Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay offer up some of the Catlins' best scenery, marine wildlife and coastline. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were at the very bottom of the world and could quite easily spend days on end here watching sunrises and sunsets, listening to the surf and enjoying the slow-paced life characteristic of the Catlins.
Porpoise Bay is one of the many areas in NZ that have somehow escaped the huge commercialization that has hit many of the hot tourism areas in the world. Porpoise Bay, is complimented by a long expanse of golden yellow sand backed by rolling green hills. Whilst there are a couple dozen cribs (Kiwi holiday houses) and backpackers along the beach, it seems that much of the world (or those with loads of cash with little respect for the environment) have yet to find out the Catlins even exists. And that's okay by us.
Destination Curio Bay: Orientation
Many Kiwis and tourists refer the the area as 'Curio Bay' and this encompasses both Curio Bay and its neighbor directly to the east, Porpoise Bay. All of the accommodation in the area sits along the sandy beach of Porpoise Bay.
If you're traveling from Dunedin and driving straight through, it would take you about 2.5 hours. Coming from Invercargill, it'd be about 1.5 hours. Similar to just about everywhere in New Zealand, there is no reason to rush - so plan for longer to take in roadside viewpoints, walks, etc.
Destination Curio Bay: Things to Do
This is definitely an area that you could visit planning on doing absolutely nothing but relaxing, reading your book and taking in the coastal views. It's an ideal place to relax for those looking to - 'get away from it all.' Nonetheless, there are heaps of things on offer so consider all or any of these on your visit to Curio Bay.
Surfing. As long as you're not expecting warm water, you can catch some great surf at Porpoise Bay. On the eastern side of the bay, there are some great right hand breaks. Closer to the accommodation lining the beach there are smaller breaks, ideal for beginners or those keen to give stand up paddle-boarding (SUP) a go. The general store on the beach can arrange hire or instruction. Fossil Forest at Curio Bay.
At four hours either side of low tide, head over to Curio Bay to check out the ancient 160 million year old fossil forrest left over from the Jurassic period. From a distance, these fossils appear to be bumps in the rocks that line the beach - yet upon closer inspection, you'll find petrified stumps and fallen logs that have been fossilized over hundreds of thousands of years.
These fossils confirm New Zealand's one time connection to the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland.
Hectors Dolphins. Porpoise Bay is home to the world's rarest dolphins - Hector's Dolphins. There are only an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 left in the world and these are contained to New Zealand's coastal waters - here, off the West Coast at Te Waewaere Bay and the Banks Peninsula. Porpoise Bay is especially unique as the dolphins very often come near shore and even play with surfers and swimmers. In fact, nowhere else in the world do dolphins spend so much time near shore without being fed as they do at Porpoise Bay.
Whilst this is unbelievably special, it's a behavior that unfortunately puts these dolphins at further risk if visitors don't respect their space. Never approach the dolphins - especially if their young are present - and rather simply wait for them to come to you. If they're keen for a play, they'll share the wave with you - we promise!
Yellow Eyed Penguins at Curio Bay.
Curio Bay is also home to one of the rarest penguins in the world - the Yellow Eyed Penguin, or hoiho. It's one of the few places in the world where you can see this rare penguin in its natural habitat.
An hour or so before sunset, these penguins come in from a hard days fishing to nest in the bushes that lay just behind the beach (and the Fossil Forest, above). If you're there about this time, you'll see them come in from sea and slowly but surely make their way to the bushes to nest for the evening.
They're unbelievably cute and quintessentially penguin (ie awkward, flapping wings, etc), yet be sure to give them their space. Signs request you get no closer than 50 metres (about 164 feet) to the penguins, which means you may have to move back as they move closer.
Destination Curio Bay: Accommodation
Nearly all of the accommodation in Curio Bay is found along the beach at Porpoise Bay. When we were there last (April 2012), we stayed at the Lazy Dolphin Lodge (+64 3 246 8579). This clean but basic backpackers had a lovely kitchen upstairs from where you could see the sea. Three double rooms, three twin rooms and a one person dorm which sleeps three ensures there won't be a big crowd.
There are a number of other places around, yet they fill up quickly - especially in high season.
Be sure to book in advance. Alternatively, there is a camping ground on the peninsula between Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay - again, even this will fill up in high season.