Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

Cross into Dunedin city limits and you may feel as though you’ve left  New Zealand for a far off land.  Fortunately, it will only take as long as it does to have a conversation with a local Kiwi for you to realize you are in fact still on the South Island.  Dunedin is ripe with foreign influence as Scottish immigrants along with hard working men seeking the riches of gold and the whaling industry founded the city.  From single family homes to downtown buildings, the beautiful architecture holds within it Victorian and Edwardian influences.  They say it’s the largest city by sheer size of its town limits (not population) on the South Island, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it.  The city center itself is rather small and easily walkable in a matter of minutes.  All activity centers around what’s referred to as the Octagon (free internet here!), basically a circle encompassed by some of the city’s most important buildings including the library, the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral, the public art gallery and the municipal buildings.  A handful of cafes and restaurants line the Octagon and the surrounding downtown streets, but in my opinion the city doesn’t boast the selection of other New Zealand cities.  Although every guide book or local tourist literature raves about the cuisine and high-end fashion boutiques, I didn’t find it anything to write home about.  Rather what makes Dunedin one of my favorite New Zealand cities is the small-town feel and its proximity to everything naturally New Zealand.

Just kilometeres outside of the Dunedin you’ll find the Otago Peninsula, which has earned Dunedin the title of eco-capital of New Zealand.  The peninsula itself isn’t a bragging point as many areas of New Zealand’s coastline offer similar landscapes, but it’s the peninsula’s inhabitants that make it so spectacular.  The peninsula is home to the rare yellow eyed penguins, the great white albatrosses, fur seals and sea lions.  Now, before you get overly excited thinking you’re going have the wildlife encounter of a life time – know that most areas where you see this wildlife lyes on private land and hiring a tour is the only way to see them.  That’s what you’ll be told at the local isite as well, but luckily there is another way.  The Department of Corrections maintains Sandfly Beach, which serves as a natural nesting ground for the rare yellow eyed penguin.  The walk down to the beach is more like a slide down some very loose sand dunes – so take your shoes off and let your toes sink into the sand as you skid down to the beach.  Note: the climb back up is brutal, but if you’ve just encountered some of New Zealand’s cutest creatures you’ll be flying high and willing to make the climb.  When you’re actually on the beach stay away from each end as they’re off limits.  If they see you – they will not come ashore.  While you and most other tourists may think that’s simply not true – it is.  While we were there the beach was filled with people walking the shore pestering the fur seals that have beached themselves to rest.  It wasn’t until the beach had nearly cleared and we were the only two walking to leave that a couple of penguins slid from the cold water and waddled across the beach to the sand dunes beyond.  The birds generally come ashore anywhere from 3:30pm to 5:30pm.

If you do chose to join a tour there are a couple options to chose from.  A 90 minute guided tour of Penguin Place (another conservation area) costs $49.00 nzd per person.  Or, you can pony up $55.00 nzd per person for the Natural Wonders Wildlife tour.  Elm Wildlife Tours operates on their own “conservation area”, giving visitors a chance to see albatross, penguins, fur seals and hooker sealions, but it will cost you about $99.00 nzd to $208.00 nzd per person depending on the length of the tour you choose.

The notable Larnach Castle is also located in the center of the Otago Peninsula.  New Zealand’s only castle doesn’t hold a candle to those elsewhere around the world, but if you have the time and the extra cash, a quick tour could be a good addition to your day.  We opted to skip the castle after a couple we met from England scoffed at paying the extra money to see what they referred to as something more like a house.  Cost is $28.00 nzd per adult and $10.00 nzd for children.  More information here.

While no “freedom camping” is allowed on the peninsula itself, there are about three Dunedin City Council parking lots in and around downtown that are open to camper vans to park for free for two consecutive nights.  The two parking lots flanking either side of the landmark Dunedin Train Station and one DCC lot just behind the municipal buildings and library (although the latter lot is not flat and very small – I would recommend parking around the train station) – just make sure the sign when entering the lot says DCC or Dunedin City Council on the sign.  There is, however, a free dump station on the Otago Peninsula located at the Portobello Village Tourist Park.

Before you imagine yourself setting off into the wilderness, just know the peninsula is also home to a host of hotels/motels, boutique shops and a decent selection of cafes and restaurants as well as hundreds of homes.  The drive deeper into the peninsula offers spectacular views of the bays and the city of Dunedin itself, but the roads do get pretty narrow and windy.  Pick up your street map, map of the peninsula’s walking trails and a guide to art studios and restaurants at the icenter in downtown Dunedin before setting out.

Dunedin is also home to the steepest street in the world.  Baldwin Street lies slightly more than 3 kilometers to the north east of downtown.  The 35% grade has earned the street top honors from the ultimate judge – the Guinness Book of World Records.  A walk up the street is cheesy, but it only takes a few minutes therefore making it a must on a any trip to Dunedin.  Hey, you can at least say you’ve walked the worlds steepest street although you’ll feel slightly silly and realize it’s highly overrated by the time you’re done with your climb.

If you happen upon the city on a Saturday – make sure your first stop is the Otago Farmers Market held each Saturday morning and early afternoon in the parking lot aside the Dunedin Railway Station.  Here you’ll find a host of fresh produce, some of it organic, hearty meats, delicious cheeses, honey, jams, breads, etc.  This is the place to eat your heart out, have a cup of coffee and a crepe, or simply mill around the various booths talking with the wonderful farmers.

While you’re there – stop and snap a photo of the trains station itself..everybody else is.  The Dunedin Railway Station is said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand, and when you get there you’ll see why.  In true Dunedin style, the building more resembles something built on foreign soils.  If you have some extra time, this is where you catch the train through the famed Taieri Gorge.

While in Dunedin, we opted to spend most of our day at the library (located just off the Octagon) charging our batteries and soaking up as much free wireless internet as we could (it’s much faster and more reliable than the nearby Octagon wifi).  However, we were lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time wandering the streets, doing the “mini-tour” at Cadbury world, climbing the world’s steepest street and perusing the stalls of the Otago Farmers Market all while staying for free in the DCC parking lot at the base of the footbridge aside the Dunedin Railway Station.  If I were you, I wouldn’t spend more than two days exploring Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, but I would definitely make it part of a tour of New Zealand’s South Island.