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Dunedin Area Guide

The Dunedin Octagon with Town Hall
and Cathedral, at night - ©
The harbourside city of Dunedin is the South Island's second city, a treasure trove of restored Victorian and Edwardian buildings, genteel inner city hill suburbs and, to the south east, the scenic Otago Peninsula, with its rare coastal wildlife.

Dunedin was once New Zealand's biggest and most prosperous settlement, gaining its wealth through the Central Otago gold rush of the 1860s. The early Scots settlers brought along their passion for education and religion, bequeathing the city a respected university (the country's first), and a series of fine Victorian municipal buildings and churches. Today, the culture of Dunedin swings between traditional provincial conservatism, and youth culture, the 18,000 university students who reside here in term time transforming the city firmly into a university town.

The centre of the city is the Octagon, Dunedin's answer to a town square, where the Visitor Centre is housed in the Italian Renaissance-style Municipal Chambers, built in 1880. Alongside, on the high point of the Octagon, is St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, and just below, the iconic statue of Scottish poet Robbie Burns.

Across from these old stone buildings lies the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, a light airy series of spaces converted from the former D.I.C. department store which previously occupied the site. The modern New Zealand sculpture, Cones, is suspended high above the three-storey atrium.

The Heritage Walks pamphlet from the Visitor Centre details two good walks around the central city, providing an introduction to Dunedin's beautiful historic buildings. If time is short, don't miss the Dunedin Railway Station, built in 1906. The station, the country's busiest at the time, earned New Zealand Railways' architect George Troup the nickname Gingerbread George, for its sheer size, grandiose style, and rich interior decoration, the original design including 700,000 Royal Doulton porcelain mosaic tiles on the floor of the main foyer. The monogram NZR is everywhere, carved on ornate timber doorways, engraved on window glass, and spelt out in mosaic tile flooring. Upstairs, opposing stained glass windows depict steam engines, cleverly designed so they appear to be approaching from any viewpoint. The railway station now houses the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, which celebrates the sporting achievements of New Zealanders, among them Sir Edmund Hillary, and his conquest of Mt Everest. The railway station is the booking office and starting point for the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway, which takes half-day trips over the historic 19th century railway line through the spectacular Taieri River Gorge and into Central Otago.

Dunedin has two good museums: the Otago Settlers Museum at 31 Queens Gardens, just south of the Octagon; and the Otago Museum, just to the north, at 419 Great King Street. The focus of the Settlers Museum lies in the area's social history, and the evocative exhibits in its Transport Gallery include a stylish hand-made late 1940s caravan, an old Cobb & Co Royal Mail stagecoach, and Josephine, a rare double-ended steam engine, first used in 1872. The real star of the show though is the marvellous Art Deco interior of the former New Zealand Railways' bus depot, now linked to the museum's original Edwardian galleries. The recently restored and well-designed Otago Museum provides an interesting introduction to the natural history of this diverse southern region.

Just outside the central city, in Dunedin's North East Valley, lies Baldwin Street, the world's steepest street. Walk up (and down) it independently and purchase a certificate of achievement from the Baldwin Street Tourist Shop in the historic Post Office building, or visit in February to compete in the aptly named Baldwin Street Gutbuster, an annual race up and down the street, held as part of Dunedin's Summer Festival.

For a memorable wildlife experience, visit the Otago Peninsula, one of New Zealand's most renowned eco-tourism areas. The twisting road along the southern edge of the Otago Harbour leads to the privately run yellow-eyed penguin conservation reserve Penguin Place, where hides among the sand dunes allow you to get close to the birds without disturbing them. The yellow-eyed penguins, called hoiho or "noise-shouter", by the Maori people, get their English name from their characteristic yellow headbands.

Continue on round the peninsula road to get to the world's only mainland albatross breeding colony at beautiful windswept Taiaroa Head at the very tip of the peninsula. The best time for visiting the graceful Royal Albatrosses, with their three-metre wing spans, is from April to August, with the centre closed for the breeding season from mid-September to mid-November.

The peninsula is also home to the turreted Larnach Castle, New Zealand's only castle, perched high on a hill above the harbour. The castle was begun in 1871 as a home for the businessman and politician William Larnach and his family, and took 200 men three years to build. It was another 12 years before the interior was completed with imported marble, Venetian glass and ornate carvings.