When people ask, “What are your favourite countries from your trip around the world?”, New Zealand always comes to mind. The dramatic scenery as you drive from one place to another makes New Zealand a special place to visit. On the South Island alone, the natural wonders have so much variety. One particular area that I recommend is Central Otago. Located on the southern half of the South Island, Central Otago is filled with dramatic landscapes and interesting towns. If you plan to visit New Zealand, make sure to add this region to your itinerary. (Note that I will be focusing on the Central Otago District, excluding Queenstown and Wanaka. Continue reading for our top things to do in Central Otago:
Explore the Old Towns
The old part of Clyde feels like it belongs back in the Wild West. The wooden houses, the quiet main street full of historic structures and the feeling that there are but a few residents living in this town made it an interesting place to visit. Clyde is one of many historic gold rush towns in Central Otago — these old towns give this region so much character! There is also some nice scenery around Clyde as well as the infamous “Clyde Dam”, which changed this landscape forever. To get a good view of it, and the golden hills surrounding Lake Dunstan, head across the river and up to the lookout. For an easier journey you can walk up to the lookout above town.
This tiny old town in Central Otago (it’s really only one proper street) is full of buildings from the past. It doesn’t take long to explore the main part of Ophir, but make sure to check out the river outside of town – there’s an old bridge there too.
We didn’t see any ghosts in St Bathans but it’s regarded as one of the most haunted places in New Zealand. It’s said that a murdered prostitute now hangs out in room 1 of the Vulcan Hotel — we haven’t been brave enough to stay there yet but maybe one day. St Bathans was once a booming town servicing gold miners, but today it is almost deserted. There are some really nice old buildings to explore and you can walk around the Blue Lake in a couple of hours.
Cromwell is probably the best preserved and most scenic of Central Otago’s old towns. The historic part of town is located next to Lake Dunstan and it feels like stepping back through time. It’s blocked off to traffic meaning you can slowly stroll through the shops and galleries. It’s also a good idea to walk along the edge of the lake for a while, especially in Autumn when the colourful leaves are out.
Some of the things I love most about Alexandra are the majestic night sky (I saw far more stars here than anywhere else I have been), the relaxing countryside and the warmth of family. Growing up in the city, I have always wondered what living in the countryside would be like. We visited Jon’s family in Alexandra and had the chance to get a taste of the life there. For a few months, Jon and I had a chance to enjoy the farm life. Each day, we woke up early to prepare the milk and feed 10 baby calves. It was hard but it was fulfilling to see the little ones happy. They were so adorable and I would always remember that experience. We have been to stay a few times since and it’s always somewhere we’ll return to (we are even getting married there this year!).
The town itself has a few old buildings and the impressive remains of a bridge. There are also a few hiking trails nearby. There are other small towns (or the ruins of small towns) scattered around Central Otago, including Roxburgh, Bendigo and Bannockburn.
Enjoy the Hikes in Central Otago
There are some really nice hikes in Central Otago and many of them aren’t popular with foreign tourists. Our favourite hike in the area would have to be Flat Top Hill. The views over the Roxburgh Gorge towards Alexandra are amazing and it’s such a peaceful place to walk. Other hikes in the region include the Millennium Track between Alexandra and Clyde, the hike around the Blue Lake in St Bathans and the hike around Lake Dunstan (from Cromwell to the Gold Museum in the Kawarau Gorge).
Cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail
We haven’t done the whole Otago Central Rail Trail but what we have seen so far makes us really want to do it. The whole thing generally takes 2-3 days to complete and runs between Clyde and Middlemarch. Jon did a section of it a few years ago but we did some short bike rides around Clyde recently and it was really nice – look out for this historic bridge just outside of Clyde!
See Old Stone Cottages
A unique aspect of Central Otago (and some other nearby regions) is the many historic stone cottages. You’ll drive by crumbling cottages sitting in fields, but some have been restored and are open to the public. A great one to go to is Mitchell’s Cottage, located close to Alexandra. It is over 100 years old and is surrounded by rocky hills. We haven’t been in winter yet but this place will look amazing with a bit of snow around. There are many other places to see stone cottages in Central Otago, including Fruitlands, Bendigo and the ruins of the school in St Bathans.
Sunrises and Sunsets
Some of the best sunrises and sunsets we’ve seen in New Zealand were in Central Otago. When we visit Jon’s dad we generally try to get up early and see the colourful morning sky — the view from just outside our room is perfect. It’s more about the colour of the sky than seeing the actual sun, so you can really enjoy this from anywhere, but it might be worth getting a bit of elevation (maybe the Clyde Dam Lookout or the Alexandra Clock) for better photos.
Central Otago is a barren land, and without irrigation nothing much would grow there. There are lots of dams around the region which help to keep the water flowing, and they are interesting places to see. We’ve only been to a couple so far but we really enjoyed them, especially Butchers Dam. It was great to see water crashing over the dam — it almost looked like a waterfall. Butchers Dam and Conroys Dam are located close to Alexandra and are easy to reach, but I’ve heard Frasers Dam and Poolburn Dam are impressive too (Jon has been to Poolburn Dam but lost his photos!).
The Places in between
Part of Central Otago’s charm is that you can stop on the side of the road pretty much anywhere and see some incredible scenery. There are lots of viewpoints and rest stops where you can pull over and stretch your legs, so leave plenty of time for your drive through Central Otago and stop at lots of places!
Food and Wine in Central Otago
From the delicious fresh fruits to the delightful wines in the area there is much to love about Central Otago. During summer, Central Otago is the best place to try fresh cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums. They are so delicious! Central Otago is also the best place to try is New Zealand’s famous real fruit ice cream.
Love wine? Central Otago is one of the best regions for wine in New Zealand. Visit a winery during your visit and try some of the area’s Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir or Riesling.
Things to Do Near Central Otago
The Queenstown Lakes District is very close to Central Otago. Both Queenstown and Wanaka are less than an hour’s drive from Cromwell and there is so much to see and do there. You can ski, hike or opt for extreme sports such as skydiving and white water rafting. You can also reach Mount Cook in 2-3 hours and Dunedin is only 2.5 hours from Alexandra / Clyde.
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Do you have plans to visit Central Otago? Which places are you most excited to visit? Let us know in the comments below!