Otago: Historic harbour, modern haven

Port Chalmers. Image / supplied
Port Chalmers. Image / supplied

When a town is one of the oldest European settlements in the country, and has been the hub of some of New Zealand's most historic events, it could be forgiven for living in its past.

Take Port Chalmers. The deepwater port at the entrance to Dunedin's harbour was home to the first New Zealanders, served the next wave of immigrants as a sealing and whaling base, and welcomed the first Scottish settlers in the 1840s.

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As Dunedin grew, so did its port. During the Otago goldrush, 20 years later, it was the third largest port in Australia or New Zealand; in 1882 it farewelled our first exports of chilled meat, on a ship fittingly namedDunedin.

Later, the famed Antarctic explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton waved goodbye to civilisation from its wharves.

Port Chalmers is still one of New Zealand's major ports but the town is an artists' and creative retreat, featuring an diverse culture of boutique jewellers, craft stores, painters, sculptors and musicians.

With plenty of vintage clothing stores, the seafarers museum, collectibles shops and restored furniture outlets, it's an easy -- and relaxed -- place to spend a day, just 15 minutes drive from downtown Dunedin.

Port Chalmers and the surrounding suburbs of Careys Bay, Roseneath and Sawyers Bay have a thriving arts and alternative lifestyle community.

One of the best-known residents was the late Ralph Hotere. Hotere's studio was on land at the tip of Observation Point, the large bluff overlooking the container terminal.

Part of the bluff is now an award-winning sculpture garden, organised by Hotere and featuring works by him and other modern New Zealand sculptors, funded by Port Otago Ltd.

For tourists on foot, cycle or driving, the surrounding bays are perfect for kayaking or rowing or hosted horse treks.

The natural deepwater port is an excellent salmon fishery.

Close to the town is the beautiful Lady Thorne Dell, famed for rhododendron and azalea plantings and native bushwalks rich with birdsong.

Perhaps the jewel in Port Chalmers' environmental crown is the Cloud Forest -- Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

Some 8.7km of predator-exclusion fence protects reintroduced native animals, including breeding pairs of very rare saddlebacks, tuatara and skinks. There are spectacular views of the valley's 3sq km of regenerating bush, containing the tallest tree in New Zealand.

That much exploring is bound to leave you in need of refreshments. Port Chalmers flagship eateries include Carey's Bay Hotel, The Galley and The Portsider pub. With menus angled towards fresh seafood, a long lunch has you feeling a world away from the hustle and bustle of inner-city dining.

Protecting the natural beauty of Port Chalmers sits firmly in the heart of not just the locals but also the business community.

Port Otago Ltd has assisted with developing community facilities and significantly invested in the cycleways and walkways which frame the village.

- NZ Herald

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