CURIO BAY & Petrified Forest in The Catlins – Complete Guide

Curio Bay is a stunning wild coastline in the Catlins with spectacular scenery. It’s a beautiful place for a beach day, but also to spot wildlife such as the rare yellow eyed penguin and Hector dolphins that play in the surf. And besides that you can also see a fossil forest that dates back to the Jurassic period. This awe-inspiring petrified forest is about 180 million years old and truly mesmerising to see with your own eyes. But there are a few things you should know before you go to get the best views of the petrified forest and a chance to see the penguins. Read in this complete guide all you need to know about Curio Bay, it’s petrified forest and the best way to spot the yellow eyed penguins! 

How to get to Curio bay  

Curio Bay is located in the southern Catlins region and is signposted from the Southern Scenic Route. The best way to explore the Catlins is by rental car so you can drive via Otara with the option of stopping at Waipapa Point and Slope point (New Zealand’s most southern point), or go via the more direct route through Tokanui and Waikawa. There is plenty of parking space so you can explore the stunning coastline. 


Best time to visit Curio bay  

The best time to visit Curio Bay area is really dependent on what you’re aiming to see. To just enjoy the beach of course any time of the day is great as long as it’s not raining. But to see the yellow eyed penguins, Hector dolphins or petrified forest, you’ll need to do a bit more upfront planning. 

The tree stumps of the petrified forest are only visible at low tide so you’ll need to check the tides to make sure you’re able to see the fossil forests. 

The yellow eyed penguins on the other hand are mostly visible from 5PM until dark and the Hector dolphins are playing in the surf in summer. 


Things to see at Curio bay  

Once you’ve arrived at Curio Bay you will see the stunning, rugged coastline of New Zealands Southland. You can drive all the way to the headland or park your car at Tumu Toka CurioScape cafe from where you can explore the coastline by foot. On the information panels you can exactly see where to go for the points of interest. Take your time to enjoy this stunning part of the Catlins and find here below what you have to see! 


See the petrified forest

Curio Bay’s Jurassic petrified forest is one of the world’s finest fossil forests, dating back about 180 million years. It’s super interesting to see how this old wood has turned into stone overtime. The cause were floods because most of what New Zealand is these days, was still lay beneath the sea at that time. So the logs, mostly from ancient conifers, were buried by volcanic debris and mud flows. Gradually over the last 10,000 years, as New Zealand’s current coast line has been formed, they were replaced by silica to produce the fossils which are now exposed and can be seen on the tree stumps at low tide. 


You can walk along the fossil forest but of course make sure to not take anything and respect this geological site. The Living Forest walkway is closely located to the petrified forest so you can see how it may have looked millions years ago. 


Spot the Yellow eyed penguins 

The Yellow eyed penguins are the rarest penguin in the world and only breeds on the south-east coast of New Zealand. They are the fourth largest penguin in the world standing at 65 cm and weighing around 5 kg. You can observe the penguins from the viewing platform as close contact with them is forbidden. They can get very stressed if humans are getting to close, so respect their natural habitat and keep plenty of distance. 


Relax at Porpoise bay

Porpoise bay is the stunning beach that stretches from the Curio Bay Cliffs until the next headland. The beach offers many opportunities for coastal fun and relaxation. It’s a stunning beach to have a walk, read a book or swim in the calm water.


See Hector dolphins 

Hector dolphins are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world and can often be found in Porpoise bay feeding, resting and socializing during the summer. Commercial dolphin watching tours are no longer available in Porpoise Bay, however the dolphins can often be seen from the beach. 

If the Hector dolphins are in the sea, swimmers should enter the water at least 50 meters away from the dolphins to limit the disturbance. Let any interaction be on their terms and of course don’t give the dolphins food! 


Best tours on the South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is full of adventure, stunning scenery and fun experiences to be made. There are few experiences which are an absolute must when you’re traveling New Zealand’s South Island. Below a summary of the best tours you can book.

Check here the best New Zealand South Island tours on GetYourGuide

Check here the best New Zealand South Island tours on Viator

Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak tour

Depart during a morning cruise on a smaller boat that travels outside of peak hours. This will give you prime viewing and more time on the water than other tours. You will listen to the informative commentary from the passionate skippers of Southern Discoveries and enjoy a provided picnic lunch. If you want to, you can include a kayak excursion and paddle Harrison Cove in a small-group. Limited to 8 people you will have a very intimate experience to really take in the immense scale of the bluffs and explore Milford Sound in a unique way.

→ Book here your Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak tour


Franz Josef Glacier Helicopter Flight with Snow Landing

A memorable experience to see the Franz Josef Glacier from the air during a helicopter flight above ice falls, snowfields, and crevasses. You will depart from a helipad in Franz Josef and then make your way along the glacier down to a snowfield to see the icy landscape from up close. There you will take in the sweeping views across the maritime glacier. An unforgettable experience on the west coast and a once in a lifetime must do! Because in 10 years from now glacier will be much smaller…

→ Book here your Franz Josef Glacier Helicopter Flight with Snow Landing


Cruise to the hidden Doubtful Sound

The lesser known and quieter version of Milford Sound is Doubtful Sound. During this full-day tour you will journey across the clear waters of Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Make sure to keep  an eye out for wildlife while taking in the scenery. If you’re lucky you might see fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and crested and little blue penguins. You naturalist guide will tell you everything and point out interesting sights.  

→ Book here your cruise to the hidden Doubtful Sound


Take a scenic flight over Milford Sound

A Milford Sound scenic flight is the perfect way to see the impressive landscape of Fiordland NP from the air. Depart from Milford Airport and track west along Milford Sound. Climb alongside Bowen Falls and Mitre Peak for some great views of the fiords and its towering peaks. After the 20 minute helicopter flight you will return to Milford base.

→ Book here your scenic flight over Milford Sound

Another way to see Fiordland National Park from above is when you booked the scenic fly-cruise-fly tour from Queenstown. You will get a round trip flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound followed by a boat cruise in Milford Sound. Take in the spectacular views of the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps, remote valleys and waterfalls. During the flight you will have an amazing aerial view of Lake Quill and Sutherland Falls as can be seen on the picture below. This experience will take your breath away and is a must do if your budget allows it. Without a doubt some of the most scenic flights in New Zealand.

→ Book here your Milford Sound Scenic Fly-Cruise-Fly departing Queenstown


How to get around in New Zealand 

To experience New Zealand to the fullest and at your own pace, renting a carcampervan or motorhome is the best way to get around. Which one of these options you choose depends on your preference and budget. If you love camping, being outdoors all day and you don’t mind a smaller living space, then renting a camper van is the way to go. It also gives you the freedom to sleep at some of the most beautiful camping spots, but for some of them you’ll have to make a reservation and plan your trip accordingly. The same goes for a motorhome which is bigger than a campervan and fits about 4-6 people. Here’s what you need to know about renting a car, camper van or motorhome in New Zealand. 

Car rental New Zealand

Renting a car in New Zealand is the easiest and cheapest rental vehicle available. It will get you to all the best destinations with ease and gives you the freedom to stop for a break wherever you want. However, you should keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand are still gravel or that you have to cross shallow rivers to some destinations in National Parks. Therefore we personally recommend a mini SUV or SUV model to have enough clearance for these kind of roads.

We rented for 6 weeks a Mitsubishi ASX model and were super happy with this car! The best place to book your rental car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare different car models, prices, companies and terms and conditions. Make sure to secure the booking of your rental car as soon as possible to have the lowest price possible. Prices go up the closer you get to the pick up date.


Campervan rental in New Zealand

Traveling around in a campervan is one of the most popular ways for a roadtrip in New Zealand. With a bed, small kitchen and seating area you will have all the (basic) needs on four wheels. Make sure to check if your campervan has a shower or not because this might influence where you want to camp. A campervan allows you to camp at plenty of beautiful places, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. It will you give you a true feeling of freedom and connects you with nature.

We personally recommend to book your campervan with Travellers Autobarn as they have a wide range of Stationwagons, 2-berth campervans & 3-5 berth campervans to hire for all budgets. All Travellers Autobarn campervan hires in New Zealand come with free unlimited kilometers, 10% discount to premium campgrounds, 24/7 road side assistance & long term rental discounts. Check the availability and prices today to secure your campervan for a New Zealand dream roadtrip!

Best places to stay in the Catlins

The Catlins are some of the most underrated destinations on New Zealand’s South Island but absolutely worth visiting. If your itinerary allows it, I would even recommend staying for a few nights around Catlins to explore not only the Catlins Conservation Park but everything in between from Invercargill to Kaka point. You can either base yourself along the coast, in Invercargill or at some of the quiet camps. There are plenty of options, but here are the best accommodations to stay in our opinion.

Catlins Mohua Park

Located close-by Catlins Forest park are these stunning self-contained chalets with free WiFi and private parking. Each chalet features a fully equipped kitchen, a dining setting and a lounge area with a sofa. Every unit comes with a private bathroom with bathrobes. Bed linen and bathrobes are provided. All chalet’s at Mohua Park do not include a TV so you can fully take in the stunning views from your terrace. Free use of bicycles is available to explore the area and many of the Catlins waterfalls and other points of interest are only a 20 – 30 minute drive away. Truly a stunning and comfortable stay with beautiful views.

→ Book here your stay at Catlins Mohua Park


The Langlands Hotel Invercargill

Located within 400 meters from the city centre of Invercargill you will find the Langlands hotel. Featuring spacious rooms with a fitness centre, private parking, a restaurant and a bar, this 4-star hotel offers all the comfort you need. Invercargill is a great little town with plenty of restaurants. A great choice if you don’t want to be too much off the beaten path and far away from supermarkets and restaurants.

→ Book here your stay at The Langlands Hotel Invercargill

The Langlands hotel

Kaka point accommodation

Kaka Point accommodation is a beautiful, luxury, self-contained studio in the small sea-side town of Kaka Point at 100 meters from the beach. Surrounded by an abundance of nature and wildlife, you can awake to views of the spectacular coastal scenery.

The studios have fully equipped kitchens with a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, stove top and tea/coffee making facilities. Guests can enjoy uninterrupted, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Nugget Point Lighthouse from the privacy of their unit or relax in their private, therapeutic, double spa bath.

→ Book here your stay at Kaka point accommodation

Kaka point accommodation

More New Zealand travel guides

I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about Curio Bay and the petrified forest in the Catlins. Make sure to put this unique spot on your New Zealand South Island itinerary!

There are many amazing other things to do and places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. So if you’re looking for more inspiration and ideas, head over to our other New Zealand travel guides and read more!


Matai Falls – The Complete Guide

Mc Lean Falls – The Complete Guide

Purakaunui Falls – The Complete Guide

Waipapa Point Lighthouse – The Complete Guide

Koropuku waterfall – The Complete Guide

Fiordland National Park

Best things to do in Milford Sound – The Complete Guide

Milford Sound Cruise – The Complete Guide

Lake Marian track – The Complete Guide

Mirror Lakes New Zealand – The Complete Guide

Key Summit track – The Complete Guide


Queenstown Hill walk – The Complete Guide

Ben Lomond track – The Complete Guide

Moke Lake loop track & viewpoint – The Complete Guide

Bobs Cove nature walk – The Complete Guide


Glenorchy walkway & lagoon track – The Complete Guide

Earnslaw Burn glacier valley and waterfalls – The Complete Guide

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