When I heard about the Cape Palliser seals, I just knew we had to go. It wasn’t on our original North Island itinerary but we had yet to see any seals in New Zealand – we all know I’m a sucker for wildlife – Cape Palliser seemed like the perfect place to go!
It’s a little off the beaten path and not somewhere I had heard of before, but after our brief visit, I’m amazed it’s not more well known. It’s not too far from Wellington and there are loads more on offer here than a few stinky (but cute) Cape Palliser seals.
Curious to see what else is hiding at Cape Palliser? This beautiful little area at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island might surprise you.
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Where is Cape Palliser
I first learned about Cape Palliser from a fellow traveller. We were both enjoying Castle Point Lighthouse when she asked if we’d seen the Cape Palliser Seal Colony. She shared exciting details about the area but it wasn’t until that evening, long after saying goodbye to her, that I realised I didn’t actually know where it was.
Thankfully, Cape Palliser is the south-easternmost point of New Zealand’s North Island so we hadn’t missed it.
It’s roughly two hours away from Wellington, so if you find yourself at the capitol and haven’t yet visited Cape Palliser, it’s still an awesome day trip option!
Wellington to Cape Palliser
Like I said, travelling from Wellington to Cape Palliser will only take you around 2 hours. So it’s really easy to reach for a full or even half-day trip from New Zealand’s Capital.
The landscape changes dramatically as you drive from Wellington to Cape Palliser so make sure you factor in time for roadside stops and photo opportunities – this is a common theme across the whole of New Zealand, Cape Palliser is no different.
One important thing to know before you head off from Wellington to Cape Palliser is there are no fuel stations once you reach the peninsula. You’ll need to fuel up before you leave the city or at the very least before you reach Cape Palliser Road.
Things to do at Cape Palliser, New Zealand
Cape Palliser Seal Colony
You’ve probably guessed by now that this was the main reason for us coming so far out of our way to Cape Palliser. We had originally planned to go straight to Wellington from Castle Point but never mind.
The Cape Palliser seal colony is the biggest semi-permanent colony on the North Island. These seals have made Cape Palliser their home and can be found here almost all year round.
Finding the Cape Palliser seal colony is easy. Simply follow Cape Palliser road all the way down to the small coastal village of Mangatoetoe, towards the lighthouse (more on that soon). Just as you start to come out of the village, look to the rocky coastline and you’ll see hundreds of New Zealand fur seals.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Cape Palliser Seal Colony
These seals are here all year round but if you want to see the smallest of the Cape Palliser Seal Colony, then the best time to visit is between November and January.
This is breeding season for the Cape Palliser Seal Colony, and all New Zealand Fur Seals, but it’s also when last years pups begin to fend for themselves and this years pups are born – female fur seals will mate again within days of giving birth. During these months you’ll be able to see a good selection of seal behaviour at the Cape Palliser Seal Colony and hopefully get some cute photos of the pups.
Our top tip is to park up somewhere in the village and walk to the lighthouse. That way you get to see the entire colony. Driving past you’ll miss most of them and being on foot gives you the chance to stop safely and watch their behaviour.
Please keep dogs and small children away from the seal colony and avoid getting closer than 3meters.
If you do drive. Please drive slowly. Too many seals, especially young pups, get hit by speeding cars. So please slow down – especially at night.
Quick facts about Cape Palliser Seals
- They’re New Zealand Fur Seals (Pointy noses + visible ears)
- The breeding season is from mid-November to mid-January.
- Pups leave the colony in the Spring
- They feed on squid and medium sized fish, if prey numbers drop the seals will move on to somewhere with a better food source
Cape Palliser Lighthouse and Cape Palliser Lookout
If you had already heard of Cape Palliser, it was probably because of its lighthouse. I had seen pictures of it but it wasn’t until I stood in front of it that I realised it was at Cape Palliser.
Located at the very end of Cape Palliser Road, this infamous lighthouse is hard to miss as it stands high on the top of a steep hill. It is only accessible by climbing the 252 steep steps that were built onto the hillside. Before these steps, the lighthouse managers used to have to scramble up the muddy bank to reach the top.
At the top of the stairs is Cape Palliser Lighthouse, and what is sometimes called Cape Palliser Lookout because of the fantastic 180’ views out over Palliser Bay. It’s not uncommon to see whales out at sea if you look hard enough, or even dolphins playing in the shallows.
If you decide to follow our previous tip and walk from Mangatoetoe to Cape Palliser Lighthouse, it’s a pleasant 30 minute walk along the roadside. We found the road wasn’t too busy and there’s plenty of grass verge to escape to if a car does come along.
For those who are travelling in a big motorhome or van, walking might be your only option as the road is very narrow and is prone to slips during the winter when the seas are rougher.
The last stretch is completely unsealed gravel road – another reason to drive slowly.
No drones allowed at Cape Palliser Lighthouse.
Cool Facts About Cape Palliser Lighthouse
- It was originally built in Birmingham, England, before being shipped to New Zealand in pieces and rebuilt in 1897
- The cliff it stands on was formed by a volcanic eruption over 100million years ago and is 58m above sea level
- Even though the lighthouse is successful, there are still estimated to be around 20 shipwrecks in the waters around Cape Palliser, purely down to how hazardous the waters are here
- The original gas lamp was replaced by electric lights in 1954
- The stairs have been in place since 1912
- It is the only red and white striped lighthouse in New Zealand
Aorangi Forest Park
If you’re a keen hiker, the Aorangi Forest Park is another place to add to your list.
This beautiful native bushland has a 3-5 day hike running through it called the Aorangi Crossing that starts at the Putangirua Pinnacles track before rising up and above the rock formations and cutting through the forests to give you unbeatable views of the area.
There are several huts along this track to make the multi-day hike easier. More information on the walk and how to book the huts can be found on the DOC website.
Not a lover of multi-day hikes? You could always walk a small section and return on the same track.
You can take dogs inside Aorangi Forest Park as long as they are kept under control at all times.
Other things to do near Cape Palliser, New Zealand
This is the most famous thing to do near Cape Palliser but yet, it’s as far as many will go. It’s also the first attraction you reach on Cape Palliser Road, so by turning back here people miss out on the rest of what this stunning peninsula has to offer.
The Putangirua Pinnacles are famed for their appearance in New Zealand’s lesser-known film – Lord of The Rings.
This filming location is now a popular spot for those who are ticking off Lord of The Rings film locations in New Zealand – there’s plenty of them.
I expected it to be quite busy here but there was just us and one other couple.
There are several track options at the Putangirua Pinnacles varying from 2 – 4 hours return. Because we knew we wanted to continue down the road to Cape Palliser Lighthouse and seals, we chose to do the shorter walk by following the riverbed.
The Putangirua Pinnacles riverbed track is the easiest and quickest route to get to the unique rock formations.
The track zigzags it’s way along the shallow river – obviously, be careful after times of heavy rain – up the naturally formed gorge. If you know the scene in Lord of The Rings, this is the track to follow if you want to feel as though you’re in the film.
At the end of the track, we found ourselves walking among the Putangirua Pinnacles. Standing at the base of them looking up at them, it really is amazing that they’re still standing. Many look incredibly unstable to the point where I was wary about getting too close.
The other tracks take you up above the Putangirua Pinnacles. While you don’t get to walk through them on this track, the bird’s eye view is a better place for taking photos.
You might see signs about not climbing the pinnacles or going beyond the fence. Seems like an obvious statement doesn’t it, especially when you see how unstable they are. Well. Climbers have been known to get themselves stranded on the Putangirua Pinnacles, so heed the warnings and don’t be dumb.
Onoke Spit + Ocean Beach
This is another hidden gem at Cape Palliser that, unless you knew it was there, you would drive straight past it on your way from Wellington to Cape Palliser.
This little quiet corner of Cape Palliser, New Zealand is a bird lovers paradise. The low tides and nearby wetlands have made this place a sanctuary to many of New Zealand’s native birds and when the tide is in, dolphins sometimes take advantage of this sheltered bay too!
It’s an important part of New Zealand’s landscape and a rarity due to its resistance against invading grass species, the lack of grazing cattle and the fact it has yet to have housing built around it. Amongst the native dune plant life, you might also be able to see the rare Katipo spider – a relative to Australia’s Redback.
Towards the Eastern end of the spit is a shipwreck. Though not completely visible, this historic shipwreck has been here since 1904 when the ship Addenda ran aground here. Now it lies buried beneath the mud with only a few dozen iron hull fasteners remaining visible above the ground.
Cape Palliser Accommodation
Air B+B is popular in New Zealand and the options in here are probably among some of the most scenic.
Prices for Air B+B Accommodation in Cape Palliser vary from $100 – $160 a night. You can grab yourself an $80 discount off your first Air B+B stay by signing up through our link.
While Air B+B is gaining popularity in smaller communities, the old fashioned B+B’s are still going strong. There are quite a few around Cape Palliser.
You can use websites like booking.com to check availability
Cape Palliser Camping
If you’ve been with us long enough, you’ll know that camping is always our top priority when we go somewhere new. Our visit to this part of the North Island was while we were road tripping in a Britz Motorhome so it made sense for us to have a look at the Cape Palliser camping options. Surprisingly, there’s quite a few!
Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite
This is a DOC run campsite at the entrance to the Putangirua Pinnacles. It is first come first served and does not require booking. There is a self check-in desk at the campsite which is where you also pay your fees. Prices start from $4 a night and can be found on the DOC website.
This is where we chose to camp and I have to say, the views from here are beautiful!
This is a free unpowered campsite that is open to all campers as it has onsite toilets. It is also first come first served. This is possibly the most popular Cape Palliser camping spot so try to get there early if you know you want to stay here overnight.
Waimeha Holiday Park
If you need electric hookup at your Cape Palliser camping location, this is the place to go. They are located just outside the small village of Ngawai and have both electric and non-powered hookup as well as cabins and a wide range of camping facilities. You will need coins for their showers.
Prices start from $15 a night. Booking is advised but not essential.
Quick takeaways for Cape Palliser
- Don’t end your trip at the Putangirua Pinnacles. Continue to the end of Cape Palliser Road to experience the entire offerings of Cape Palliser.
- Cape Palliser Road is narrow and windy with several sections of gravel. Take care when driving.
- Watch out of wildlife, including seals on the roads.
- No fuel once you get on to the peninsula.
Has Cape Palliser made its way on to your New Zealand itinerary now? The seals alone did it for me but I’m so glad we spent a whole day here. There’s certainly enough to keep you busy at Cape Palliser! Have you been to the bottom end of the North Island yet? Let us know what you thought!