Quarantine Island Dunedin

Central Otago Touring Route: A Terrific Trail

Alexia Santamaria discovers that travelling from Queenstown to Dunedin encompasses spectacular landscapes, unique attractions, and even plenty to keep the teenagers entertained.

If you ask Google Maps for directions from Queenstown to Dunedin it will give you a couple of suggestions. One is the route via State Highway 8 through Bannockburn, Roxburgh and Waitanuna; the other opts for State Highway 6 and 1 via Lumsden, Gore and Balclutha. What it doesn’t yet suggest is heading southeast via the relatively new Central Otago Touring Route; this is a shame as it’s truly a spectacular way to get between these two well-known cities, especially in a motorhome. If you’re still undecided on where to take your family this Christmas or anytime this summer, this could be exactly what you’re looking for. The total drive time is only four hours but there’s so much to do, it would be ideal for anything from a 4-7 day adventure, more if you want some extra time at either end.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re hitting the Central Otago Touring Road this year.

Mountain views en route to Naseby
Mountain views en route to Naseby

The Route

The Central Otago Touring Route is a 341km journey through some truly stunning parts of the lower South Island. It winds from Queenstown through Arrowtown, Cromwell, Clyde, Alexandra, Oturehua, Ranfurly, Middlemarch and ends at Otepoti/Dunedin – or in reverse, depending on where you want to start. It was officially launched at the end of 2020 – complete with impossible-to-miss big shiny brown signposts – by Central Otago Tourism as a way to bring several highlights of the region together, and to get people to explore this part of the country in a little more depth. There’s a flash new website centralotagotouringroute.co.nz and a brochure that encourages people to slow down and enjoy the myriad of activities, vistas and quirky detours along the way. It’s definitely worth a poke around the website pre-departure.

Bookended by larger tourist centres Queenstown and Dunedin, The Central Otago Touring Route is the perfect Kiwi road trip for families – especially city-based ones who might not have experienced the charms of small town New Zealand. The contrast of large tourist attractions and tiny historic towns provides a varied holiday, with something for everyone. We found it particularly entertaining watching our children understand the concept of people living somewhere with no mall, no large supermarket and definitely no laser tag or time out arcade. 

Alexandra Bridge
Alexandra Bridge
Views of stunning Alexandra
Views of stunning Alexandra

The Scenery

Drop, dead and gorgeous are the only words that apply here. You’ll need to factor in extra time on this trip for stopping to snap endless pics of plummeting gorges, turquoise rivers, rolling green pastures and otherworldly landscapes – all set against a backdrop of soaring ranges. Double this extra time if you have teens trying to make their mates jealous on social media – there’s plenty of envy-inducing ‘content’. Watching the snaking highway vanish into a blue and snow-capped horizon out your motorhome window will be a daily exercise in awe and the whole trip could not be a better de-stressor after a rollercoaster of a year; there are moments where it truly feels meditative watching the New Zealand countryside roll by. The Central Otago Touring Route really does have a bit of everything, from the well-documented alpine charms of Queenstown, through gold rush settlements bursting with historic character, the Maniototo Plain, beautiful Strath Taieri and on to the wild Pacific Ocean at the other end. Big sky views are punctuated with plenty of gorgeous flora from lowland forest to alpine tussock; if you ban devices while on the move, even your kids will be impressed at the sights. Well, hopefully.

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The Food

It can sometimes be a bit hit and miss on trips that include small town stops but that’s not the case on the Central Otago Touring Route. Of course you’re spoiled for choice in Queenstown with fabulous cocktails and pan-Asian delights at Blue Kanu, those flatbreads at the Sherwood, Mexican at Margo’s (or on the run from Taco Medic) and the kids won’t let you leave town without a Fergburger or pie from Fergbaker. But the good food continues outside the tourist haven – insanely good smoked meats cooked in French Oak Pinot Noir Barrels at The Stoaker Room in Cromwell – kids will love the enormous burgers and you’ll love the grown up food; great cafe far at Pitches Store in Ophir; locally raised Maniatoto Provenance Lamb and other delights at the Royal Naseby Hotel; excellent savoury scones at Kissing Gate Cafe in Middlemarch and of course whatever you feel like in Otepoti. Our family enjoyed classy but family friendly bistro eats at No7 Balmac, high tea at Larnach Castle, modern bakery fare at Side on, Scandinavian food at Adjo and the best fish and chips we’ve ever had at Dunedin institution Best Cafe. Top tip for the whole route – get a cheese roll in every town. It’s a delicious trail of comparison and it’s rude not to indulge in the ‘sushi of the south’ when you’re in these parts. Of course it goes without saying wine lovers are well catered for – it’s Central Otago after all!

Scott Base Winery
You won’t be short of good food and wine options on the trail
Dog With Two Tails
Don’t miss the boutique distillery in the window of Dog With Two Tails

The History

So much of the formation of the towns on this route was a direct result of the gold rush of the late 1800s. Towns were erected to house prospectors and the subsequent merchants who came to help avail them of their newly-earned riches and many of the buildings from that era have been well-preserved to this day. It’s worth visiting the Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown before you start the journey proper, these small towns are even more fascinating when you have the lowdown on their ‘sparkling’ past and it’s a really fun and interactive way for kids to learn (beware the toilet exhibition if your little ones frighten easily!).

Olveston Historic Homestead
Olveston Historic Homestead in Dunedin
Old Cromwell
Cromwell is just one of the beautifully preserved historic towns on the trail

The Accommodation

Holiday parks on the Central Otago Touring Route vary from basic to fully kitted out but all we stayed at were clean and well serviced with friendly staff. Depending on how long you’re choosing to take to do this route (four days is a good minimum but it’s advisable to draw it out longer) these are some recommended places to plug in and wash your body somewhere that’s not a motorhome.


The Activities

Aside from appreciating the natural beauty out the window (kids can be a tough audience) there is so much to actually do on this route. Of course, Queenstown has its well-known activities – the luge, gondola, bungy, walks, biking, ice skating (try the ice bumper cars – think bumper boats minus the wet pants). But there are also places like Oxbow Adventure Co where the jetsprint boats – 0 to 100km in 2.5 seconds – or the custom-built four wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer off-roaders will definitely impress kids who like a bit of adrenaline. Arrowtown is always worth a day. Our kids especially loved hiring pans from Arrowtown Gold panning company and trying their luck after a fun lesson.

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Don’t be fooled into thinking Highlands Motorsport Park is only for petrolhead families. Everyone will enjoy renting cycles from Trail Journeys for the ‘Power Hour’ before the motorsport park opens (you can cycle on the track itself before any cars get on it) and the go karting, fast taxi lap, Highlands Museum – plenty of hands-on fun – and the famous ‘Loo with a View’ will keep you all entertained for the best part of half a day. There’s also a great sculpture park with endless selfie possibilities.

Oxbow Jet
Thrills and spills at Oxbow Adventure Co
Campervan parked at Sutton Salt Lake
Alexia’s campervan parked at Sutton Salt Lake

 And of course, there’s the newly opened Lake Dunstan Cycle trail (bike hire is easy from Central Cycle Trail if you haven’t brought your own bikes) curling in Naseby – don’t miss this, it’s a world of fun for all ages – and New Zealand’s only inland salt lake, just out of Middlemarch where the scenery could totally be the backdrop for a movie that takes place on another planet. It’s an hour-long easy walk, there might be whingeing but the scenery really is stunning.

 It’s obviously worth spending a few days at both end of the trip (Queenstown and Dunedin) – between the little blue penguins, the albatross colony, Larnach Castle, Escape Dunedin (set in the actual former prison), the farmers markets, the amazing museums, Natures Wonder Argo tour (a must-do for any New Zealander) and all the great food you’re definitely not going to want to leave Ōtepoti after a day.

 While this year really has been at times dismal for travel, The Central Otago Touring Route will go a long way to helping you forget the year of Delta. It’s a fabulous mix of breathtaking scenery, quirky towns, good food and wine, action and adventure and historical interest which will intrigue and delight even the best travelled Kiwi family. It’s an easy enough route to drive, and will suit anyone from motorhome owners of many years to those dipping their toes into the hire game for the first time.

Alexia's teens pan for gold in Arrowtown
Alexia’s teens pan for gold in Arrowtown
St Clair Beach, Dunedin
St Clair Beach is a favourite with Dunedin locals

More Information

For information on where to stay:

Each tourism site (the route encompasses three regions) has information on where you can freedom camp if you’re fully self-contained. With views like these it would be crazy not to do it for at least one night.

Looking for motorhomes or caravans for sale in NZ? Browse our latest listings here. 

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