Dunedin: Hot spot in city of Scots

By Sarah Lang

If there's one New Zealand city where you don't expect balmy temperatures, it's Dunedin. Yet the city has one place that's always as toasty as a sauna.

Otago Museum's Discovery World Tropical Forest is a recreated rainforest, which houses a collection of beautiful, fluttering butterflies at 30C and 80 per cent humidity.

A decade after the seeds of the tropical forest idea were sown (by a hugely popular 1990s butterfly exhibition), the doors swung open late last year. It's a little like stepping into a secret garden - just add a waterfall and about 1000 butterflies.

In dazzling hues, they flit among tropical orchids, bromeliads and banana plants, occasionally dipping down to feeding stations stocked with fruit-and-sugar concoctions. At ground level they're joined by other hot-weather-happy inhabitants such as turtles, tarantulas (safely housed behind a glass wall), and giant-eyed goldfish flashing fluorescent orange in the pond.

Once we've had our fill of the forest floor, we climb the spiral staircase to two higher levels, the heat rising with us. A glass swing bridge on the near-rooftop walkway gives a completely different perspective on the slender but soaring space.

So far there have been two marriage proposals up here - although one unfortunate fellow dropped the ring from on high but luckily found it beside, not in, the pond.

And while we were admiring the view, a beautiful aquamarine butterfly paused for a breather on my arm - a blue morpho, I could inform my boyfriend, thanks to the species-identifying guidebook.

As breeding's not permitted at the museum, about 900 pupa are imported each week from the Philippines and Costa Rica. Pinned painlessly to a board in a glass display window, the pupa hang upside down in rows like a line of sleepy bats, waiting to emerge.

Back outside, it's a lot nippier than it seemed before our tropical excursion. We wrap up and get the blood pumping with a brisk walking tour through Dunedin's compact city centre.

Guide John explains the city's Scottish history - 43 per cent of Dunedin-ites have Scottish roots. We also learn that Scottish poet Robbie Burns - whose statue in the Octagon "faces the pubs with his back to the church" - had 30 illegitimate children.

Built on the back of hardy Presbyterian Scots set on shaping an "Edinburgh of the south", 19th-century Dunedin quickly became New Zealand's biggest commercial and industrial centre. It escaped the demolition days of the 1960s and 70s, leaving grand old Victorian structures in the cityscape.

We traipse through cavernous cathedrals and churches, including the Gothic-style First Presbyterian Church, where evidence of Scottish practicality can be found in the brolly hook and drip tray at the end of each pew. The 1899-built law courts are still used - as is the much-photographed, 1896 railway station with its limestone facings and pink-granite columns. Inside, among the stained-glass and Royal Doulton tiles, is the Cleveland Living Art Centre and Scotia restaurant, with its hearty Scottish-influenced menu and whisky and wine bars.

We're told we can't come to town without stopping into award-winning restaurant Plato. Formerly a harbourside seafarers' hostel, it's now a relaxed, retro-themed eatery specialising in sublime seafood.

Just down the road is the city's newest drawcard, the Dunedin Chinese Gardens. A tribute to Dunedin's longstanding Chinese community, it's one of only three authentic Chinese gardens outside China, and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. A 300sq m recreation of a late Ming/early Ching Dynasty scholars' garden, it employs Chinese materials crafted by artisans from Dunedin's sister city Shanghai. Wooden buildings with sweeping roof spars, handmade tiles and 900 tonnes of stone walls surround a lake.

Although the garden looks small at first glance, a long walkway that deceptively ducks and dives into all sorts of unexpected nooks makes it seem much bigger. Perhaps the best view is from the limestone mountain, where lilies, lotus flowers and small children peek out of gaps in the rock wall.

It's worth taking a guided tour to learn the significance of the different elements, each with its own Chinese name. The city is also hosting two other exhibitions, timed to coincide with the opening of the gardens: The Emperor's Dragons: Precious Collections from the Shanghai Museum, which follows the dragon motif through time (it runs until March at Otago Museum), and Chinese Treasures, on until June at the Otago Settlers Museum.

Don't bypass this gem, considered New Zealand's finest social-history museum. Sandwiched between the railway station and the Chinese Gardens, it houses (as part of its history of New Zealand transport) Josephine, our oldest locomotive, as well as fabulous old coaches and tramcars. Another excellent exhibition, Across the Ocean Waves, recreates the crowded quarters and stomach-churning rocking of an early settlers' ship.

IF YOU GO

Walk
Take a guided innercity tour with one of Walk Dunedin's volunteer guides. The $15 fee funds children's activities at the Otago Settlers Museum.

Saunter around the 4.7km town-belt bushwalk or the 28ha Dunedin Botanic Gardens, which has camellia, rose, herb and rhododendron gardens, tropical conservatory, native-plant section.

For a real gutbuster, try hiking up the world's steepest road, Baldwin St.

Eat
Plato, 2 Birch St, www.platocafe.co.nz

Scotia Restaurant, Dunedin Railway Station, Anzac Ave.

Otago Farmers Market, 8am to 1pm Saturdays. Try the Omega 3-rich "mutton bird arses".

Art
Otago Settlers Museum, 31 Queens Gardens.

You'll find Dunedin's most visited attraction, Otago Museum, and its Tropical Forest, at 419 Great King St. www.otagomuseum.govt.nz

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 30 The Octagon.
Housed in Dunedin's old synagogue is the Temple Gallery, 29 Moray Place. www.templegallery.co.nz

Milford Gallery, 18 Dowling St, www.milfordgalleries.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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