dunedin through Central Otago’s lush landscape to the foot of the Southern Alps. Central Otago is as swoon-worthy as a Hollywood heartthrob. Wooing with character settlements like Middlemarch and Clyde and tempting with the devilish good looks of towns like Cromwell and Alexandra.

Depart Dunedin for Middlemarch, where the Rock and Pillar Range awaits. Next, check out the gold mining history of Clyde before taking a short drive to Alexandra, where you can walk or bike the gold miners’ trails. Explore Cromwell, Arrowtown, Naseby before reaching the country’s adventure capital, Queenstown.

Pay attention to the vineyards you pass on your journey through Central Otago. It’s practically a selfless act to visit the regional cellar doors, as it’s “good for tourism” (and your tastebuds, ahem). Any excuse!

Famous for being one of the world's southernmost vineyards and wineries, Black Ridge is also one of the first vine growers in the Central Otago region
Famous for being one of the world’s southernmost vineyards and wineries, Black Ridge is also one of the first vine growers in the Central Otago region.

If you’re looking for a rad road trip, make a full loop of the lower South Island. How? Combine this itinerary with the Southern Scenic Route (we were just raving about it here).

Top 5 Things to Do in the Region

Curious about the top things you can add to your Clutha and Central Otago itineraries? Good, because there is a lot to entice.

  • Forget what TLC said, do go chasing waterfalls, especially if you’re travelling in the Catlins. It‘s practically waterfall central through here. Purakaunui Falls and McLean Falls are our picks. Add in Jack’s Blowhole while you’re here, too.
  • The Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell has more speed than Keanu Reeves driving that bus. Go-karts get your heart racing, but the laps in Ferrari’s and Porsche GT3’s see them soar. There are classic motors at their museum, plus a cool sculpture park, too.

Get Inspired

You may not only want to take a vacay to Clutha after watching this video, but you may also be ready to up-sticks and move there! Warm and fuzzies all around.

This Central Otago touring route vid is no less inspiring. The excitement builds as you picture yourself exploring, eating, biking, relaxing along with Central Otago’s top attractions.

Driving in Clutha & Central Otago

NEUX Bar & Kitchen, Kaka Point brings people together to enjoy great food. Image credit: Jason Beacham
NEUX Bar & Kitchen, Kaka Point, brings people together to enjoy great food. Image credit: Jason Beacham

Driving around Clutha is a breeze. Reaching it via the Southern Scenic Route is most popular, but you can also take the Goldfields Heritage Trails.

As the name suggests, Central Otago is central, so there are plenty of routes to get you there, wherever you’re coming from.

Though a little more mountainous, Aussie drivers adapt easily to NZ roads. During the winter months, the roads can get icy or even snowbound. Some roads (especially side roads in the Catlins) can be gravel, so check your rental car company on what’s permitted.

If you’re renting an EV, you’re in luck. There are charging stations at key locations across the region.

Get the Road Trip Playlist

Mondillo VIneyards create award winning wines from Pinot Noir and Riesling grapes
Mondillo Vineyards create award-winning wines from Pinot Noir and Riesling grapes.

Can you imagine watching a movie without a soundtrack? Music helps us make memories, and retrieve them later, so we asked our Clutha peeps what tunes best represented the destination. Totes makes sense that Coldplay’s Paradise is on there, and we love Six60’s Don’t Forget Your Roots. Start your Clutha earworm journey here.

Central Otago’s Spotify tracklist is as stimulating. Click play below to see what we mean.

We had a chuckle as we imagined ourselves on the Central Otago Rail Trail singing along to Queen’s Bicycle Race. And by singing, we mean belting it out across the expansive landscape.

Travel Advisor? Gain Access to the Marketing Hub Toolkit Here

Itching for the 12th of August to get here so you can fill up Clutha and Central Otago facts? It reminds us of the first time we experienced a 5-star hotel buffet and crammed our faces with delectable treats. Only this time, it’s impressive facts, stats, and teasing images of our neighbour’s backyard.

Plus, if you attend, you’ll be in with the chance to win great incentive prizes each session, including regional gift baskets and flights to New Zealand for your own hands-on famil.

Were you that kid that snuck a peek in their Christmas presents before Santa came? No judgement here (ahem, that would be hypocritical), but you’ll love that you can take swot up early on the Tourism New Zealand Marketing Hub. Particularly great if you’re keen to have all your questions answered by our fabulous hosts on 12th August.

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