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City guide – Dunedin

Little Dunedin isn’t top of everyone’s must-see city list in New Zealand, but this hidden, Highlands-influenced place is well worth a visit.


When planning a three-week driving tour of the South Island, I must admit that Dunedin didn’t feature highly on my list of ‘must-see’ destinations. In fact, in a jam-packed itinerary, it was down there in the category of ‘quick overnight stops’, a place to simply refuel and rest before heading to the more action-packed and scenic Queenstown. However, that was before my boyfriend Mark, who grew up in Dunedin, convinced me to lengthen my stay, assuring me that his home city has scenery, culture and wildlife to rival any of the country’s holiday hotspots. Was he being a little biased, perhaps? I was looking forward to finding out...

Founded by the free Church of Scotland and named after the old gaelic word for “Edinburgh”, Dunedin is to Scotland what Christchurch is to England. And the city’s strong Scottish heritage is very apparent from the moment you arrive: there is Princes Street and George Street, Knox Church, and even a statue of Robbie burns in the stunning octagon, the city’s unusual eight-sided town square. The town also has a few tempting whisky shops selling the finest malt – and if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on the legs) you may catch a glimpse of the owners dressed in Dunedin tartan.

All that’s missing are the bagpipers, highland dancers and the haggis; but I’m informed by a Scottish expat that Dunedin has these too – during ‘high days and holidays’ and at the city’s official Scottish Week, held annually in September. There’s also a Haggis Ceremony performed at Larnach Castle. The only castle in New Zealand, this unique and quirky structure was created in 1871 – the brainchild of eccentric politician William Larnach. Now restored to its former grandeur, it has breathtaking views across the Otago Harbour.

Strolling through the centre of town, I can see why Dunedin is regarded as one of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Commonwealth. following the 19th-century Otago gold rush, it was once New Zealand’s wealthiest and largest city, and this early prosperity is evident in the unique architecture. Buildings too beautiful to miss include the gothic revival-styled first Church; Olveston, a grand Edwardian stately home on Royal Terrace; the Italianate clock- tower of the Municipal Chambers; the impressive Victorian building of New Zealand’s first and pre-eminent university, Otago; and they’re brimming with people from all walks of life.

“If you can unglue yourself from the city’s cafe scene, the raggedly shaped Otago Peninsula lies practically in Dunedin’s backyard and is teeming with wildlife and outdoor activities,” states Lonely Planet. So, ‘unglue’ myself from the café scene I did, and off I went in search of Dunedin’s famous royal albatross colony, the fur seals, sea lions, shags, and the yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho.

After taking the scenic coastal road from the city centre to the stunning location of Taiaroa Head – the only place in the world where the albatross nests so close to civilization – I was lucky enough to see all of the wildlife mentioned above, against a breathtaking backdrop. When David Bellamy described the Otago Peninsula as “the finest example of eco-tourism in the world,” he wasn’t wrong.

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