The incredible Cathedral Caves in Southland. © Great South

Fiordland and Southland Kiwi Gems


Did you know that Southland is home to New Zealand's longest wooden suspension bridge? Or that in Fiordland you can cruise on a boat once used by Winston Churchill? Find out more with these 12 Kiwi Gems in Fiordland and Southland.

Gemstone Beach

Gemstone Beach is a fossicker’s dream: a beach that looks like it’s made of coloured jelly beans. Ocean-smoothed stones in a huge range of hues are washed and glossy from the waves. There are pieces of red jasper, green epidote and pale quartz. Amongst the multi-coloured pebbles, semi-precious stones can often found here too, including garnet and even small nuggets of gold. Gemstone Beach is not suitable for swimming though, with wild waves and dangerous currents. Lucky there’s plenty to keep you occupied on the shoreline; the search for the perfect pebble is strangely addictive.  

Clifden Suspension Bridge

About 2.7km from the Clifden Caves you’ll find the Clifden Suspension Bridge – New Zealand’s longest wooden suspension bridge, which stretches 111.5 metres across the Waiau River. Before its construction in 1899, Clifden settlers were dependent on the Waiau ferry to transport goods and stock across the river. The ferry was later replaced by a punt attached to a wire rope. When it first opened, the bridge provided a much easier and safer alternative to both. The single-lane bridge was the main river crossing until 1978 when the new two-lane bridge opened nearby. If you visit the Clifden Suspension Bridge on a fine day during summer, stop in at the Good Mood Food caravan, which is often parked on the banks of the river, for a coffee, smoothie or delicious bite to eat. 

Lake Hauroko

The remote Lake Hauroko in Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s deepest lake covering an area of 63 square kilometres and is a mind-bending 462 metres deep. That’s nearly half a kilometre! The name Hauroko means ‘the sound of the wind.’ Explore the area on the Lake Hauroko Lookout Track, a four-hour return walk via the same track that climbs steeply from the lake edge to a lookout with views across to Foveaux Strait in the south and Fiordland’s Takitimu, Princess and Kahrekoau Mountains. Top tip: pack plenty of insect repellent; the sandflies are vicious here! To get to Lake Hauroko from Tuatapere, head north towards Clifden, turn left along the Lillburn Valley Road and drive 36km to the lake, the last 20km of which is gravel road.

Eastern Southland Gallery

For a small town, Gore punches well above its weight when it comes to art. The Eastern Southland Gallery, housed in a beautiful brick building that was once the Carnegie Public Library, is recognised as one of the best provincial galleries in New Zealand. Works from Rita Angus, Len Lye, Ralph Hotere and the controversial Theo Schoon sit alongside the internationally significant John Money Collection, gifted to the gallery by the Baltimore-based academic, philanthropist and arts patron. With regularly changing exhibitions alongside these historically important works, it’s a great place to soak up some artistic edification. 

Fiordland Historic Cruises

If you're in Te Anau, rather than gazing wistfully at the glorious lake from the shore, why not get out on the water? It doesn’t need to be intrepid or strenuous. Take a very civilised evening cruise aboard the Faith, a historic 1935 motor yacht with Fiordland Historic Cruises. Originally built in Scotland where she hosted esteemed passengers including Winston Churchill, Faith eventually made her way to New Zealand in the 1980s. Restored and preserved with glossy oak paneling, red velvet squabs and weathered wooden decking, she now traverses the calm waters of Lake Te Anau. Depending on the wind direction, a tranquil cruise might take you across the lake to Brod Bay opposite Te Anau township. Here, dense bush meets a surprisingly white sandy beach. Sit back and soak up the scenery with wine and canapés. 

Punanga Manu o Te Anau

Just outside of Te Anau township and right on the lakefront is the Punanga Manu o Te Anau, the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. Originally a trout breeding facility in the 1970s, the sanctuary is now home to some of New Zealand’s rarest birds, including pairs of young takahē. Once thought to be extinct until re-discovered deep in Fiordland’s Murchison Mountains in 1948, takahē are still endangered, although numbers are creeping up with a current population of around 450. You can either explore the grounds for free, or join a daily tour to enter the enclosures and get up close to these rare native birds as they are fed breakfast. As the enclosures are smaller than the territory they would roam in the wild, supplementary feeding is necessary, but the birds are unfazed by gawking spectators as they munch on their cereal. Other sanctuary residents include ruru, kākā and bright green Antipodes Parakeets, related to kākāriki but only found in the wild on the remote Antipodes Islands. 

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Curio Bay Petrified Forest 

Have you ever seen a petrified forest? While it may sound like the beginning of bad dad joke, at Curio Bay you can in fact spot the remnants of a Jurassic forest preserved in the coastal rocks. At low tide the ridges of ancient tree trunks are visible, stretching out towards the sea. About 180 million years ago, when New Zealand was still part of Gondwanaland, the forest here was destroyed several times by huge floods of volcanic debris over a 20,000-year period. Over millennia, the damaged trees were infused with silica minerals, eventually turning the wood to rock. In some places fern fronds and leaves have even been preserved as fossils within the mudstone, making this untouched spot at Curio Bay a site of international importance. The wild coastline and frothing waves here are also home to rare Hector’s dolphins, so keep your eyes peeled. 

Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre

At Mandeville, on the outskirts of Gore, a country airstrip in the middle of nowhere has evolved into an extensive collection of aircraft and an onsite restoration workshop, thanks to a passionate team of locals. Wander through the cavernous aircraft hangar at the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre to get up close with beautifully restored planes – predominantly De Havillands, with cheerful yellow Tiger Moths and an impressive blue Dragonfly sitting alongside a bright orange Fox Moth that was once a passenger plane on the West Coast. You can also visit the workshop next door to see the restorations in progress. Planes can be considered original rather than replicas if there are some existing parts, so the team of skilled craftspeople create beautiful, aerodynamic pieces out of wood with fabric literally zipped along the undercarriage to contain the wires and other mechanisms.

Doubtful Sound

Larger, though less popular than its neighbour Piopiotahi Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, or Patea, stretches an astonishing 40km from the head of the fiord to the Tasman Sea. The deepest of the 14 fiords in Aotearoa, it has a powerful sense of both majesty and serenity that has to be experienced to be believed. In fact, Patea means ‘place of silence’ in Te Reo. With no direct road access, the journey to the sound is an adventure in itself, involving the boat ride across Lake Manapōuri to rejoin a tour coach that takes you the last few kilometres to Doubtful Sound. You’ll join your boat at Deep Cove and venture past the stunning Helena Falls on your way out to the islets where the sound joins the sea. On the way, you’ll more than likely share the water with seals or a pod of dolphins, both of which abound here.

Lake2Lake Cycle Trail

Explore the lakeside surrounds of Te Anau and Manapōuri on the scenic Lake2Lake Cycle Trail. This easy five hour ride traces the Lake Te Anau shoreline before following the eastern bank of the Waiau River to Lake Manapōuri. Soak up the lakeside serenity from the Grade 2 gravel trail. Highlights along the 28km route include views of the Kepler Mountains, lovely beech forest, the power of the Waiau River at the Te Anau control gates, and a peek into the edge of Fiordland National Park. You can cycle there and back in a day, book a return shuttle to your starting point at the Te Anau Department of Conservation Visitor Centre, or make a loop of it by returning via Golf Course Road.  

Cathedral Caves 

At Waipati Beach south of Tautuku on the remote Catlins Coast you’ll find the soaring archways of the aptly named Cathedral Caves. Only accessible for a small window either side of low tide each day, and only between October and May, you’ll need to time your visit here carefully. Pay a small fee at the manned carpark and take the 20 minute walk through kamahi forest to reach the beach. At the northern end of the beach, the caves set into a sandstone cliff are a remarkable sight. Two sea-formed passages measure just over 200 metres and are 30 metres high. The echoes inside are astounding. 

Greenpoint Ship Graveyard

Greenpoint Domain near Bluff is a peaceful recreation area with wheelchair and buggy-friendly walking tracks and boardwalks. It also offers views over Bluff Harbour and the historic Greenpoint Ship Graveyard. At least 14 ships dating back to the 1880s lie in various states of decomposition in the shallow waters of the inner harbour. Visit at low tide for the full effect of this eerie and somewhat surreal site. Fun fact: the Greenpoint coastline is also home to some of the oldest rocks in Aotearoa. Have a look around the water’s edge for layers of sand and mudstone cut with spiky basalt. 

Make sure you add these Fiordland and Southland Must-Do's to your itinerary, too: 

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