Take your mum, pals, bff, best boo, nan, whoever’s got the inclination for adventure to get outta town, hop in the car and trail through Otago. There’s wine. There’s mountains. There’s lakes. There’s the tastiest grub you can imagine. And yes, there’s some more wine. Nan will be thrilled.
The Otago region is for everyone. Young-at-heart, senior, wild, reserved, families, adventure- seekers, chill-hunters. Don’t get us wrong, Queenstown’s cool, Dunedin’s quirky and holy guacamole Milford Sound will knock your socks off. But, if you want to experience something off-the-beaten track—and something that’s a little more cruise control—this trip is for you.
This is where you wind through ancient landscapes, explore quaint villages, get to know some intriguing locals, while away evenings in top restaurants with views you can’t believe are real, and try your hand at curling at one of New Zealand’s only three curling facilities. You can up the ante with some gliding or jet boating, or soak it all in ensconsed in a hot tub. You could feasibly do this route in four or five days, but we recommend taking your time, winding through valleys, meandering through your meals and kicking back true South Island style.
So, what are you waiting for, Nan’s ready—get out there and take her on a trip of a lifetime. Here are the best things to do in Otago.
Maniototo Curling Centre
Kicking off our list of Otago's must-dos is this very interesting sport, one you might think is reserved for the over 50s only. But here’s the thing. Curling is FUN. Especially if you can stay upright. It’s a slippery sport to get your tootsies around, but once you’re on the ice, you might find yourself getting really competitive. Nan will obviously beat you because she’s probably been playing for years, but give it a red hot go and get involved at one of only three curling centres in New Zealand at the Maniototo Curling Centre
Cycling with the Central Rail Trail or Alps to Ocean Cycling
Wind your way on two wheels through stunning scenery, railway tunnels, alongside old bunkers, and through mountainous passes with Central Rail Trail
. One of the best things to do in Otago, get this right and make a multi-day trip out of it to experience some of the most amazing star-gazing on the planet on this route, too. Or choose a trip with Alps to Ocean Cycling
and find yourself meandering through mountain ranges around Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki for days.
This is such a funky little nook found deep in Clyde, which may be the cutest town on the planet. Dine in Olivers’
restaurant in the evening and stay in the stables overnight. Think braised hare leg and pan seared salmon for dinner, followed by a relaxing fireside bath in your stable room, a cosy night’s sleep followed by the scent of freshly baked bread and Lord Of The Rings-style views to lift your spirits in the morning.
Hold on to your hat nan, it’s time for lift off. Heliview Flights
is run by Richard and Jolanda, who’ll take you up into the air above some of the most magnificent mountain ranges you can imagine. The Old Woman ranges are stunning and a stop off here feels like you’ve landed on top of the world. Richard can even drop you off up there with your bike, hamper of food and wine, or newlywed—yep this is one exceptional spot for mountain biking, picnicking or even sky-high wedding shots.
Take your afternoon down a notch with some relaxing wine tasting. The views over green fields and mountains are so special at Cloudy Bay
that any self respecting list without this institution would be a travesty. The team here sure has an eye for a tastefully crafted interiors, lip-smackingly good wine, and also a genuine care for their environmental footprint. We love that the team has created a thermo-eco packaging program so that they can continue to ship their wines all around the world using recycled, reusable and biodegradable packaging. Stop here to soak up the views and embrace a slower pace.
“I bought some shoes off a drug dealer today, I don’t know what he laced them with but I’ve been tripping all day,” is one of the many jokes you might get told by owner Anna Mackintosh of Bannockburn Hotel
, as you sit watching the sun set over the Pisa Range yonder. Anna and her husband’s playful nature follows through to their daring and absolutely delicious menu, paired with a 45-page wine list. This food is next lev and, while everything about this restaurant screams salt of the earth—from the rug thrown around you to keep the chill at bay, to the laughter from nearby punters—everything about the menu suggests premium. Afterwards, stay close by at Heritage Collection Lake Resort
or Mt Michael Lodge
on Lake Dunstan for stunning water views.
Head towards Omarama for your next sky-high experience which is easily one of the best things to do in Otago. Gliding is like flying in a plane, but a plane with no engine. That’s right, no engine. Yep, with Glide Omarama
you’ll be gliding through the clouds, operating like a bird as you sail along on the different thermals in the air. You might think this would be a hair-raising event—and it can be if you’d like it to be, just ask for a few twists and turns—but it’s actually surprisingly peaceful. Soaring among mountain peaks, past clouds and over glacial lakes, with not another person in sight—apart from your pilot obviously. Even a half hour experience is enough to experience the majesty of the mountains and lakes in the area. And it’s perfectly safe for anybody over the age of 12.
Hot Tubs Omarama
Come back down to earth with a calming, soothing hot tub experience. Hot Tubs Omarama
can be enjoyed through winter or summer. Marvel at the surrounding mountains, while you soak in fresh mountain water. Treat nan to a sauna and a massage as well to really make the most of this wellness moment.
Braided River Jetboat
Escape the tourist trail with Braided River Jetboat. Race down the Waitaki River, either heading inland towards the Waitaki Dam, or towards the Pacific Ocean. There’s local wildlife, bridges, tiny beaches and lots of beautiful scenery to enjoy. That’s of course if you’re not whizzing down the braids of the river at break-neck speed, which we highly recommend you do at least once or twice on the trip. Make sure you hang on when turning corners. And definitely hold on to nan. Head towards Oamaru for dinner at Cucina
for some south American and Italian-inspired grub, and a good night’s sleep at quirky Poshtel
A day that starts with cheese is definitely set to be a great day. 13-18,000 litres of local cows milk comes through Whitestone Cheese’s doors every day, you might think that’s a lot, but it requires about 40 litres of milk to produce one 4kg wheel of blue cheese. A family-run business, Whitestone will show you the ropes around the factory when you visit, and of course, you’ll get to try a delicious selection of their finest wares on offer.
A tour with Karitane Maori Tours
is really special and is definitely worthy of a spot on our list of the best things to do in Otago. The team is so passionate about what they do and relish sharing it with visitors. Experience a ride in the waka—a canoe, which holds great cultural significance to the Maori people. Learn about Maori history and culture and play a part in conserving the natural landscape—just as the local people have done for years—by planting a native shrub that helps protect the fast-sinking sand bank from the ocean.
Fleur is one of the truly special characters you’ll find on the South Island and a visit to her spot is one of the best things to do in Otago. To say she’s quirky is an understatement, and to say that Fleur’s restaurant Fleur’s Place
is one of the best seafood restaurants in the country wouldn’t do it justice. It’s a place chef Rick Stein loves to visit when in the country, and Fleur’s rustic, hearty, authentic character shines through in all the dishes she serves. The restaurant is in a tiny town called Moeraki where you can sit by the sea and enjoy the fruits of the ocean in good company. A quick stop at the Moeraki Boulders is a beautiful way to round off your trip.
Image credit: Hot Tubs Omarama, Miles Holden, Olivers, Heliview Flights, Glide Omarama, Lauren Ashley Korstrom for Braided River Jetboat, Karitane Tours, Fleur's Place