Get wild, get cultured, get fed and then get to bed: the essential guide to a perfect few days in the southern city.
There’s one thing that preoccupies the staff of The Spinoff almost as much as arranging popular food items into arbitrary lists, and that’s Dunedin. A quite remarkable number of us were either born in Ōtepoti or spent our student days there, and we love nothing more than expounding on its myriad delights. But the thing is, Dunedin isn’t the same as it was when we last called it home – it’s so much better, with more great places to eat, drink and stay than ever before. Below, a few highlights from a memorable recent visit.
Yes, your city is beautiful. But take it from us, it’s not beautiful like Dunedin is. Walk up the hill, through the city-hugging Town Belt, and pause to catch your breath and take in the view. From up here, the splendour of Dunedin’s harbour setting is on full display. On one side the coast stretches north to Port Chalmers, and beyond that, Aramoana; on the other is the long finger of land known as the Otago Peninsula. In between lies the Otago Harbour, a spectacular 21km water channel that boasts an encyclopaedia’s worth of seabirds and marine mammals. The world’s only mainland colony of northern royal albatrosses are located in this area, as well as iconic yellow-eyed penguins, and you can see them both on excursions from the central city.
Located a 45-minute drive from the city, the glass-walled observatory at the Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula headland offers visitors a chance to see these giants coming in to land. Next door is the vast family farm/private conservation area belonging to the Reid family who are passionate about protecting the wildlife of this area, and sharing it with visitors through their Natures Wonders tour company. Clamber aboard an Argo all-terrain vehicle, hold on tight, and take off across the paddocks for a guided tour of this wild and remarkable place. Along the way you’ll stop by colonies of fur seals – where the fearless babies waddle up close enough to touch – cormorants, spotted shags and both blue and yellow-eyed penguins. Unlike some sites where the proximity of human visitors can affect behaviour, these undisturbed penguins come and go all day, not only at dawn and dusk.
Across the water, the harbourside hamlet of Port Chalmers is the embarkation point for Port to Port wildlife cruises. The custom-built MV Sootychaser – named after the Sooty shearwater, aka the muttonbird – is designed for close-up viewing, and by the time you get to Taiaroa Head at the tip of the peninsula you’re likely to have seen a whole host of wildlife, including seals, penguins, dolphins and multiple species of albatross. Owner Rachel McGregor is an incredibly knowledgeable guide, able to spot which of nine albatross species is approaching when it’s still just a speck on the horizon. After years among the birds, she says it’s just like recognising a person in the distance by the way they walk.
You only need to visit the Otago Farmers Market, held every Saturday morning outside the magnificent railway station, to know that this is a city that loves food. Fresh produce from Waitaki, honey from Blueskin Bay, stone fruit from Central Otago, seafood from the surrounding ocean: the market is a showcase for the best of the region, and a great introduction to the culinary diversity of this part of the country. From there, it’s a short walk to one of Dunedin’s most acclaimed cafes. Located on Moray Place, the famous octagonal street encircling the Octagon proper, Side-on Bakery and Cafe sells incredible bread and baked goods (their burnt Basque cheesecake is *chef’s kiss*), and a short menu of grilled sandwiches and daily dishes.
In the evening, go casual at Good Good – a graffitied warehouse space where owner Reece Turfus serves up superb burgers and sides (try the truffle tots) from an indoor food truck – or head round the corner for one of the best dining experiences in the city. At the compact Moiety, chef Sam Gasson creates a five-course set menu that combines local ingredients with Japanese-inspired culinary techniques and flavours. The bare-bones names don’t give much away – expect descriptions like “lamb, celeriac, black garlic, celery” – but what Sam and his two-person team produce from their tiny prep area still manages to defy expectations.
For many beer lovers, Dunedin is holy ground. It was in a flat here that Richard Emerson brewed his first London Porter in 1992, back when craft beer was almost entirely the domain of homebrewers and a few homesick Europeans. From those humble beginnings the Emerson’s empire has grown and grown, but its beer is still brewed within a few hundred metres of its student-quarter birthplace. Now though, Emerson’s Brewing Company is a massive place on Anzac Avenue, complete with a hugely popular restaurant, bar and cellar door. Tours of the brewery are available throughout the year, but even if you just stop in for a pint you’ll get a taste of the remarkable man behind the scenes. On the walls of the foyer are mementos from Richard Emerson’s decades-long career, including a postcard to his gran, dated 1990: “I still want to run a brewpub one day as a family enterprise with a restaurant.”
Along with Speights, whose historic brewery at the other end of the CBD is worth a visit too, Emerson’s name is synonymous with Dunedin brewing. But that doesn’t mean beer here begins and ends with the big names. Check out New New New Corporation for experimental brews in a giant warehouse space based in one of Dunedin’s oldest buildings, the 141-year-old Crawford St stables. Even if you’re not much of a beer fan you’ll be blown away by the brewery’s super-cool Asian-inspired product design. Want a break from the brews? Try one of Dunedin’s superb new-generation bars like Woof!, co-owned by local musical hero Dudley Benson, with the equally talented musician/chef Stef Animal in the kitchen; come here for great cocktails and a killer playlist.
While Dunedin is worth visiting in its own right any day of year, its musical, sport and culinary cultural calendar is full of great excuses to book a long weekend in the deep south. The Thieves Alley Market Day on February 13, for example, is the city’s largest annual outdoor market event, filling the Octagon and the surrounding streets with music, food, art and artisan products.
Though most famously a rugby town, Dunedin boasts a stunning cricket ground in the University Oval. The Oval is hosting two big matches to close out the Black Caps’ summer season, the first a T20 against Australia on February 25, the second an ODI against Bangladesh on March 13. Park on the grass bank and soak up the late summer sun.
This year the Dunedin Fringe Festival celebrates its 21st birthday. Running from March 18 to March 28, the diverse programme of arts and performance takes place across the city’s theatres, bars, galleries churches, bookstores and even cycleways. During the April school holidays the Wild Dunedin Festival is a family-friendly opportunity to learn about regeneration of the city’s native bush and experience the wildlife, wild food and coastal fauna of this spectacular part of the world.
In June the Dunedin Midwinter Carnival celebrates the season with a stunning lantern parade around the inner city. In July, the Puaka Matariki Festival marks Māori New Year with events across the city including shared feasts, Toi Māori visual arts, literary works, music and dance performances. The following month Dine Dunedin celebrates, in their words, “the food and drink that gives the city its special flavour”. Come from 6-22 August to enjoy the best local produce from the region’s most talented chefs.
Then in November, the Dunedin Craft Beer and Food Festival piles into the Forsyth Barr Stadium. Beer fans head to the wonderful covered stadium for the two-day festival celebrating the best brews from Otago and the rest of the country, but the good vibes take spread even further with beer-focused events across Dunedin.
Get to bed
In a sign of Dunedin’s deserved confidence in its appeal as a travel destination, boutique hotels are beginning to crop up across town. They’re making the most of the city’s unrivalled architectural heritage, breathing new life into buildings that often spent decades in a state of benign neglect. One of the most exciting recent openings is Fable Dunedin on Princes St, in the heart of the historic business district. The 50 room Fable is the product of a $3 million refurbishment of Wain’s Hotel, which opened in 1862 at the height of the Otago gold rush. The splendid Italianate exterior and historic interior features of the Grade I historic building have been carefully restored, while the rooms have been transformed into luxurious havens, complete with fittingly Scottish tartan rugs for extra cosiness on a winter’s night.
While the marriage of boutique hotel and heritage building makes perfect sense, one exciting new Dunedin hotel is going the opposite route. The 27-room Ebb-Dunedin, set to open on Filleul St early in 2021, will be a strikingly modernist building built around a garden atrium, with a glass facade enclosing an enormous artwork by local artist Simon Kaan.