One of the first holidays I ever took from Wanaka about eight years ago was to the Otago Peninsula on the outskirts of Dunedin. We camped at a holiday park, went for long walks, ate penguin-shaped pancakes, and had a good old time. Spontaneous getaways with friends are the best, and I cherish those memories.
I think that trip is what started a deep love for the Otago Peninsula and its wildlife and landscapes. I could live there.
A dope little city with accessible, epic nature right on its doorstep, it doesn’t get any better than Dunedin. It’s not like other cities around the world. In less than an hour, you can find yourself in the rolling green hills and secluded beaches of the Otago Peninsula.
Out here, it feels like you’ve left the big city behind and have the whole Peninsula to yourself. Wild beaches dotted with sea lions and penguins meet old forests and pastoral hills. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights.
The drive out to the Otago Peninsula from downtown Dunedin is one of my favorites in New Zealand. Seriously, it’s stunning. Slowly winding along the sea, it offers the most amazing views of the entire journey to Taiaroa Head. Take your time.
After nearly a decade, here are my picks for the six best experiences you can have on the Otago Peninsula – enjoy!
1. Hang out with the sea lions at Sandfly Bay
One of my favorite places I always visit when I’m on the Otago Peninsula is Sandfly Bay.
Sandfly Bay is a gorgeous bay encircled by dunes, Sandfly Bay feels wild and remote, but it’s pretty accessible. An easy walk in and out, it’s not long or strenuous. Sandfly Bay is also an excellent spot for wildlife watching.
There are almost always a dozen sea lions/rāpoka rolling about on the beach, which a great fun to watch. But remember to keep at least twenty meters away from them and don’t between them and the ocean (their escape route). You might also see New Zealand fur seals/kekeno, as well as other sea birds.
At the end of the bay, there is a penguin hide where you can keep an eye out for the endangered yellow-eyed penguins returning home at sunset.
2. Channel your childhood princess and sleep in a castle
If you’re looking to stay somewhere memorable, be sure to check out the lodge at Larnach, New Zealand’s only castle.
Perched high on the hill with spectacular views over the harbor and surrounding hills, the views of the Peninsula are unparalleled from here. A historic property with stunning, elaborate gardens and its juxtaposition with the surrounding nature make the experience memorable.
It’s worth even just staying the night so that you can wake up early and have the grounds to yourself. I spent hours before breakfast enjoying the gardens and walking around the place without another person in sight. The gardens are amazing and worth visiting all on their own, even as a wee day trip.
3. Keep an eye out for the twinkling southern lights
Because you are so far south, you have a good chance of seeing the Aurora australis, aka the Southern Lights, from the Otago Peninsula.
One of the most impressive displays of the Southern Lights I’ve ever seen was on the Otago Peninsula. I was driving back to Wanaka late one night after an event at the Larnach Castle when I accidentally took the long route back towards Dunedin. Overlooking the ocean and facing due south, the aurora was so bright I could see it while driving. I just had to pull over and admire how spectacular the lights were.
Many people head towards Hoopers Inlet for a glimpse of the aurora, but anywhere facing south towards the horizon without any other light will do. I always check the aurora forecast to get an idea of the aurora activity, but sometimes you might even be surprised.
4. Admire the world’s rarest penguin
If you are like me and are moderately obsessed with penguins, well, you’ve come to the right place. There are plenty of penguins to be found on the Otago Peninsula, though none quite so unique as the hoiho/yellow-eyed penguins. Hoiho means “noise-maker” in Māori.
They have nesting populations on the south island of New Zealand, Stewart Island, and the Subantarctic Islands – where I’ve seeI’veem. In total, there are estimated to be around 2000 breeding pairs, which is not many. They are declining rapidly.
While there are lots of little blue penguins around, the real showstoppers are the elusive yellow-eyed penguins. They are scarce but live around the area and can be seen at sunset at Sandfly Bay from a penguin hide in the grass. You can also see them on tours of the Penguin Place, a local conservation reserve.
5. Hide away in your very own nature reserve
There’s nothing quite so joyful as squirreling away in the cutest cabin amongst the only remaining valley of native forest on the Otago Peninsula.
The Hereweka Garden Retreat is one of those places that seems plucked from a fairytale. The lodge is situated on the slopes of the iconic Harbour Cone, far from the city lights and near the best spots on the Otago Peninsula. Overlooking the Hoopers Inlet, it’s a magical place to disconnect and relax.
After over a decade of planting and replanting here, the native birds have returned. I fell asleep listening to tui and bellbirds calling in utter bliss. How lucky are we to have places like this?
6. Check out the only mainland albatross colony in New Zealand
No matter your degree of bird knowledge, you must visit the Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve at the end of the Peninsula.
Named for Te Matenga Taiaroa, a 19th-century Māori chief, Taiaroa Head is the only colony of Northern Royal Albatrosses on the mainland anywhere globally. Nearby you’ll find the Royal Albatross Centre, which offers tours and viewing spots to get close to these magnificent birds. If you stick around for sunset, you can also head down to the beach nearby for an evening penguin tour to watch the local little blues surf back home.
I’m always impressed at just how loud the little penguins are; you definitely can’t miss them.
Have you checked out the Otago Peninsula before? What’s your fave spot? Share!