One can’t be angry when one looks at a penguin! (John Ruskin, English art critic, 1819-1900)
The Otago Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island is one of the best places in the world to see penguins, and that alone was a compelling reason to spend a few days in the nearby city of Dunedin. Once there, we learned that Dunedin itself has much to offer, and again (broken record), we ran out of time before we ran out of things to see.
This post covers four highlights from our short stay in Dunedin.
Here’s a map of key places:
Keep reading for additional photos and information.
Penguin Place Conservation Reserve
This privately owned penguin reserve is also a large working ranch. In the 1990s, the land owners began developing a tourism arm as a means of funding their ambitious yellow-eyed penguin habitat project. Over the years, hundreds of acres of deforested land has been replanted with native species to support the natural population of penguins that live in the area and to attract other native animals and birds.
Our small group tour lasted 90 minutes and included an educational talk to learn about the reserve and the penguins, a visit to the on-site penguin rehab facility, and a guided walk in the hills and along the cliffs to view penguins, as well as fur seals, in their natural habitat.
This was one of the best experiences of our entire trip!
Soaking Up Sunshine on the Otago Peninsula
A close look at the map shown earlier in the post reveals that Dunedin sits at the end of a long and narrow harbor. The land mass south of the harbor is the Otago Peninsula. We took advantage of a sunny day to enjoy a leisurely drive all the way to the tip, stopping along the way at Portobello for a short hike that featured expansive views of the harbor and the surrounding hillsides.
At the end of the peninsula, more good views of the harbor and a good look at the rugged Pacific coast.
We saw a variety of interesting birds (most of which we couldn’t identify), but one in particular was special. The world’s only mainland breeding colony of royal albatross lives on the tip of the peninsula. We saw these giant birds in flight but weren’t lucky enough to capture any good photos.
According to the New Zealand tourism site, Tunnel Beach features sandstone cliffs, rock arches and caves. Ho hum. Was it really worth the drive from Dunedin to check it out?
It was great, and we didn’t want to leave! Enough said.
With only one day to explore the rich cultural history and quirky charm of Dunedin (population 132,000), where do we start? We signed up for a 3-hour guided walking tour, which as expected, was entertaining and enlightening. Meet Athol, our excellent guide.
A few fun facts about Dunedin:
- The city was founded in 1848 by Scottish settlers. Dunedin is the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.
- Nicknamed “Edinburgh of the South,” Dunedin’s Scottish heritage is still celebrated today – bagpipe bands, the Highlanders rugby team, local versions of whiskey and haggis, a prominent statue of the renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns, and even a registered Dunedin tartan.
- Home to the University of Otago (New Zealand’s oldest, 21,000 students) and other institutions of higher learning, Dunedin is a major center for tertiary education in New Zealand.
- Dunedin’s Baldwin Street is recognized as the steepest residential street in the world by Guinness World Records, with a maximum gradient of 35%.
- Dunedin was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2014.
Here are a few photos from our day out and about in Dunedin.
St. Paul’s Cathedral (Anglican)
This cathedral was consecrated in 1919. Looks older, huh?
First Church of Otago (Presbyterian)
This magnificent neo-Gothic church was completed in 1873.
Dunedin Railway Station
Completed in 1906, this imposing structure was once New Zealand’s busiest railway station, handling up to 100 trains daily. Today it’s seriously underutilized – the only trains arriving and departing are local day excursions for tourists. Nonetheless, the ginormous Edwardian Baroque style building is beautiful, both inside and out.
Toitū Otago Settlers Museum and Chinese Garden
Following the walking tour, Bill and I spent the afternoon exploring Dunedin’s history at the Settlers Museum and relaxing in the adjacent Chinese Garden.
The museum was much larger than expected, so we barely scratched the surface. Exhibits covered the chronological history of Dunedin from Maori villages through the development of digital technology.
My personal favorite was the Smith Gallery Portraits – a visual tribute to Dunedin’s earliest Scottish pioneers.
The four walls of the gallery are filled from floor to ceiling with photographs of Dunedin’s early settlers, whose “stern Presbyterian faces glowered down from the walls as their descendants trooped through to pay tribute to the patriarchs and matriarchs of the early settlement” (quote from the museum website).
The hundreds of portraits that adorn the walls are arranged in chronological order of the person’s arrival, along with information about the ships that brought them to New Zealand and details about who they married and where they lived. I could have stayed in this one room for hours, but didn’t, because the Chinese Garden was right around the corner, and it was calling my name.
The Dunedin Chinese Garden (“Lan Yuan”) first opened to the public in 2008. It’s the only authentic Chinese garden in New Zealand and came about after years of collaboration between local citizens and the Shanghai Municipal Government.
The entire garden was built and assembled in Shanghai, then dismantled and transported to Dunedin, where it was rebuilt on site by Shanghai artisans. It was a lovely place to spend a drizzly afternoon.
And then, unfortunately, we ran out of time. So we trekked back to our apartment (a steep uphill climb that culminated in a staircase with 201 steps) for happy hour and homemade chili with Steve and Marlene.
Time once again to pack for our next destination – Oamaru, home to little blue penguins and a steampunk museum!