Looking to get off the beaten path in New Zealand? Here’s your guide to Central Otago.
One of my main goals for this year is to explore more of the beautiful country I live in. I want to go beyond just the tourist hot spots. Over-tourism is becoming a real issue around New Zealand, particularly in destinations such as Queenstown and Wanaka. Let’s be honest, nobody needs another photo of ‘That Wanaka Tree’ in their Instagram feeds.
In need of an escape from Auckland, I roped in three of my adventure-loving friends and we all flew down to the South Island for a girls’ getaway. Instead of staying in Queenstown, we drove for an hour to Central Otago. It’s, in my opinion, one of the South Island’s most overlooked gems. We spent four days here experiencing the best the region has to offer, from the adrenaline-inducing to the relaxing. We stayed at exceptional boutique accommodation in quaint towns, indulged in award-winning wine and gourmet local fare, cycled along the world-famous Rail Trail, and braved a range of adrenaline-inducing activities.
A Complete Central Otago Guide
WHERE TO BIKE IN CENTRAL OTAGO:
The Otago Central Rail Trail
Whilst I’ve covered a fair amount of ground in New Zealand by car and on foot, it felt like time to explore the country in a fresh way. Namely, on two wheels. The Rail Trail in Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s most iconic bike rides. This was one of the main drawcards that made me want to visit this region to begin with.
Stretching across 152 kilometres of ever-changing and ever-stunning landscapes, the Rail Trail passes by expansive countryside and rolling hills, next to winding rivers, and through dramatic gorges and tunnels. The trail is a relatively easy and flat track. This makes it suitable for all ages and skill levels to cycle on. Plus, you can hire e-bikes if you want to make the ride even easier. There is also a lot of flexibility in how much of the trail you do and how long you take to do to fit your own time constraints and fitness levels.
Instead of cycling the entire 150 kilometres of the Otago Rail Trail from Clyde to Middlemarch, we ended up doing about 85km of the track (mainly so we had time to experience some of the regions other highlights). On our first day, we cycled 45 kilometres from the tiny town of Wedderburn. Then we stayed overnight in the historical gold mining town, Ophir. On our second day, we cycled another 40 kilometres from Ophir back to Clyde.
Memorable spots along the Otago Central Rail Trail
Clyde: The start/ finish point of the Rail Trail, Clyde is a gorgeous little town filled with historical buildings and quaint colonial cottages. In town you’ll find wineries, a boutique cinema, boutique B&B’s, and restaurants serving up delicious local fare.
Alexandra: This is the biggest town along the trail, so the perfect place to grab some supplies from the supermarket and take a picnic down to the glistening Clutha river.
Ophir: This tiny authentic gold mining town is located just 2 kilometres off from the Rail Trail and is definitely swinging stopping by. Walking down the street feels like walking back in time as the historical buildings have maintained their facades.
Lauder: This tiny town has a great café to stop along at, situated right along the trail. I’d highly recommend stopping for a homemade cheese scone and a refreshing iced coffee!
Poolburn Gorge: The most dramatic part of the trail. Here you cross through the gorge, then cruise through the two tunnels and into the sweeping Ida Valley. Jump off your bike after the second tunnel and walk up to Tunneler’s camp to get stunning views over the valley.
The Roxburgh Gorge Trail
If you’d rather not do a multi-day cycle, the Roxburgh Gorge Trail is a fantastic ride which can be done from Clyde within a day. We did this trail on our first day, and it really was the perfect introduction to the region. The dramatic bluffs, incredibly turquoise river, and fascinating gold-mining history along the track make for a pretty interesting ride! I will say that the trail is pretty hilly, so I’d recommend getting e-bikes if you aren’t super bike-fit.
From Clyde, you can either ride an easy eight kilometres down the Rail Trail or take the slightly longer but more picturesque track along the river to get to the start of the Roxburgh Gorge Trail in Alexandra. From here, it’s a ten kilometre ride following the Clutha Mata-au River to Doctors Point. The middle section isn’t currently accessible by bike, so you’ll need to hop on a thrilling jet boat ride down the river. (Life is hard I know. Also, a heads up you’ll need to pre-book the jet boat ride). You’ll then meet up on the other side of the trail to cycle another 12 kilometres to get to Lake Roxburgh Dam.
How to Hire Bikes in Central Otago
I would recommend hiring bikes or even organizing your whole biking itinerary with Bike It Now. It’s a bike shop located in Clyde. For us, they organized bike hire, transfers, and accommodation for our cycling adventures in Central Otago. This made the whole thing super convenient as the only thing we had worry about was cycling from point A to point B. They even transferred our luggage between our accommodation, meaning we got to ride easy each day.
WHERE TO STAY + EAT IN CENTRAL OTAGO:
Oliver’s Lodge and Stables, Clyde
The highlight of our time in Clyde was staying at the stunning Oliver’s Lodge and Stables. This boutique hotel and restaurant offers 11 rooms that seamlessly blend old with new. The original complex was built in 1869 and consisted of barns, stables and coach sheds. The owners have ensured the property still remains true to its original heritage value, whilst offering a distinct contemporary ambience and all the comforts one would want in a hotel.
Breakfast is served in a common room that feels like an English cottage. It includes stewed fruit sourced from surrounding orchards, homemade granola, and baked eggs with fresh bread.
The onsite restaurant is also a real highlight! It offers fantastic farm-to-table dining paired with an extensive wine list, including plenty of world-class Central Otago wines. I’d highly recommend the Two Paddocks Pinot Noir. It’s from a vineyard in Clyde and is honestly one of the nicest Pinots I’ve ever tried! Also, make sure you leave room for dessert- the lemon curd cheesecake is beyond words.
Pitches Store, Ophir
On our second night of the Rail Trail, we stayed overnight at Pitches Store in Ophir, which was another lovely boutique hotel. The decor is rustic yet contemporary, and the common area is constantly stocked with tea, coffee, fruit and biscuits. It made the whole property feel very homely. There is even a spa on site- although you have to battle off the sand flies. The attached restaurant is rustic chic, serving up fabulous local wine and dishes like goats cheese soufflé.
Bannockburn Hotel- Wine Country Restaurant & Bar
For an unforgettable dining experience, head to Bannockburn Hotel- Wine Country Restaurant & Bar. What was once a dingy pub has now been transformed into what Gourmet Traveller has named one of the top 50 wine experiences in the world.
The restaurant overlooks the incredibly picturesque Bannockburn Valley, so when the weather is behaving, dining alfresco is a must. Having said this, the cozy yet contemporary interior is equally inviting (particularly on a windy day like when we visited!) The establishment is known for its tapas, so I would highly recommend getting a bunch of dishes to share between the table. The baked Camembert with mushrooms and dates and the empanadas are not to be missed.
Of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete without a local drop of vino. You might need to ask a server for help- the wine list is pretty endless! The restaurant even offers a pick-up service from your accommodation in Cromwell.
If adrenaline and wine is your kind of combination (it certainly is mine), Goldfields offers a package of a Jetboat ride with an added drop off at the Carrick Winery up the river, with a wine tasting and platter waiting for you on arrival. What the Carrick Winery lacks in interior style, it makes up for in fabulous views over the Lake Dunstan.
If you want something more substantial than a platter, the seasonal menu offers some delectable options. I had the Carrick Garden (which was dish of aromatic cauliflower, puy lentil, asparagus, and cashew cream) accompanied by a glass of Carrick Josephine riesling, both of which were phenomenal.
WHERE TO PLAY IN CENTRAL OTAGO
Highlands Motorsport Park
If you have a need for speed, I’d definitely recommend hitting up the Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell. When I first heard of the establishment, I assumed such a place would only appeal to boy racers. Boy, was I wrong. Myself and my three girlfriends spent the morning here and had the time of our lives. After drooling over $4.3 million dollar Aston Martins in the museum, we piled into a Porsche “Taxi” and got whizzed around the racecourse at extreme speeds. After this warm-up, we then took to the track and battled it out on go-karts. If go-karting isn’t enough thrill, the real speed demons can even sign up for self-drives around the racecourse.
The Goldfields Jetboat is a perfect activity to satisfy every level of thrill-seeker – children and seniors included. The ride lasts for about half an hour and takes you across glistening turquoise waters and through the distinctive gorge. If that sounds peaceful, add in many dramatic twists and turns, a handful of 360 spins and a hell of a lot of speed and you’ll have a good picture of what it entails. We got off the jet boat very happy albeit very damp and windswept.
WHERE TO DRINK IN CENTRAL OTAGO
Cloud Bay- The Shed
Cloudy Bay’s newly opened cellar door, The Shed, is fabulously chic yet unpretentious in its every detail. Egg chairs, cushion-heavy lounges and soft blankets creating a comfortable and relaxed space for visitors to come and enjoy Cloudy Bay’s finest drops. We were lucky enough to get to do a private wine tasting, which I would highly recommend if you are seeking an ultra-special experience. We were taken into an private tasting room- an immaculate light and earthy space with floor to ceiling glass walls framing the mountainous backdrop. During the tasting, we found out more about the Cloudy Bay story, sampled four different wines and were served a gourmet platter of local cheeses, French baguettes, dips and cured meats. As far as wine tasting go, I’ve never had such a exquisite experience.
4barrels Wine Trail
If you have some time in Cromwell, take the eight kilometre walk around the lake for a self-guided wine trail, visiting four different winery tasting rooms. This is a great way of experiencing some of Central Otago’s best vineyards whilst avoiding having to make anyone the designated driver!
GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS:
I highly recommend getting travel insurance before ANY international trip. World Nomad’s offer the most flexible worldwide cover that I have come across, and you can purchase a policy online, even if your trip has already commenced. If their prices are too high for you, you can also check out SafetyWings, though SW doesn’t cover tech.
To book flights, I always use flight search engine, Skyscanner. I find it the easiest way to compare flight prices across airlines and get the best deals. Skyscanner also have a free App (available on iOS or Android) which is great for booking flights on the go.
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