If you’re spending some time familiarising yourself with South Island, you’ll want to make a trip to the Otago region. This is where you’ll find many of New Zealand’s top natural and cultural attractions. Take a look at 11 great reasons why everyone should visit the area at least once in their lifetimes.
British botanist and environmentalist David Bellamy famously described the Otago Peninsula as ‘the finest example of eco tourism in the world’. Sir David Attenborough has been quoted as saying Tairoa Head, where you’ll find colonies of yellow-eyed penguins as well as the Royal Albatross Centre, is ‘a place that every visitor to Dunedin should see’. If that’s not enough to draw you in, the city of Dunedin is often touted as the ‘wildlife capital’ of New Zealand — a title it earned for being so convenient to the Otago Peninsula’s abundant bird and marine life.
If you’ve had your sights set on Queenstown right from the get-go, you’ll know that it is the destination for New Zealand bound thrill-seekers. Besides being the place to introduce the world to commercial bungee jumping, the world’s largest rope swing and having some of the best ski resorts at its disposal, the ‘adventure capital’ — as it is affectionately known — is also within close range of other epic destinations like Wanaka and Fiordland National Park.
The Central Otago region is world renowned for its viticulture, particularly when it comes to the production of Pinot Noir varietals. Many wine tours take visitors across the area’s rich vineyards and wineries, but if you have a car handy, a self-guided trip from Queenstown might be worth adding to your itinerary. Wanaka, Bannockburn and the Gibbston Valley are some of the multiple sub-regions in which its wine producers are situated.
Home to the highest peak in the Otago region, Mt Aspiring National Park is New Zealand’s third largest national park, as well as being part of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area. It is home to some 59 recorded bird species, comprises some of the region’s largest glaciers and is composed of land masses largely created by years of intensive glaciation. People head to Mt Aspiring National Park to relish its abundant walking tracks, ski terrains and epic rock climbing and abseiling opportunities.
A great road trip is never too far away in the South Island. In the Otago region, you’ve got the route connecting Queenstown and Glenorchy, the Lindis Pass, the Haast Pass among several other roads and mountain passes connecting the region to other destinations that are known for their sublime landscapes and beauty.
Nestled amid the region’s greatest natural wonders are some of the most beautiful waterfalls you’ll ever see. The Catlins, for instance, is home to the tiered Purakanui Falls and the McLean Falls. On the Haast Pass-Makarora route, just outside of Mt Aspiring National Park, you’ve got the Thunder Falls — one of the first attractions you’ll discover as you enter the bridge that provides access to the Haast World Heritage Area.
Queenstown is surrounded by the brilliant Lake Wakatipu. Wanaka is named after its majestic lake, the fourth largest in New Zealand. The region also consists of Lake Hawea, along with Hayes, Onslow, Dunstan and the Blue Lake, to name a small handful. It’s fair to say you won’t be deprived of breathtaking waterways to admire on your visit.
The region’s geographic diversity is sure to captivate all nature enthusiasts. In the west, Otago is characterised by its soaring alpine mountains, glacially carved lakes and dramatic river flows. Heading east, you’ve got the Canterbury-Otago tussock grasslands, which includes the mountains of Central Otago, the Maniototo basin as well as the Mackenzie Basin on the Canterbury side. Venture south and you’ve got the rugged Catlins area which is characterised by a series of intriguing rock formations.
Dunedin’s Larnach Castle is one of the country’s most extravagant Gothic Revival mansions. It is one of only two castle buildings in New Zealand — the other, Cargill’s Castle, lies in ruins and is not accessible to the wider public. Built by prominent entrepreneur and politician William Larnach as a homestead for his family in the late 1800s, Larnach Castle has taken many lifeforms since its construction — including being used as a lunatic asylum and a nuns’ retreat — before being restored into a fully fledged tourist attraction.
The 1860s gold rush in the South Island melded much of the historic formation of the Central Otago region. To catch a glimpse of this interesting background and heritage, you needn’t look further than the lovely Arrowtown village and its surroundings. Keen cycling enthusiasts can also revel in the area’s rich historical origins by navigating the Otago Central Rail Trail, the first long-distance ride of the sort to be established in New Zealand.
The Otago region, particularly Dunedin, is known for having a strong Scottish connection. Its first settlers were members of the Free Church of Scotland, and this influence continues to resonate in daily life of present. You’ll see this heritage showcased in town names like Balclutha, Glenorchy and Mosgiel; you’ll find it in the name for the regional rugby team (The Highlanders) as well as local festivals and traditions — Dunedin itself has its own haggis ceremony and tartan.