Kate Preece spends some time in Dunedin, discovering it’s not the city she thought it was.
The last time I was in Dunedin, I was 19 and sporting a nurse’s uniform, thanks to the debauchery that was the Undie 500. Not part of the since-banned university pub crawl – I mean, student-run car rally – from Christchurch to Dunedin this time, it’s no wonder I saw this Scottish town with new eyes. Though known for its university culture, this little town is a destination that suits a wide range of travellers thanks to many of its alumni choosing ‘home’ as the place to make their mark.
Take, for example, those serving New Zealand’s top burgers.
Having ticked off the classic Kiwi Perth experience, Reece Turfus was drawn back home to Dunedin. But, when he and friend Rob Ratten found themselves caught in the white-collar grindstone, they decided it was time to do something different. And so, the Good Good eatery was born. The walls of 22 Vogel Street are decorated with curious animated scenes and the neon ice creams, and a caravan serves as the kitchen, from which these notable burgers are made. Plywood tables with those perpetually on-trend metal bar stools give way to a cosy couch area, and a fake-lawn green wall that reaches incredible heights in this vaulted ceiling warehouse-like setting. After 18 months serving burgers alongside sweet potato fries with creamy maple sauce and the buttermilk-fried chicken bites, travel website Big 7 say this is the place for one of the top three burgers in New Zealand.
The Otago Farmers’ Market is another foodie drawcard, not just for the abundance of organic veges and delicious fruit, but for the names and businesses born here. Must-visit stalls include Bay Road peanut butter (now also factory and café at 8 Roberts Street); The Tart Tin, where Matt Cross offers ruby pear tarts and lemon curd-filled doughnut bites from ‘minty’ the caravan; and, despite the hour (8.30am-12.30pm), if you so wish, you can wrap your taste buds around a drop of Urbn Vino too.
Our first encounter with an Urbn Vino pinot noir was when dining a Moiety – another eatery of note in the culinary circles of this town (42 Queens Gardens). Accompanying a plate of lamb neck with endive, granola, soft herbs and jack fruit, this pinot noir wasn’t second fiddle to the fine fare. All the more interesting was being but a curtain-pull away from where Central Otago grapes become wine. At the time of print, winemaker Brendan Seal was waiting for the final tick from the local council to open this space in the Warehouse Precinct as a cellar door, for more tastings of his pinots, pinot gris and riesling (the latter two being single vineyard wines bottled under label The Writer’s Block). Central Otago grapes are transformed into something special.
My previous experience with this seaside town had failed to provide me with an appreciation of its resounding beauty – but not this time. I think you’ll agree, especially if you take the 10-minute drive south to discover Tunnel Beach.
Tunnel Beach is not a secret anymore. During a weekend, you’ll likely find many people have followed the particularly steep track (that will take your breath away on both descent and ascent) down to the safety rails and promptly stepped over them to strike a pose on the massive rocky outcrop for the perfect ‘gram update. You may even have to wait for your turn to walk down the steps that take you down to the ultimate destination – the beach. The tight tunnel was cut by hand in the 1870s at the request of the owner of Cargill’s Castle (in ruins today), who wished to provide a private bathing spot for his daughters. Once sand is underfoot, sheer cliffs rise up around you and the interrupted view out to ships on the horizon is enough to stop you in your tracks.
After this adventure in mindfulness and muscle strength, the heated salt water pool at St Clair might be just what you need to freshen up – though if the weather isn’t kind, take refuge at The Esplanade (2 Esplanade), where you can enjoy a slice of Italy – be it gorgonzola, mozzarella, emmental and edam cheese pizza or mussels, clams, white wine, garlic and parsley pasta. Washed down with NV Medici Lambrusco, of course.
If the weather has that southern chill about it, there are other ways to see the sights – such as by train. Dunedin Railways is doing a roaring trade thanks to the growing number of cruise ships pulling into Port Chambers as the season rolls on through. Passengers board the likes of the Seasider, a two-hour roundtrip from the Dunedin Railway Station (the most photographed building in New Zealand) to Waititi, to see the dredge clear the Victora Channel and the coastline’s journey around the Harbour. It’s an opportunity to see the beauty of what lies just slightly out of town, past kanuka bush and views of smooth rolling hills, obscured only by vegetation and a tunnel’s darkness.
For something a little more fast-paced, a v8 trike ride is an exhilarating scenic tour option. Experience Dunedin is owned by Andrew Sim, who saw an opportunity others around Kiwi ports have taken up to take cruise ship travellers around town. The former Speight’s tour guide invested $130,000 into his five-seater and its 350-Chevy motor has added a throaty roar that will put a smile on any motoring aficionado’s face. There’s a range of tour options and all with this driver/tour guide who calls Dunedin home. He supplies the jackets, and helmets aren’t required as the trike is registered as a car.
Andrew had picked us up from outside The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery, an intriguing sort of place that is likely to leave an impression on you, and we were off, wind in our hair and road rushing past our feet. A great way to clear the cobwebs – and nothing like the Nissan Vanette I’d travelled around in on my last visit.
The pick-up point, 61 Royal Terrace, with its fence painted with the language of Easter Island, is owned by Bruce Mahalski, who left his Wellington life a year ago to transform a 1870s cottage into a museum-cum-bed-and-breakfast. Yes, you can stay at Museum of Natural Mystery, as it’s only the front three rooms that are filled with artwork made from bones, mummified animals (watch out for the cat), and the wall of sheep skulls. The latter is rather fascinating, with Bruce describing it as a homage to this animal we take for granted – “They all look the same on the outside, but, underneath, no two sculls are the same.” He’s right that a wall of human skulls would be deeply disturbing. With parents both scientists, as the family travelled, collecting such things seemed normal practice to Bruce, and now, it’s all on display on a hill above the city.
If you prefer your wildlife alive and kicking, there’s plenty on that front too. We took the windy ‘top road’ along the peninsula to Taiaroa Head (about an hour’s drive from the city centre), to seek out korora, the Little Blue Penguin. At the shoreline beneath The Royal Albatross Centre – a handy place for a bite to eat or drink ahead of your tour – the world’s smallest penguin make their way back into their cliff-face burrows every evening. Watching these 30cm tall birds emerge from the surf once darkness has fallen is quite something – and when the nesting and chick-rearing season kicks off from September, there can be as many as 150 getting their waddle on.
I returned to Christchurch sated on many levels. This heritage-rich town has pockets of absolute brilliance, with eateries up there with the country’s best. If you, like me, have some preconceptions about the place, well, it’s time for another roadie.