Central Otago : a Family Guide

Central Otago

A family guide to Central Otago

Are you planning to go on a vacation in Central Otago with your loved ones? If your answer is yes, then you will surely find the family guide below useful. You will find the must-visit places here when you read on the following article. 

There are just three routes between Dunedin on the east coast of the South Island, and the Southern Lakes area of NZ. All these routes take from 3 1/2 - 4 hours driving and pass through the wild, rugged landscape of Central Otago. All three offer spectacular and remote views - golden tussock, weird and stark giant rock formations, rivers, quiet roads and goldmining relics.

The Pig Route

Two of your routes follow what is known as the 'Pig Route', along State Highway 85, and only deviating, if you're driving TO Dunedin, at a junction just past Ranfurly.  From here, the Middlemarch route is probably more scenic and avoids more of the main highway.  This is the quieter but just slightly longer route, following large portions of the Otago Central Railtrail.

Maniototo Valley - this stunning and desolate region takes in the historic goldmining townships of Naseby and St Bathans, just off the main highway, but an easy and worthwhile diversion.  Naseby is one of Otago's most charming gold rush settlements and has good family accommodation and activities.  It's set on the edge of a forest that is a mountain bikers' paradise - with easy and hard tracks, none venturing too far from the main street, it's easy to go and play, and dip down to the cafe for a quick refresher.    In winter Naseby gains fame for its outdoor ice rink.  The rink offers ice skating, curling and luging.  Year-round Naseby now also has an indoor curling rink, so bring the family and have a go at the Scottish passtime!  Nearby St Bathans is most famous for its incredible Blue Lake.  This was created during goldmining days through the efforts of miners sluicing and dredging for gold.   The lake is a stunning blue colour and around 70m deep - a very popular swim hole in summer.
Other highlights include simply the drive itself, and your travel through Rail Trail country towns - Middlemarch, Wedderburn and the Art Deco township of Ranfurly. 

State Highway 8

This route is slightly more direct and takes you along the gorgeous Clutha River that flows out of Lake Wanaka and all the way to the east coast.   The Roxburgh area is the best viewing point for the Clutha River, with Roxburgh Village just off the main road  and also the famous Roxburgh Dam (the earliest of NZ's hydroelectric projects).  There's a very pleasant, 5km river bank track that passes historic cottages and old bridges.
If you're driving towards the Southern Lakes, after Roxburgh you'll get to Alexandra, and the route into town is spectacular with its golden hillsides and rock formations.  The Clutha River flows through Alexandra and there are plenty of fantastic swimming holes.  The river is slow flowing and an excellent location for kayaking and boating.  

Clyde, Cromwell and Bannockburn

The two routes merge at Clyde, and from here you follow State Highway 8 along the Cromwell Gorge and the Clutha River.  This road takes you past Clyde and on to Cromwell and Bannockburn.  From here you're just an hour's drive from Queenstown or 45 minutes from Wanaka.  This region of Central Otago is a great family holiday spot.  Cromwell sits on the confluence of the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers, and the shores of Lake Dunstan.  There are hundreds of perfect swimming, fishing and boating holes both on the river and the lake.  You can also rent kayaks and float down the slow-moving Clutha for a couple of hours, emerging at Clyde or Alexandra (these trips are supported, so you'll be met with transport to your starting point).  The river and gorge are so scenic it's well worth spending some time on it, but if you don't fancy kayaking, you can take a local boat trip.  Meanwhile Cromwell and Bannockburn are in the heart of fruit and wine country.  In Cromwell pop along to one of the fruit stores for fresh local produce, or try delicious local Benger Gold juices.  Cromwell old town, on the river bank, is a must-visit - great spots for the kids to play and lots to wander around.  You'll find a couple of excellent cafes down here.  If you're after wine, take a wine tour, self-drive or bike through the charming backroads of Bannockburn and visit some of the gorgeous local wineries.

The Otago Central Rail Trail

This cycling adventure is suitable for all ages and takes you through 150km of remote scenery and gold-mining history.  The track is wide and mostly hard-packed gravel surface.  It's very easy riding so a great family activity, and most people do it in 3 or 4 days.  Support along the way has grown to a fantastic level, so planning the trip is pretty easy.  Your starting point will be either Clyde or Middlemarch if you're doing the whole track (there is conflicting advice about which way's best and prevailing winds - personally I prefer to start at Clyde).  You can hire bikes locally, pre-book accommodation along the way, enjoy the many cafes and rest stops, and have a pick-up waiting for you at the end to take you back to your car.  Biking the Rail Trail is free, but it does get quite busy in season, so book your accommodation well ahead.  
You'll find plenty of excellent information here: www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz 

Map of New Zealand
  • Central Otago
  • Bay of Plenty
  • Coromandel
  • Dunedin
  • Gisborne
  • Fiordland
  • Hawkes Bay
  • North Canterbury
  • Manawatu
  • Nelson & Golden Bay
  • Northland
  • Marlborough Sounds
  • Rotorua
  • Queenstown
  • Taranaki
  • South Canterbury
  • Taupo
  • Southland
  • Waikato
  • Wanaka
  • West Coast
  • Whangarei
  • Bay of Islands
  • Tauranga
  • Gisborne
  • Hamilton
  • Napier
  • Kapiti
  • Palmerston North
  • Whanganui
  • New Plymouth
  • Arrowtown
  • Te Anau
  • Akaroa
  • Ashburton
  • Hanmer
  • Kaikoura
  • Methven
  • Mt Cook
  • Oamaru
  • Tekapo
  • Timaru
  • Abel Tasman
  • Motueka
  • Nelson Lakes
  • Blenheim
  • Picton
  • Catlins
  • Gore
  • Stewart Island
  • Central Plateau
  • Invercargill
  • Cromwell
  • Greymouth
  • Hokitika
  • Westport
  • Glenorchy

Our favourite destinations…

Auckland destination2


New Zealand’s economic heart and biggest city is also an exciting family visitor destination, situated on a sunny harbour with city beaches just minutes away from the CBD. Orientate yourself by heading down to Viaduct Harbour, wandering the waterfront, checking out the super yachts or enjoying the waterfront restaurants. Nearby is the must-visit Sky Tower along with excellent and kid-friendly museums and tons of exciting activities!


Wellington is New Zealand’s capital. Here you will find New Zealand's parliament buildings, including the 'Executive Wing', more well-known as 'The Beehive' due to its distinctive shape. Another icon to look out for is the Wellington Tram, which was the main means of public transport between 1878 and 1964.


With a population of around 400,000 Christchurch, in Canterbury, is the South Island ’s largest city, yet much of it has the feel of a small town. Perhaps that’s why it’s known as the Garden City but with the expansive Hagley Park, Botanic Gardens, Port Hills, River Avon and numerous beaches the city certainly has an open, relaxed feel that’s hard to beat.


With its well-deserved reputation as New Zealand’s activity adventure capital you’ll never run out of activities and things to do in Queenstown, but you may run out of time! With breathtaking scenery, activities and festivals, cafes and restaurants, skiing and snowboarding, shopping and wineries, this lakeside alpine resort rates as one of the world’s top vacation destinations for all ages and seasons.


Rotorua sits on the shore of Lake Rotorua, one of sixteen lakes in the area formed by hundreds of thousands of years of eruptions from the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The area is renowned for its geothermal activity and top of any activity list is to see the bubbling mud pools that are around the region for yourself. The Waimangu Volcanic Valley offers a first hand insight into the devastation caused by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera and is a great place to discover steaming volcanic craters and bubbling, spitting  pools of mud!

Nelson and Golden Bay

The Nelson and Golden Bay regions, at the top of the South Island, boast enviable sunshine hours, glorious sandy beaches, safe swimming spots, lots of wildlife to look out for, and Abel Tasman National Park - an absolute must to explore, on foot, by kayak, your own craft or watertaxi.  Nelson is home to a vibrant arts and crafts community with a fabulous Saturday market, and is close to award-winning wineries and family-friendly bike tracks to take you around the coast.

Hawkes Bay

Napier was rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake and is now known as NZ's Art Deco City.  The Art Deco influence has created a unique city – nowhere else can you see such a varied concentration of art deco style. With over 2,200 sunshine hours a year, Napier is a year-round holiday destination with countless activities to entertain the kids – there's days of entertainment on Marine Parade alone, plus numerous other family-friendly trips and activities.  Add to that the beaches, walks and flat cycle paths, outdoor cafes and entertainment, and you have a perfect holiday destination!


Beautiful, unspoiled beaches, fishing, historic gum fields, kauri forests – the Far North has it all. With subtropical temperatures, it's often known as ‘the Winterless north', with warm, humid summers and mild winters.
Gateway to the Bay of Islands, Paihia is a pretty, lively beachside town and a perfect base for your family holiday. It’s your start point for Bay of Island adventures including day cruises, sailing, kayaking, swimming with dolphins and reef or wreck diving.