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10 Best Things To Do In Curio Bay | The Catlins, New Zealand

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Home » Blog » Oceania » New Zealand » South Island » The Catlins » 10 Best Things To Do In Curio Bay | The Catlins, New Zealand

This post is a guide to the best things to do in Curio Bay, located along the Catlins coast in the South Island, New Zealand.

Curio Bay is a gem located in the rugged beauty of the Catlins on New Zealand’s South Island. I adored my visit to Curio Bay and I have great memories from my visit.

Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay are full of interesting things to see and do, including a fossilised forest and an opportunity to swim in the wild with New Zealand’s rarest endemic dolphins!

In this complete guide, we explain the best things to do in Curio Bay and the local area.

Guide & Best Things To Do In Curio Bay

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About Curio Bay

Curio Bay is the name of a small settlement on the South Coast of the South Island. It is predominantly a tourist spot that is popular for holidays and camping. It is located off the Southern Scenic Route and is considered part of The Catlins region of the South Island.

The actual Curio Bay itself is very small, rocky and wild. The neighbouring Porpoise Bay is much bigger and is a gorgeous, wide sandy beach. The Headland and the Curio Bay Cliffs help to shelter Porpoise Bay, which creates a beautiful beach for walking, swimming, surfing and wildlife.

Getting To Curio Bay

Curio Bay is a remote location on the South Coast of the South Island. There are unfortunately no public transport services, such as trains or buses, that currently go to Curio Bay. Therefore you will need to self-drive.

Luckily, there are heaps of incredible places to visit along the way. Driving in the Catlins makes for an incredible road trip due to the scenery, places to stop and things to do.

Curio Bay Map

Below is a Google Map showing Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay.

Directions & Travel Tips

The closest cities and major towns in the South Island between Curio Bay are Invercargill to the west and Dunedin to the east.

Dunedin to Curio Bay is around 179 km / 2.5 hours drive via the Southern Scenic Route.

Invercargill to Curio Bay is around 87 km / 1-hour drive via the Southern Scenic Route.

Tip: Fill up on food and fuel before you go. Curio Bay is a remote place and there are very few facilities in the local area. The nearest fuel stations are GAS Tokanui and McKeown Papatowai. The biggest supermarkets (Countdown, New World, Pak’n Save) closest to Curio Bay are located in Invercargill.

Scenic Route Stops From Invercargill To Curio Bay

For an even more scenic route from Invercargill, take the road from Fortrose through Otara and Haldane that leads to Curio Bay. There are many interesting stops along this route including:

  • The Cliffs at Fortrose & the Mataura River Mouth – a scenic stop with views across the sea and estuary. There is also a freedom camping ground located here.
  • Waipapa Point Lighthouse & Windswept Trees – Historic red and white lighthouse from 1884. Nearby are seals and a sea lion colony. The trees of Waipapa Point are twisted and windswept and located on the remains of an old settlement. A public toilet is located here.
  • Slope Point & Windswept Trees – The southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. A great photo stop and an opportunity to see more windswept trees.
  • Haldane Bay – Picnic stop by the estuary that is also a freedom camping site. A public toilet is located here.
  • Waipohatu Waterfalls & Forest Walk – Walking tracks through native bush and rainforest that lead to waterfalls. There is a car park and picnic area and a public toilet.
waipapa point lighthouse - white lighthouse on the right with a view of the dunes and the sea behind, with a blue sky
Waipapa Point Lighthouse – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

The Best Things To Do In Curio Bay – Discovering Curio Bay’s Natural Wonders

1. Curio Bay Petrified Forest

A petrified forest is where wood has turned into stone and become fossilised. It happens when the wood is buried in water or volcanic ash.

Curio Bay is well known for its petrified forest. The fossilised forest is located on the rocks of the bay. There are tree stumps and logs that are exposed at low tide. The forest was alive around 180 million years ago.

The petrified forest is one of the major attractions in The Catlins and has around 100,000 visitors per year.

How To See Curio Bay Petrified Forest (Petrified Forest Walk & Viewing Platform)

petrified forest viewing platform at curio bay in the catlins new zealand
Petrified Forest at Curio Bay – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

To see the Petrified Forest at Curio Bay, go to the viewing platform above the bay at low tide. 

The path that leads to the viewing platform overlooking the forest is called the Petrified Forest Walk. It is a DOC-managed track. The track is easy and is only 150 m, taking just 10 minutes out and back. It is accessible for wheelchair users and prams. There are signs at the viewing platform which explain the history and significance of the petrified forest.

When I visited it was not possible to go down the steps onto the rocky bay as it was closed for conservation and protection. If it is open when you visit, please do not damage or remove any fossils.

For me, it was fascinating to see the fossilised trees at Curio Bay because it was the first time I had seen petrified wood.

Tip: No drones are allowed to fly above the fossil forest.

sign at the petrified forest, curio bay. it says "in a time before birds and flowering plants existed, a lush forest grew here"
Sign at the Petrified Forest viewing platform – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World
interpretative sign at the fossilised forest in curio bay. it says "years of pounding by the sea have worn away soil to reveal fossilised trees"
Sign at the Petrified Forest, Curio Bay – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

2. Curio Bay Living Forest

Inland from the Petrified Forest is the Living Forest. The Living Forest is a small area of bush that gives visitors an idea of what the petrified forest used to look like.

There is a small walkway that loops around the living forest. You will be able to see trees and birdlife in the Living Forest. It is an easy and enjoyable short walk that takes about 30 minutes max to complete.

I had a nice experience in the Living Forest as it is in contrast to the Petrified Forest. It is worth taking a look at one after the other.

sign at the living forest in curio bay, new zealand - it says "a walk back in time - this may well be the only site in the world where a living forest lies so close to an exposed petrified forest. the trees in this forest are likely direct descendants of the trees in the petrified forest across the road, which dates back to the jurassic period"
Sign at the Living Forest, Curio Bay – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Curio Bay & Porpoise Bay Wildlife

Curio Bay is an excellent place to see New Zealand’s wildlife. There are endemic species that call Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay home and there is a high chance that you will see wildlife while in the area.

Tips For Viewing Wildlife Responsibly

It is a magical experience to be able to see rare creatures naturally in the wild. To fully embrace the experience you need to take a responsible approach to viewing wildlife.

Here are my top tips:

  • Do not approach the wildlife.
  • Keep your distance and stay at least 10 metres away from wildlife (two car lengths).
  • Taking a zoom lens camera will allow you to get great photos of the wildlife from a distance.
  • Remain calm and quiet.
  • Do not block the path of animals, particularly between the sea, beach and nesting sites.
porpoise bay, the catlins, new zealand
Porpoise Bay, The Catlins – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

3. Penguin Spotting In Curio Bay

Yellow-eyed Penguins (Maori: Hoiho) can be seen in Curio Bay. They are a threatened species of penguin and so there are many conservation efforts to try to protect their habitat and bring their numbers up. The Yellow-eyed Penguins can only be found in the Southern areas of New Zealand. They are the rarest penguin in the world.

Did you know?: The Yellow-eyed penguin appears on the New Zealand $5 note!

You may also see Little Blue penguins (Maori: Korora) in The Catlins. The Little penguins can be found on both New Zealand’s islands so they are not unique to this region of New Zealand.

How To See Yellow-Eyed Penguins In Curio Bay

To see them you will have to be very patient.

There is a short sealed track (Penguin Walk – DOC website) that leads from the car park to a viewing platform located above the beach. Along the fenced penguin walkway through the nesting site, there are viewing windows alongside the path. Once you reach the platform, this is where you can sit and wait. The track is wheelchair/pram accessible.

The best time to see the Yellow-eyed penguins is during the early morning or late afternoon/sunset.

Unfortunately, despite my attempts, I was not lucky enough to see a Yellow-eyed Penguin during my visit to Curio Bay! Speaking to other tourists in the area at the time, it is possible to see them but you may need to wait for many hours!

My tips, if you are going to wait for the penguins, are:

  • Taking binoculars will help you to find penguins on the beach as they can be very well camouflaged!
  • Wear long-sleeved clothes and covered shoes to protect you from the sandflies. You may also want to consider a head net!
  • Take snacks and drinks.
yellow eyed penguin colony viewpoint at the catlins, new zealand
Yellow-Eyed Penguin viewing area at Curio Bay in The Catlins, New Zealand – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Viewing Penguins Responsibly

 If you spot a penguin then do not block the path of the penguins between their nesting sites and the sea. Penguins are very shy creatures and are easily frightened. If they get scared they may go back into the sea and therefore the babies waiting in the nest will not get the food they need to grow.

There are viewing platforms and hides where you can sit and wait for the penguins. Remember it is best to stay quiet when waiting and take photographs from a distance.

4. Dolphin, Seal & Wildlife Sightings In Porpoise Bay

Hector’s Dolphins (Maori: Papakanua) are unique to New Zealand and they are the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin.

Hector’s Dolphins are considered endangered, but luckily it is very common and easy to see Hector’s Dolphins in the bay next to Curio Bay called Porpoise Bay.

They have black facial markings and a dorsal fin that has a rounded shape. They like to live within shallow coastal waters which makes Porpoise Bay the perfect place for them.

You may also encounter seals and New Zealand sea lions (Maori: Whakahao) at Curio Bay. Seals will most likely be at Curio Bay or on the Headland lying around on the rocks.

Occasionally, Southern right whales can be seen offshore.

It is probable that above all other wildlife, you will most likely see dolphins and seals during your visit to Curio Bay.

fiachra swimming with a hector's dolphin riding a wave
Fiachra in Porpoise Bay with a Hector’s Dolphin riding on a wave, and another dolphin’s dorsal fin visible in the background – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

How To See Dolphins & Seals In Porpoise Bay & Curio Bay

It is easy to see Hector’s Dolphins in Porpoise Bay. They are usually visible in the summer months but you can see them all year round.

The best spots to observe wildlife like dolphins and seals are on the beach, at the CurioScape campsite, at the beach car park or by heading up the Headland for an elevated viewing point. From these spots, you will have an excellent view across the bay and a high chance of seeing the wildlife.

Keep away from seals and sea lions because they can become aggressive. Do not stand between the animal and the sea as they do not like their paths blocked.

view of porpoise bay from the curio bay headland
View of Porpoise Bay from the Curio Bay Headland – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World
rocky view from the curio bay headland, with hills in the distance. birds can be seen on the rocks, and the waves going over the rocks.
View from The Headland at Curio Bay – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Water Activities In Curio Bay

5. Swimming & Surfing In Porpoise Bay

The neighbouring Porpoise Bay is an excellent surfing and swimming beach. The waters are safe and clean.

Beginners and advanced surfers can have fun riding the waves here.

For the more cautious swimmers (like myself) the waves may be too big on a windy day. In that case, enjoy relaxing on the sandy beach and spotting the dolphins enjoying the waves!

fiachra smiling and enjoying riding a body board in new zealand at curio bay
Fiachra enjoying body boarding at Curio Bay in New Zealand – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Surf Rental Options & Surf Schools In Curio Bay

Catlin’s Surfing School is located beside the beach at the Curio Bay Campground. They offer surf, stand-up paddle board and body board equipment hire. They also run surf lessons. Catlins Surf is open during the summer from November – April.

Swimming With Hector’s Dolphins In Porpoise Bay

If you are swimming in Porpoise Bay then it is likely that Hector’s dolphins will come and check you out. There is a large pod of dolphins living in Porpoise Bay and they are very curious about humans. Curio Bay is one of the rare places in the world where you have a high chance to swim with dolphins in the wild very easily without joining a tour.

If you see dolphins swimming in the bay, then the guidance is to enter the sea 50 metres away from the dolphins. Never approach a dolphin directly and let them come to you. If they approach you, do not touch them.

Swimming with dolphins at Curio Bay was one of my most memorable experiences in New Zealand!

fiachra body boarding in porpoise bay, curio bay new zealand
Fiachra body boarding in Porpoise Bay – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Snorkelling In Porpoise Bay

Snorkelling is not recommended at Porpoise Bay or Curio Bay but you may want to take a mask and snorkel so you can see the dolphins under the water.

Exploring Nearby Attractions From Curio Bay

6. Waikawa & Districts Museum & Information Centre

A lovely place to stop and learn about the local history of the area is at the Waikawa Districts Museum and Information Centre. The museum is open Friday – Monday 10 am – 5 pm.

You can see old farm machinery and equipment and a photograph collection inside. Outside, there are fossilised tree stumps on display which I found fascinating! There is also the old Jailhouse.

It is free to visit. From Curio Bay, it is a 6 km / 6-minute drive to Waikawa Museum.

waikawa district museum the catlins new zealand
Waikawa District Museum, The Catlins – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World
fiachra at the waikawa district museum outside with lots of flowers, colonial style sheds and a hand painted sign saying 'petrified wood'
Petrified Wood on display at the Waikawa District Museum in The Catlins – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World
petrified wood log surrounded by daffodils out the waikawa museum in curio bay
Petrified wood log outside Waikawa Museum – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World
waikawa museum colonial jail house - red and white building, with a flowered garden in front and a blue sky behind
Waikawa Jail – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

7. Slope Point

Slope Point is the southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. At the location, there is a signpost that shows the distance to the Equator and to the South Pole.

Visiting Slope Point is a quick and fun activity and photo opportunity – check out our photo from our visit to Slope Point below!

lauren and fiachra standing at the slope point sign, showing the distance to the equator 5140 km and the south pole 4803 km
Lauren and Fiachra at Slope Point, the most southernly point in New Zealand – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

The yellow sign is located at the end of farmland high on a cliff above the sea.

Due to being farmland, there is no public access during the lambing season from September – November.

From the large car park, it is a 20-minute walk to the signpost.

Dogs are not allowed at Slope Point due to the livestock on the farmland.

From Curio Bay to Slope Point, it is a 14 km / 17-minute drive.

crooked and twisted windswept trees, with white branches and dark green leaves, in a golden field with a blue sky - located at slope point, south island, new zealand
Windswept trees at Slope Point – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Windswept Trees At Slope Point

Nearby to Slope Point are trees that have been shaped by the wind. The windswept trees are bent over and crooked, as they have grown in exposed, coastal conditions that have persistent and strong winds! The trees are very unusual and I liked seeing them. You can see them from the car park and road.


A short drive from Curio Bay there are different waterfalls to visit. Here are the closest and most popular waterfalls to visit nearby Curio Bay.

8. Niagara Falls

Visit the Niagara Falls of New Zealand! And prepare to be completely… unimpressed.

A local settlement named Niagara lies around 10 km north of Curio Bay. Along the Waikawa River, there is a very small waterfall that has ironically been named Niagara Falls.

The falls are located just off the main road so they make an easily accessible and quick stop for a photo and fresh air.

Niagara Falls is around a 10-minute drive from Curio Bay. I enjoyed my stop here just for the amusement of saying I have visited Niagara Falls!

sign for the niagara falls (nz) with the river and bush behind
Niagara Falls (New Zealand) – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

9. Koropuku Falls

Around 20 km / 20-minute drive from Curio Bay is the starting point to the Koropuku Falls track. The trail leads to a small waterfall in the rainforest.

The trail is not long, about 0.6 km out and back, but due to the terrain, it is considered challenging. After heavy rain, the path can be very muddy.

Unlike many trails in New Zealand, the track is not maintained by the DOC. Therefore it is not signposted in the same way but you should be able to follow the path as it is well-travelled. 

Parking for the Koropuku Falls is alongside the highway so take care.

10. Waipohatu Waterfalls

A 14-minute drive / 10 km from Curio Bay is the Waipohatu Waterfall track. The track to the waterfall can be combined with a shorter DOC signposted Forest Walk that is about 30 minutes (suitable for wheelchair users).

The Forest Walk winds through native bushland and crosses the Waipohatu Stream. To continue to the Waipohatu Waterfalls, follow the 6.5 km loop track (orange markers). The track climbs through the forest to the waterfalls – Waipohatu Falls, Pouriwai Falls and Punehu Falls. The trail crosses bridges and then leads back down back to the picnic area at the start.

The track is muddy and slippery, particularly after rain, so you need good walking boots.

The route is considered challenging and takes around 3 hours to complete in total.

Dogs are allowed at Waipohatu Waterfall track on a lead.

I didn’t have time to visit Koropuku Falls or Waipohatu Waterfalls during my visit to The Catlins but it is something I would have liked to have done! If you get a chance to go there, why not contact me and let me know how it was.

curio bay and porpoise bay beach, the catlins, new zealand
Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay Beach – Ⓒ Wild Lovely World

Where To Stay & Eat In Curio Bay

Finding the perfect place to stay is essential to a great experience. I have written a blog post about the best accommodation in Curio Bay giving you the options for the best campsites, self-catering units and holiday apartments. Read that post here: 5 Best Accommodation In Curio Bay | The Catlins, New Zealand

There are a few options for eating out in and nearby Curio Bay. These are:

4 Tips For A Memorable Visit To Curio Bay

1. Best Times To Visit

  • It is best to visit Curio Bay during the shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) for fewer crowds and milder weather.
  • In the summer, Curio Bay is incredibly popular for summer camping and beach holidays.
  • There are also a lot of sandflies in the area and they are worse in the summer.

2. Packing Essentials

  • Pack layers to prepare for New Zealand’s changeable climate. A waterproof jacket and sturdy walking shoes always come in handy.
  • Don’t forget your swimming gear to make the most of the gorgeous beach. If you enjoy the surf, take your surf, SUP or bodyboard.
  • Take a camera with a powerful zoom lens if you want to be able to take great photographs of wildlife.
  • You’ll be glad if you remember to pack insect repellent as the sandflies are out in force!

3. Fill Up On Food & Fuel Before You Go

  • Curio Bay is a remote place and there are very few facilities in the local area.
  • Fill up on fuel before you go – the nearest fuel stations are GAS Tokanui and McKeown Papatowai.
  • If you plan on going for a few days, you will need to stock up on food and drink supplies as well.
  • The biggest supermarkets (Countdown, New World, Pak’n Save) closest to Curio Bay are located in Invercargill. There is a Four Square supermarket in Owaka, around a 69 km / 1 hour drive from Curio Bay.

4. Respect Conservation & Responsible Tourism

  • Respect the endemic wildlife that calls Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay home.
  • Follow guidelines for responsible tourism to minimise your impact on the environment.
  • Recycle your rubbish and do not dump waste into natural waterways.
  • When viewing penguins, stay behind the barriers and adhere to the signs.
  • If dolphins want to swim with you, don’t chase after them or touch them.
  • Leave fossils where you find them.
  • Dogs are not permitted in Curio Bay to protect wildlife, so leave dogs are home.

Let’s preserve Curio Bay’s natural beauty for generations to come!

Guide & Best Things To Do In Curio Bay, The Catlins – Thanks For Reading!

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Lauren is a coffee and cat obsessed travel writer from the U.K., specialising in solo female, couple travel and budget backpacking. She has previously lived in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, England and Scotland. Follow her adventures around the world on her blog

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