The Southern Scenic Route (SSR) should be viewed in similar terms to the Icefields Parkway in Canada or the Big Sur in USA - it’s a scenic drive with various highlights along the way traversing the southern part of the South Island in New Zealand.
You can see some of these highlights in the passing if you’re just intending to go from A to B - or Queenstown to Dunedin (or vice-versa) which would take around 11 ½ hours of driving time covering around 600km. Alternatively you can stop off en route and make it a more leisurely trip. There are loads of attractions slightly off the route too - and others which could add considerably more time to your journey.
We sidetracked at Te Anau and visited Milford Sound and further south at Invercargill parked the car and flew over to Stewart Island for example. It seems only sensible to include these types of places in an itinerary when they are close in relative terms for many who will have travelled considerable distances to even get to New Zealand. That said time is precious and others may choose not to do so.
The starting point for us was Queenstown, a destination worth seeing in its own right, set on Lake Wakatipu and overlooked by tremendous mountain ranges. The scenery on the drive to Te Anau is also very attractive and the roads fairly quiet unless you time it incorrectly and join the tour coaches heading out in early morning to go to Milford Sound or return in the evening.
From Te Anau to Manapouri it gets even quieter on the road. Manapouri is the base from which tours are made to Doubtful Sound - a full day trip in itself if you were looking to do an excursion.
The stretch of road from Manapouri to Tuatepere takes roughly 1 hour direct, it’s fairly straight most of the way and passes through farmland. We went off the beaten track a couple of times down roads which you need to double back, to see Lake Monowai and Lake Hauroko. Neither of these was hugely rewarding in its own right - they would be more attractive if tied in with activities such as jet boating, fishing, hiking or hunting since the roads are partly unsealed and a time consuming detour. We found they were also good spots for attracting sandflies.
Clifden Suspension Bridge further south is worth a stop to stretch your legs walking across the longest wooden suspension bridge in NZ. Nearby the Clifden Caves are an attraction for experienced cavers.
Tuatapere is a small rural settlement with some places to eat and break the journey.
Tuatapere to Invercargill is about 1 ½ hours driving time however as you head towards the coastline at this point it becomes a distraction and the actual drive time may be extended by some visitors. Near Orepuki for example there are several places worth seeing - McCracken’s Rest is a fine viewpoint over Te Waewae Bay by the side of the SSR and a few kms down the road is a very photogenic setting at Gemstone Beach. Not far from there another stop we made was at Monkey Island where the tide was out and we were able to cross the beach and climb up the wooden stairway to a viewing platform. Next stop Cosy Nook was a tiny inlet with some holiday cottages by the edge of the water. Colac Bay and Riverton herald a return to slightly more populated areas prior to arrival in Invercargill.
Invercargill to Bluff is a 25 minute journey each way but unless you’re heading for a ferry to Stewart Island it doesn’t appear to be that attractive a destination - it’s a working port with the associated commercial activity this brings e.g. fuel tanks. Although there is a destination marker this isn’t the southern most point of the South Island, this is further east at Slope Point as you head into the Catlins so I would give Bluff a miss.
The Catlins are probably the most attractive part of the SSR with many scenic diversions along this wild coastline. Lighthouses at either end at Waipapa Point and Nugget Point are worth visiting - the latter in particular is an especially scenic section off the SSR. Both these attractions have wildlife interest in the form of sea lions and fur seals respectively. Curio Bay has a fossilized forest on the shoreline nearby which also features rare yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore to nest at dusk. It also had a superb beach to add to the one at Tautuku Bay further along the route which you can either walk across or just admire from a lookout point by the SSR at Florence Hill. If waterfalls are your attraction stop off at Purakanunui Falls (we found these smaller than expected) or McLean Falls, down a bit of a short dusty road and then an attractive short hike but well worth the journey. We didn’t even make it to Surat Bay, Jack’s Blowhole or Cannibal Bay and Cathedral Caves, the latter subject to gated/tidal access and fee, were just closing as we arrived. From Nugget Point we headed back north towards Dunedin noting the places we will need to see on our next trip to this area which hopefully won’t be too far in the future.
Bearing in mind the rural and remote features of sections of the route there are not huge amounts of places to stay, eat or fill up your fuel tank so prepare accordingly whether planning to take a leisurely drive or a fleeting passing visit.
It’s a spectacular part of the country, less visited than most and even if the trees are bent double with the wind which can hit the coastline often, they still make an interesting photograph!
Own or manage this property? Claim your listing for free to respond to reviews, update your profile and much more.