FROM CAFES AND BARS HIDING BEHIND HERITAGE FACADES TO THE WILD SIDE, YOU’LL BE SURPRISED HOW MUCH YOU CAN PACK INTO A WEEKEND EXPLORING NEW ZEALAND’S SOUTHERN CITY
Dunedin locals call it the 10-minute city. They may be describing a convenient commute and “traffic” that barely warrants the word, but that’s also all the time it takes to be totally transported.
To be whisked into the Edwardian era by immaculately preserved architecture and back into the current day through art-splashed alleyways, to feel the sea spray as surfers slice through the waves metres from restaurant diners, or to peer into the rarely seen world of the wild things.
Creatures and comfort coexist in New Zealand’s southern city with a Scottish soul, making for a uniquely accessible experience for visitors who board the three-and-a-halfhour direct flight from Brisbane.
But cities only give up their best secrets when you get to know them and Dunedin is no exception.
Get a local guide on your side because things are not always as they seem.
New New New Craft Brew House hides in historic brick stables, forming a Friday night hub for food trucks, fresh brews and live music where I sample beeramisu for the first (but not last) time.
A lofty, light-flooded warehouse once home to John McIndoe Printers is reincarnated as Vogel St Kitchen, a comforting sensory cocktail of coffee and wood-fired pizza seeping into those heritage-heavy beams. Even my hotel — the suave Distinction Dunedin — has a former life as the city’s Chief Post Office built in the 1930s. It’s on the doorstep of the rejuvenated warehouse precinct and about a 10-minutes stroll to the city’s octagonal heart, where I spend a day roaming boutiques, galleries and charming cafes.
Time is under a spell on the steep streets that spiral from The Octagon, but it’s the antique-crammed Olveston Historic Home that brings Downton Abbey style fancies to vivid life. Built in 1906 by Dunedin businessman, collector and philanthropist David Theomin and with no heirs to inherit, the home and its original contents were gifted to the city. With chandelier-shadowed tables set up in all their silverwear splendour, family life feels but a breath away.
Another of those 10-minute transport hops (easily navigable in my little Avis rental) takes me to hip seaside suburb St Clair for an early dinner. From the bay windows at rustic Italian eatery Esplanade I watch as wetsuit-clad surfers brave the waves while munching on soul-warming pasta and sipping wine (and a rather less-adult but every bit as satisfying Whittaker’s chocolate shake).
Thanks to autumn’s slow-burning sunsets, I still have time to visit the photogenic Tunnel Beach, tucked just over the hill amid sea-carved sandstone cliffs.
The popular walk is named for a tunnel that local politician John Cargill commissioned for his family in the 1870s, descending 72 dimly lit steps to a tide-washed beach. I explore ruggedly beautiful rock arches and secret stretches of sand to a soundtrack of crashing waves before hightailing it back to the car before dark. Distracted by the beguiling blue ocean on the horizon I barely noticed the slope on the way down, but be warned — you’ll feel every step on the way back. Factor in time for a breather if you aren’t fighting fit.
My second day in Dunedin delves deeper into its wild side. The road to Otago Peninsular unwinds a whisker from the water’s edge, the scenic drive an attraction in its own right. Allow a full day to explore the many stops along the way, including Lanarch Castle on its proud panoramic perch. It’s free to stroll through Glenfalloch Gardens, where you can find a woodland grove or rose-framed portal for a peaceful picnic, but you won’t regret splashing out on a meal in the local-produce-focused restaurant.
Continuing to wind my way down the peninsular, clouds charge across the sky, propelled by squalls that making standing
upright a challenge. Yet, the region’s most famous residents are in their element.
At the end of the road, the stars of the world’s only mainland albatross colony are showing off, surfing the currents above the Royal Albatross Centre on three-metre wings.
The largest seabirds on earth normally breed on remote islands and spend at least 85 per cent of their lives at sea, well away from human view. The breeding birds, flying around 190,000km a year, arrive at Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula in September. Laying only one egg per pair each two years, they are wonderful parents.
I join a small, hushed group that is led to a hillside hide where four precious white fluffballs, hatched from late January to early February, are hunkered in silvery grass.
In the words of David Attenborough, this “is a place that every visitor to Dunedin should see”.
Monarch Wildlife cruises offer another perspective of the peninsula’s population.
Cocooned in puffy warm jackets, with only our eyes peeking out, we chart a course through the whitecaps with wee blue penguins playing in our wake.
I’m told these waters are typically very calm, with wind speeds more to the liking of peaky passengers than adrenaline-seeking albatross, but balancing on the bow and turning chilled cheeks into the wind, conditions turn out to be as invigorating as the occasional drenching of seawater.
We skirt breeding rookeries of NZ furseals to watch pups playing on the rocks and get an unparalleled perspective of the unique birdlife, keeping our eyes peeled for an ensemble cast of orcas, dolphins and sea lions.
Returning to shore windswept and interested, nothing beats knowing that city comforts, whisky bars and one musclemeltingly hot shower are mere minutes away.
For more go to dunedinnz.com