The 10 Best Ecotourism Experiences in Otago, New Zealand

Otago Ecotourism Environments
Otago Ecotourism Environments | © Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr
Joe Coates

Back in the day Otago was famous for its Wild West-esque gold rush. These days people flock to this beautiful part of New Zealand for entirely different reasons. Rather than exploit the stunning surrounding country, tourists come in droves to experience and appreciate it. Here’s our guide to the best ecotourism experiences in this picturesque region.

1. Blue Penguins Pukekura

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Peaking out
© Julien Carnot / Flickr

The Korako Karetai Trust and the Otago Peninsula Trust agreed to establish a joint venture accord to manage the environmental, historical and amenity values of the area known as Takiharuru Pilots Beach at Pukekura Taiaroa Head, in 2008. Part of this accord is to help the Little Blue Penguin colony here to thrive. They’re really something to see, these little guys. Who doesn’t love a penguin? This particular species is actually the smallest species of penguin in existence. After a day at sea, the penguins congregate in groups known as “rafts” not far offshore, where they often can be heard vocalising – usually short, loud squawks. Blue Penguin viewing tours are at dusk when penguins come ashore and make their way to their nests where they feed their chicks or roost. It’s well worth venturing out to see these brilliant animals, and a day out on Harington Point will certainly give you an appetite for your dinner.

2. Royal Albatross Centre

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© Bernard Spragg / Flickr

Taiaroa Head, on the Otago Peninsula, truly is one of a kind. Not only is it home to an array of unique New Zealand wildlife it is also home to the Royal Albatross Centre – the world’s only mainland breeding colony for these remarkable bird species. The centre offers guided tours around the headland showcasing its history as well as bringing visitors up close to the nesting Royal Albatrosses (FYI, the breeding area is off-limits for self-guided tours), Stewart Island shags, fur seals, sea lions and penguin species that call this stretch of New Zealand coastline home.

3. Orokonui Ecosanctuary

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What a view
© Allison Brown / Flickr

Orokonui Ecosanctuary, called Te Korowai o Mihiwaka in Māori, is an ecological island wildlife reserve being developed by the Otago Natural History Trust in the Orokonui Valley near Waitati, New Zealand, 20 km to the north of central Dunedin. This is a forest where native plants and animals can live in the wild without threat from introduced pests, thanks to a predator fence that surrounds the 307-hectare reserve. It is home to some of New Zealand’s most fascinating and rare wildlife such as the endangered kiwi, kaka, takahe, robin and tuatara. Stand in the visitors centre and take in the impressive sweeping views before heading out, taking a tour and meeting some of the inhabitants of this truly impressive slice of wild NZ.

Otago, like the rest of New Zealand, is blessed with a veritable smorgasbord of walking tracks, hiking trails and climbs. There is something here for everyone to stretch their legs on, whether you’re a fitness fanatic, wanderer, keen mountaineer or simply looking for somewhere picturesque to walk the dog. Some notable tracks to keep your eyes peeled for are the Mount Cargill Walk, Swampy Ridge Track, McNally Walkway and, of course, the intriguingly named Pineapple to Flagstaff Walkway. Just taking a turn around the block in this part of the world can reward you with a vista that will leave your jaw swinging slack in a most disconcerting manner.

Skippers Canyon, Queenstown

4. Wanaka Bike Guides

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Off road

From beginners trying mountain biking for the first time to experts wanting the most challenging mountain biking on offer in Wanaka, the team at Wanaka Bike Guides will exert themselves to ensure you have the best day out possible. They’ll strive to get you the best photo opportunities throughout the day, and by the end of it you’ll be tired but oh so content. Ready for the best tasting meal or beer of your life! If mountain biking isn’t your jam then fear not, there are also some beautiful options when it comes to cycling the roads of this part of the Otago region.

5. Criffel Station Farm Tours

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Oh, deer
© Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr

Historic Criffel Station combines sustainable deer farming with tourism ventures, and also offers one of Wanaka’s most desirable event venues. It’s a lovely place for a wedding for sure, but what we love about it is the fact it encapsulates so much that makes New Zealand special. The views, scenery and landscapes are quite simply mind-boggling in their vastness and beauty. To take a tour around the property is to immerse yourself in a rugged way of life, in a place that will sear itself into your memories for ever. Also, of course, you get to see how a ecologically-minded farm operates. Criffel Station aims to provide a healthy and balanced ecosystem for the local people, land and animals, and preserve this exceptional high country environment. In a world that is increasingly turning from what is right to what is profitable, taking a tour around Criffel Station is an eye-opening experience as to what a sustainable and responsible farming operation should be.

6. Elm Wildlife Tours

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© Holiday Photos / Flickr

Elm Wildlife Tours is perhaps the most reputable company of its kind in the Otago region. They have a few tour options for prospective customers to choose from. Their most popular tour – Peninsula Encounters – is a scheduled daily wildlife tour around the Otago Peninsula, including a trip to their private penguin, fur seal and sea lion conservation area, with options to join an albatross breeding area tour or a one-hour cruise. Our favourite aspect of this company though is their commitment to carbon neutrality. To offset the carbon emissions of their tours, from the winters of 1992 until 1996 they planted an 11-hectare forest. Now, that’s the kiwi way.

7. Shark Dive NZ

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© Elias Levy / Flickr

If you want an ecotourism experience that will leave you changed, not just in the way that you, perhaps, view sharks, but fundamentally as well, then you really can’t go past cage diving with a great white shark. The experience of being out of your element, with an apex predator and only separated from that animal by a few inches of strengthened steel … that really puts things in perspective. With unrivaled experience and strong commitment to diver safety – combined with consideration for the sharks themselves – your trip will be unforgettable. Being underwater with these incredible, majestic hunters is mesmerizing and you’ll walk away feeling humbled to have shared the water with them. This is genuinely life-changing.

8. Southern Guides

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Hike Wanaka
© Esmee Winnubst / Flickr
Wanaka is one hell of a backyard. When it comes to outdoor activities and eco-experiences it might very well be the hotspot of the Otago region. Southern Guides is a great company to check out, as they have their fingers in all the pies that outdoorsy folk could wish to taste. All of our guides are long-term Wanaka residents, who have abundant enthusiasm for the area they live in, and love sharing that with their guests. Whether you’re into hiking, a mountain bike nut or want to head off-piste during the ski season there are plenty of options to get out and about through Southern Guides.

9. Ben Lomond Horse Treks

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© Donnie Ray Jones / Flickr

It’s impossible not to imagine yourself setting out on some Tolkien-esque saga when you mount your horse and set out on the trek that you’ve chosen. The great thing about horseback riding is that it’s a novelty to most people, but still enables you to soak in the surroundings in a way you can’t in a car or bus. You’re very much part of the landscape on a horse, and the fact you’re travelling in a way that is traditional, adds to the pleasure. The shortest trek takes you on a 1.5-hour wander through the beautiful valley of the Ben Lomond Station. For a more adventurous ride you can choose to climb the mountains up to 200 meters above the valley floor, and make your way back through historical gold mining country. This experience really can’t be beat on a crisp autumn day.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


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