The inside guide to Dunedin, New Zealand's lesser-known adventure hotspot
On the eastern shores of the South Island, the city mixes culture with outdoor adventure — and a dash of proud local spirit.
Environmentally blessed, intellectually minded and quirky to its core, Dunedin, the second-biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island, certainly makes an impression. Established as a Scottish settlement in 1848 after the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British, it’s the kind of place where locals are just as proud of winning back the title of the world’s steepest street (from a Welsh challenger) as they are being a UNESCO City of Literature. But it’s also a place firmly driven by community.
Take the old Cadbury chocolate factory — when one of the city’s biggest attractions (and employers) announced it was shutting down, locals rallied to form a co-op and created something better. Now known as Ocho, the Otago Chocolate Company sources fair trade cocoa beans grown by Pacific neighbours in a handmade bean-to-bar process with boutique tastings. It’s just one example of how the people here have made the city their own.
If you’re after more of a taste of the region, Titi, located in the St Clair Hotel, offers five-course tasting menus featuring hyper-local produce with a view over the water. More relaxed bites and barbecues can be found at the Prohibition Smokehouse, while in the city centre, The Swan has small meals and live music in its courtyard on weekends and Vogel St Kitchen serves wood-fired pizzas in an industrial dining space.
Here, you’re in prime position to take in some of the city’s best street art with works by international artists including Roa, Pixel Pancho and Natalia Rak. Follow the Dunedin Street Art Trail by checking out the map on the associated website.
You’ll also find art and intrigue in the Dunedin’s impressive collection of museums and galleries. Standouts include the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, complete with steam locomotive in the foyer, and the Museum of Natural Mystery, an intriguing collection of bones, bone art and design displayed in a private home by artist Bruce Mahalski — look out for the painted symbols on his front fence. The star attraction, however, is Larnach Castle, set in the hills outside the city. Built in the 1870s, the Scottish-style manor has been meticulously restored and has a history that makes the storylines on Downton Abbey look like an episode of children’s cartoon Hey Duggee.
The splendid grandeur of Larnach Castle, alongside the Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the city centre, means Dunedin is often dubbed the ‘Edinburgh of the south’. But escape the city to the peninsula, and Dunedin suddenly feels more like the Galápagos.
The 12-mile-long Otago Peninsula is home to an incredible array of marine life, including both the world’s smallest and rarest penguins: the little blue and yellow-eyed penguin, respectively. It’s also where you’ll find the only mainland breeding colony of the northern royal albatross in the world, which can be viewed from the observatory at the Royal Albatross Centre. Unbeknownst to most visitors, however, is that beneath the colony is the underground Historic Fort Taiaroa, built to protect Dunedin from the threat of Russian invasion in the late 1800s. New Zealand fur seals and the endangered New Zealand sea lion also spend time on the beaches around the peninsula; locals know to keep clear of the territorial sea lions, who often charge if you get too close.
North of the city is the ambitious Orokonui Ecosanctuary, a 760-acre parcel of cultivated forest where endangered and rare species have been introduced, including a breeding pair of the vulnerable takahe, and young southern brown kiwi, the rarest species of kiwi in New Zealand. There are guided walks and tracks through the eco-sanctuary, which is open on weekends.
Of all the area’s natural assets, the black-and-white-sand beaches are a firm favourite with locals and visitors alike. The easiest to access is St Kilda Beach by the Esplanade, but Tunnel Beach is a little more special, featuring spectacular rock arches over the water and accessed by a manmade tunnel carved through the cliffs.
The coast is also a great gateway to experiencing Maori culture. Way out on the Peninsula at night, you can wrap yourself in a sleeping bag, settle in a zero-gravity chair with a cup of hot chocolate and learn about tātai arorangi, or Maori astrology, on a Southern Skies Stargazing tour.
Like a local: Tahu Mackenzie’s favourite outdoor spots
Tahu Mackenzie is an educator at Orokonui Ecosanctuary. She’s also the lead singer of Dunedin-based band, Tahu and the Takahes.
Karitane: North of Dunedin, this town is where you’ll find the Huriawa Peninsula, a striking headline home to a once-thriving Maori fortification known as the pā. Follow the panels on the self-guided walk, which recount some of the stories of the Kati Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki people.
Sand dunes: Dunedin provides many opportunities to get your heart pumping with large dunescapes — particularly at stunning Sandfly Bay, St Kilda and St Clair beaches. Bring your body board for dune surfing!
Tropical Forest at the Otago Museum: On the very rare occasion that it’s overcast and a bit chilly, this wooded escape transports you to the region’s normal warm temperatures with the addition of increased humidity, waterfalls and fluttering butterflies.
Dunedin Botanic Garden: I love taking visitors to this garden to marvel at the beautiful diversity of plant life, from peaceful groves of towering Californian redwoods to the tropical species blooming in the heated indoor winter garden. The trip usually ends with us feeding the resident ducks with free duck food from the information centre.
St Clair Beach: This is one of the best surf beaches in New Zealand, if not the world. It’s also a natural wonderland, with sea lions basking on the white sand, cliffs of volcanic rock to climb, bull kelp swirling in rock pools and rare, endangered fairy prions soaring above.
Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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