Where to stay
Camp Estate A luxury country estate-style hotel with glamorous upholstered and mirrored interiors, a drawing room with an open fire and honesty bar, and extravagant views towards Dunedin. Doubles from £260. 100 Camp Road, Larnach Castle, 00 64 3 476 1616, campestate.com.nz
Distinction Hotel Dunedin’s 1930s Chief Post Office building has been elegantly transformed into a 121-room hotel bordering the hip Warehouse Precinct. A glass-walled lift has superb views over the harbour – a great way to start the day. Doubles from £100. 6 Liverpool Street, 00 64 3 471 8543, distinctionhotels.co.nz/dunedin
Fletcher Lodge This luxuriously appointed 1924 building is set
in landscaped gardens (where you’ll find the hot tub) about a
ten-minute walk from central Dunedin. Doubles from £200.
276 High Street, 00 64 3 477 5552, fletcherlodge.com.nz
Hotel St Clair Amazing position right on the boardwalk overlooking the
beach and the nearby hot saltwater baths makes this comfortable,
spacious modern hotel the best place to stay by Dunedin's surf beach.
Doubles from £115. 24 Esplanade, 00 64 3 456 0555, hotelstclair.com
Scenic Hotel Southern Cross Part 1880s building, part modern addition, the Scenic is well located in the centre of the city. Doubles from £90. 118 High Street, 00 64 3 477 0752, scenichotelgroup.co.nz
Dunedin is on the south-east coast of New Zealand. Flights from the
UK take about 28 hours and the time is 12 hours ahead of GMT.
Currency is the New Zealand dollar. In December, the average high
temperature is 16C and the average low is 7C.
Air New Zealand flies daily from London Heathrow via Singapore
Changi from £1,500 return. airnewzealand.co.uk
Emirates flies from London Heathrow via Dubai International and Auckland daily from £1,110 return. emirates.com
Dunedin is the official tourist website providing you with up to date information, free guides and maps. dunedinnz.com
Southern Gold by Jude Thomas (Silvereye, £13.99) is set in Dunedin's
a notorious slum in
the mid-19th century.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses with a glass of wine or beer, unless otherwise stated
Carey’s Bay Historic Hotel A gorgeously located Victorian hotel
with views over the anchored fishing fleet, a skilfully cooked, seafood-
leaning menu and a sheltered outdoor terrace make this a must-do.
From £28. 17 Macandrew Road, Port Chalmers,
00 64 3 472 8022, careysbayhotel.co.nz
Emerson’s Taproom & Restaurant Large, glossy new restaurant
attached to Emerson’s Brewery. Take a tour then tuck into generous
beer-friendly dishes such as crispy salt squid, poutine and old-style
fish and chips. From £31. 70 Anzac Avenue,
00 64 3 477 1812, emersons.co.nz
Esplanade This stylishly relaxed, often-pumping beachfront Italian
joint does a great line in wood-fired pizza and well-made rustic
home-style pasta. From £28. 2 Esplanade, St Clair,
00 64 3 456 2544, esplanade.co
Laneway A literally named laneway tapas bar, Laneway is a
favourite watering hole for locals. The well-priced menu includes
lamb meatballs, stuffed mussels and patatas bravas. From £23.
7 Bath Street, 00 64 20 422 8478, anewaybathst.co.nz
Plato This eccentrically decorated restaurant in a 1960s building with
a multi-coloured façade provides some of the best-quality, locally
focused seafood dishes in the city. Don’t miss it. From £37.
2 Birch Street, 00 64 3 477 4235, platocafe.co.nz
Prohibition Smoke House American barbecue-style meat and
fish, all smoked, slow-cooked or flame-grilled in house. There’s
fried buttermilk chicken, too, and American-style desserts such as
pecan pie. From £34. 7 St Andrew Street, 00 64 3 479 2018,
Rhubarb A former butchers shop is now one of city’s cutest cafés
with excellent omelettes, burgers, sandwiches and breakfast with all the
black pudding, fried potatoes and grilled mushroom trimmings.
From £20. 299 Highgate, Roslyn, 00 64 3 477 2555, rhubarbnz.com
Vogel St Kitchen Hip, well-designed café in an atmospheric former warehouse that has great coffee and craft beer and a menu that runs the gamut from coconut and chia porridge to clam and muttonbird wood-fired pizza. From £20. 76 Vogel Street, 00 64 3 477 3623, vogelstkitchen.co.nz
- Blue Cod
- This plump native New Zealand fish is something like a sablefish, with low oil content and great texture
- Traditional Maori form of cooking using heated rocks in a dug pit. Meat, fish and vegetables are slow-cooked in baskets that are buried in the pit with the rocks
- A leaf from an evergreen shrub, often with a fiery aftertaste that’s used for flavouring food and, for the Maori, as a medicinal plant
- The berries of this indigenous tree are sweet, spicy and slightly gingery. They’re used as flavouring in cooking
- Manuka honey
- A viscous, big-flavoured honey produced by bees foraging on indigenous manuka trees. As valued for its medicinal properties as for its intense, earthy, aromatic flavour
- A popular fish native to the waters off New Zealand’s South Island, beautifully textured and deliciously fatty
- The sooty shearwater is found south of Dunedin on Titi, or the Muttonbird islands. Only Maori are allowed to hunt and sell the muttonbird. They’re salty and fatty, good for grilling or with pasta
- A native New Zealand abalone with a brilliant multi-coloured shell, full flavour and firm flesh
Food and Travel Review
It’s just after nine in the morning in central Dunedin and there’s already a small crowd at the counter of the seafood merchant Harbour Fish. Palpable excitement hangs in the air, not all that common in this emphatically understated part of the world, except when there’s a rugby game at the city’s harbourside stadium.
‘Look at that lady over there,’ says Aaron Cooper, who owns Harbour Fish with his fisherman brother Damon, pointing to one of his customers. ‘She’s got a fistful of fifties and she’s taking as many oysters as she can buy.’ The reason for the crowd, the excitement and the fistful of fifties is that Bluff oyster season has just started. Native to New Zealand, these large flat oysters are wild and harvested from the seafloor; mostly from the cold, clear Foveaux Strait, about three hours southwest of Dunedin.
Taste these glistening, pale oysters with their intense, clean, oceanic flavour and distinct lick of zinc for the first time and all the fuss, queuing and front-page stories in the local paper announcing their arrival suddenly makes sense. As does the local claim that Bluffs are among the best oysters in the world.
Yet a closer look in the glass cabinets at Harbour Fish make it clear it’s not just oysters, but local seafood generally that’s fuelling Dunedin’s reputation as a gastronomic destination. Blue cod, grouper, gurnard, salmon, flounder, clams, mussels, crayfish and paddle crabs are all laid out on ice. That most of this bounty is freshly caught in the Pacific Ocean, just beyond Dunedin’s Otago Harbour on the south-east coast of New Zealand’s South Island is truly impressive. For locals, though, it’s just the way things are.
‘New Zealand is a pointy island with a whole lot of nutrients running off it into the ocean, which means that there are a lot of fish around, but not a lot of people to eat them, especially down in the south,’ says Aaron. ‘We export a lot of our fish, but locals also have access to plenty of the best of it. The cold and brackish currents mean that there’s real grunt to the flavour in our fish.’
The pointy island reference is easiest to spot if you stand on the edge of Otago Harbour and look back – and up – at Dunedin. The South Island’s second-largest city is built on an extinct volcanic crater at the head of the harbour and it hugs the dramatic topography, tumbling down steep slopes towards the water from the top of the crater; the eclectic mix of architectural styles looking as if they’ve been shaken at random from a toybox. Ornate Victorian and Edwardian buildings sit alongside Sixties modernist skyscrapers, assertive cathedrals and hulking, Dickensian factory buildings, following the somewhat eccentric street layout and reflecting the city’s cycles of boom and bust.
Look the other way and Otago Harbour stretches away from the city for 20km. It’s deep enough to dock cruise ships and a commercial fishing fleet at the picturesque little town of Port Chalmers, but is also so shallow in parts that at low tide locals walk out onto the wet sand and harvest the excellent native cockles with just their hands and a bucket. They’ll later throw them on the barbecue or toss them through spaghetti with garlic, parsley and white wine to make a locally flavoured vongole.
The harbour is full of fish – wild salmon, moki, flounder – that are available only to recreational fishermen (commercial fishing is restricted to the open sea). However, it supports an amazing array of other wildlife too. The sparsely populated, ruggedly beautiful Otago Peninsula that creates the southern shore of the harbour and faces the Pacific Ocean on its other side is home to colonies of little blue and endangered yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals, sea lions and a truly spectacular breeding colony of royal albatrosses that swoop about Taiaroa Head nature reserve. The wheeling birds with their shrill and distinct cries, the dramatic landscape and the sometimes turbulent, chilly and drizzly climate gives Dunedin a distinct northern hemisphere vibe.
The name Dunedin comes from the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh (Dùn Èideann), bestowed on a tiny whaling village by a group from the Scottish Free Church that settled here in the mid- 19th century. They laid out streets and constructed buildings on the challenging landscape with Edinburgh as their style guide, and thus gave the city its distinctly Scottish accent. A gold rush in the 1860s and subsequent manufacturing, agriculture and shipping booms made the city the largest in the country for a couple of decades. Grand buildings – schools, railway stations, a stock exchange, an elaborate town hall and imposing churches – sprung up, as did the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first official university. Not unusually, the booms busted and Dunedin’s isolation (by distance, it is the farthest major city in the world from London) caused its importance and its economy to wane. However, the legacy of the boom times has allowed the
city to thrive in a uniquely Dunedin-style way. The writer and historian Athol Parks, who takes highly entertaining guided walks around Dunedin, explains how a push in the late 1980s to restore the city’s heritage – in particular the grand town hall and the Octagon, the once dodgy eight-sided plaza in the centre of Dunedin that's now lined with cafés, bars, theatres and public art – began to give the city back its mojo.
‘We’re a university city and that’s very important – it brings 20,000 students to Dunedin every year and all the colour, verve and life that comes with them,’ he says. ‘So, Dunedin has always been a creative town, but there has been a concerted effort to encourage that: restoring buildings, repurposing spaces, providing cheap rents and incentives for startups so young people can stay here and open businesses. We might not make steamships and trains anymore, but we’re certainly still creating stuff.’
Perhaps the best example of Dunedin’s knack for creative repurposing is to be found at the popular Otago Farmers Market, held at the city’s most famous building, the flamboyant and exuberant Flemish Renaissance-style railway station.
These days the station only services daily sightseeing trains; the gorgeous mosaic floors, ornate towers and cupolas now attract more tourists than commuters. Yet every Saturday about 65 stallholders and thousands of shoppers descend on the building, making good use of it and turn it from sleepy monument to a rowdy celebration of all things local, fresh and delicious.
General manager of Otago Farmers Market, Kate Verco, believes the reason for its success is genuine integrity. ‘We’ve been very deliberate in ensuring that all the produce here comes exclusively from the Otago region and that the stallholders can only sell what they produce themselves,’ she says, raising her voice to be heard over a nearby quartet of harmonising ukulele-playing buskers. ‘There’s no craft, just food that’s grown and made locally. We do make an exception for coffee because we couldn’t possibly have a market without coffee in Dunedin – there’d be a riot.’
It’s true that the locals love the black stuff and they like it strong
(a double shot of espresso is standard here) and the market coffee
stalls do a roaring trade all day. It’s a good idea to get caffeinated,
though, and not just because the standard of coffee in Dunedin
is so good. There’s also a lot to see.
There’s beautiful stone fruit from Central Otago with poetic names (summer bright and blushing star nectarines, black amber plums, Clutha gold apricots), walnuts, organic eggs and vegetables, wakame seaweed, organic sauerkraut, olive oil and bacon, seafood, merino lamb, chocolate, craft beer and French- style cheese made by Colleen Dennison, the self-proclaimed ‘only transgender cheese-maker in the world’.
At Wild Smokehouse hunter Joe Ruka and butcher Ian Kennedy sell venison, salami and seafood, all smoked over native woods such as manuka and pohutukawa, and flavoured with New Zealand aromatics. Unique Hangis sells enormously satisfying pies filled with pork, beef and organic vegetables slow-cooked in a traditional hangi pit. There’s another stall selling moonshine flavoured with manuka honey, and craft brewer Steamer Basin serves saison made with lemongrass, rhubarb and gooseberry.
Away from the market, in the city’s Warehouse Precinct, there's more evidence of Dunedin's flair for small-scale business. Cafés and wine shops are tucked into former warehouses and office spaces, and there’s large-scale street art everywhere. Indeed, Dunedin now has its own annual street art festival.
At the Otago Chocolate Company, owner Liz Rowe makes all her chocolate in a tiny one-room ‘factory’ behind the café where she serves the city’s richest and best hot chocolate. She uses cocoa beans sourced from Pacific islands – Papua New Guinea, mainly, but also Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Samoa – and alongside a range of distinctive single-origin bars, there’s a range of flavoured chocolate, some using indigenous New Zealand plants.
‘One of our most popular bars is one flavoured with horopito leaf and kawakawa berries,’ she says. ‘The horopito gives off a bit of heat and the berry is spicy, gingery, fruity and perfumed. The Maori still use them as medicinal plants and say that they’re good for digestion and circulation. I don’t make those claims for my chocolate – but it does taste rather good.’
A few blocks away, in a cavernous former stable building, is New New New, a recently completed craft brewery with a strong line in quirky names, exuberantly designed labels and an impressive range of off-the-wall brews. There’s a prosecco-like raspberry saison, a coffee pale ale flavoured with a locally made cold brew coffee and a truly challenging smoked eel stout called Fear Not. The stout’s actually rather good, once the initial shock of the smoked eel flavour fades to a pleasant background note.
Beer is big in Dunedin – another consequence of the annual influx of university students, perhaps. Speight’s Brewery has been operating for 141 years, while Emerson’s, a former small-scale company now occupying a sleek new brewery and restaurant complex near the university, exports all manner of its fine beer all over the world. But mostly small and unique is the name of the Dunedin game. It's a story replicated the country over.
At Plato – a seafood restaurant decked out in retro furniture and amassed bric-a-brac, in a former 1960s office building on the harbour’s edge – the chef Nigel Broad serves some of the best seafood in town, which is best washed down with beer from the on-site Birch Street Brewery that's growining in stature.
Broad has made his beer – an IPA, pilsner and amber ale – with seafood in mind. The beers are the perfect accompaniment for dishes such as hand-minced paua (an indigenous abalone) patties, an escabeche of gurnard served with seaweed, tomato and cucumbers, or a robust muttonbird fettucine, made using fatty muttonbird, exclusively caught, salted and sold by the local Maori. Bluff oysters, of course, are on the menu too.
At Larnach Castle, a spectacular gothic-revival mansion built in the 1870s on the Otago Peninsula, about 20 minutes’ drive from Dunedin, high tea is served. Alongside the finger sandwiches and dainty cakes there is an extensive range of teas, including tisanes made with fruit and rose petals from Central Otago.
If you really want to act like a local, a visit to The Friday Shop in Roslyn, a genteel suburb with spectacular views over Dunedin, is a must. The quaint old-school bakery only opens to the public on Fridays, and queues form early for chef Jim Byars’s traditionally made croissants, pains au chocolat, quiches, pies, pâtés, Danish pastries, madeleines and fruit tarts. It’s a food-obsessed crowd, so the line is a good place to strike up a conversation about where and what the people who actually live here like to eat.
The beach at St Clair is a good place to walk off the pastry while watching surfers in shiny black wetsuits tackle the excellent swell. It's also a great spot to contemplate the remarkable diversity contained within this small, unique city. Edgy city bars and restaurants. Film and street art festivals. Brilliant fishing and surfing on sparsely populated beaches and
superb little bays. Distinctive fashion and music scenes. Stunning
wildlife. A gorgeous, leafy university campus. Brilliant coffee. And, of
course, some of the best oysters in the world, if you get here at the
right time. And you should get here. Dunedin’s one of a kind.
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