The darkly Gothic harbourside city of Dunedin is the largest city in the southern half of the South Island, its population of around 120,000 bolstered by 25,000 students from the University of Otago – New Zealand’s oldest tertiary institution – who contribute to a strong arts scene, as well as vibrant nightlife, during term time at least.
The university aside, the city hasn’t had a lot of investment in recent decades and while some sections can feel a bit shabby it does mean that classic buildings remain unaffected by recent architectural meddling, giving a harmonious uniformity.
Although Dunedin spreads beyond the suburb-strung hills and surf beaches, the city has a compact and manageable heart, centred on The Octagon. This manicured, tree-lined green space is bordered by the art gallery, the Neoclassical Municipal Chambers and the schizophrenic St Paul’s Cathedral. Further afield, the newly revamped Otago Settlers Museum is sure to impress, while the Chinese Gardens offer contemplative calm. It is worth a look in the nearby Dunedin Railway Station even if you’re not making a journey on the time-warped Taieri Gorge Railway.
Beer and chocolate are always winners, best experienced on the Cadbury World tour and Speight’s Brewery Tour. Towards the north of the central city, Olveston gives a taste of Dunedin life from its heyday, a topic treated more formally in the Otago Museum. The Botanic Garden climbs up to the memorial on Signal Hill where you can look down on Otago Harbour, a sheltered inlet 22km long and no wider than a river in places. The harbour is protected from the ocean by the wonderful Otago Peninsula.
Local buses get you quickly to Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest, and to the sandy beaches of St Clair and St Kilda, the former with a classy hotel and cluster of cafés.
From around 1100 AD, Maori fished the rich coastal waters of nearby bays, travelling inland in search of moa, ducks and freshwater fish, and trading with other iwi further north. Eventually they formed a settlement around the harbour, calling it Otakou (pronounced “O-tar-go”) and naming the headland at the harbour’s entrance after their great chieftain, Taiaroa – today a marae occupies the Otakou site. By the 1820s European whalers and sealers were seeking shelter in what was the only safe anchorage along this stretch of coast, unwittingly introducing foreign diseases. The local Maori population was decimated, dropping to a low of 110, but subsequent intermarriage bolstered numbers.
The Scots arrive
The New Zealand Company selected the Otago Harbour for a planned Scottish settlement as early as 1840 and purchased land from local Maori, but it wasn’t until 1848 that the first migrant ships arrived, led by Captain William Cargill and the Reverend Thomas Burns, nephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. With the arrival of English and Irish settlers the following year, the Scots were soon in the minority, but their national fervour still stamped its distinct character on the town.
The prospectors arrive
In 1861, a lone Australian prospector discovered gold at a creek near present-day Lawrence, about 100km west of Dunedin. Within three months, diggers were pouring in from Australia, and as the main port of entry Dunedin found itself in the midst of a gold rush. The port was expanded, and the population doubled in six months, trebled in three years and made the city New Zealand’s most important. This new-found wealth spurred a building boom that resulted in much of the city’s most iconic architecture, including the university.
By the 1870s gold mania had largely subsided, but the area sustained its economic primacy through shipping, railway development and farming. Decline began during the early twentieth century, when the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 made Auckland a more economic port for British shipping. In the 1980s, the improvement in world gold prices and the development of equipment enabling large-scale recovery of gold from low-yielding soils re-established mining in the hinterland. Today you can visit the massive operation at Macraes, an hour’s drive from Dunedin.Read More
Rugby in Dunedin
Rugby in Dunedin
There’s no surer way to get a real taste of Dunedin in party mode than to attend a rugby match at the new 30,000-seater Forsyth Barr Stadium (w forsythbarrstadium.co.nz) at 130 Anzac Avenue, 2km east of The Octagon. The city is proud of having the world’s only fully roofed, natural-turf stadium, but its $200 million construction (in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup) was controversial and put huge strains on the local ratepayers. Highlanders Super 15 games are held every second weekend during the season (late Feb–July) and there are occasional All Black Games (generally May–Oct). For free schedules and ticket sales visit The Champions of the World shop, 8 George St (Mon–Fri 9am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4pm; t 03 477 7852).
Dunedin’s scenic railways
Dunedin’s scenic railways
Dunedin’s dramatic railway station marks the start of two wonderfully scenic train trips, both run by the Taieri Gorge Railway (03 477 4449, taieri.co.nz). One threads inland through the Taieri Gorge itself while the other winds along a spectacular coastal route north to Palmerston.
The Taieri Gorge route
The Taieri Gorge journey stretches 77km northwest from Dunedin through rugged hill country. Constructed between 1879 and 1921, the line once carried supplies a total of 235km from Dunedin to the old gold town of Cromwell, returning with farm produce, fruit and livestock bound for the port. Commercial traffic stopped in 1990, and much of the route was turned into the Otago Central Rail Trail, but the most dramatic section – through the schist strata of the Taieri Gorge – continues to offer a rewarding journey at any time of year.
Most trains run as far as Pukerangi (58km from Dunedin), a lonely wayside halt near the highest point of the track (250m) where you wait a few minutes then head back. Some services continue a further 19km to the old gold town of Middlemarch.
The air-conditioned train is made up of a mix of modern steel carriages with large panoramic windows and nostalgic, refurbished 1920s wooden cars. Storage is available for backpacks and bicycles, and there’s a licensed snack bar on board.
Taieri Gorge and rail trail combos
As well as the day-trips, the Taieri Gorge trip makes an excellent way to start your journey inland towards Wanaka and Queenstown. Buses meet the train at Pukerangi or Middlemarch and head through the Maniototo to Queenstown: book through the Taieri Gorge Railway.
Cyclists can take the train (bikes go free, though they need to be booked) then hop straight onto the Otago Central Rail Trail.
A completely different but equally picturesque rail journey, the Seasider, leaves Dunedin Railway Station and runs along the main northbound line 66km up the coast to Palmerston. It initially follows the flank of Otago Harbour then winds through Port Chalmers to Blueskin Bay with tunnels, bridges and great coastal views all the way. The train ($86 return; $57 one-way; 4hr return) runs sporadic days throughout the year (check the website for times) and stops for 30min for coffee in Palmerston.