Dunedin: Secrets of the South

By Eleanor Ainge Roy

On an insider tour of Dunedin's hidden treasures, Eleanor Ainge Roy discovers the other Edinburgh deserves a second glance.

Dunedin City in the middle of Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean. Photo / 123RF
Dunedin City in the middle of Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean. Photo / 123RF

New Zealand's gothic first city is quietly becoming the nation's new capital of cool — or so people keep telling me.

I arrived in Dunedin 14 years ago, and cried when the Air New Zealand flight appeared to land in a green field strewn with sheep.

That first day, aged 15, I decided I would always loathe Dunedin. The oppressive grey skies, bone-chilling cold and gloomy Victorian architecture were the antithesis of my Australian background, and the rain made the sky seem like it was crying.

During my student years at the University of Otago, I got chilblains in my toes, and slept fully-clothed every night, listening to rats scratch the walls in our student dive.

When I graduated I fled to Southeast Asia, certain I would never return to one of the southernmost cities in the world.

And yet return I have, for many reasons. Working from home, and a little reclusive by nature, I may be the least plugged-in person in the city, often spending Friday nights filing copy while my mates are out exploring the swathe of new bars and restaurants, going to gallery openings, writers' festivals and rugby matches at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Sharon, my friend from Enterprise Dunedin, is routinely shocked by how little I know about the city, as a semi-local. To see if I can finally lay my ghost-like memories of this city to rest, she packs me into her car, and we take the afternoon off to explore my home.

Tucked beside the railway lines, the Dunedin Chinese Garden offers glimpses of teal harbour and Signal Hill, and are a soothing oasis amid a predominantly industrial backdrop.

I feel the usual weekday stress melt away as we sip ginseng tea and nibble on excellent prawn dumplings in the tea house. The streets surrounding the garden are rapidly becoming the most interesting part of town — with street art decorating the once dour buildings, a hand-made chocolate shop (Ocho) and former factories being upgraded into luxury apartments, where Sharon and I both secretly want to live. I decide to return to the garden for the weekly mah jong classes — and maybe to read Rewi Alley in a leafy corner when the blossoms have opened.

Fifteen minutes from the central city is the Port of Otago — the birthplace of New Zealand's modern export trade. The behemoth shipping complex is an interesting contrast to the low-key surrounding community — the humble seaside cottages, cruisey cafes and plethora of seaman's pubs, op-shops and artists studios. Port is like stepping back in time — with the option of craft beer and flat whites.

I tell Sharon I regularly used to visit the local library here, housed in the old fire station and lenient with late fees. She winks and leads me across Beach St to the Maritime Museum. I would have walked past it a hundred times and never really "seen" it.

Inside, the treasurer apologises for "the clutter" — "We aren't like the modern museums, we like to have a lot of stuff around," he says.

The "stuff" is eclectic and fascinating — room upon room of maritime treasures that evoke the romanticism and adventure of the shipping age. The museum is particularly popular with — and welcoming to — visiting sailors with news of the sea.

The crowning jewel is a sheltered observation deck. Huge glass windows provide an uninterrupted and intimate view of the Port, where buzzing forklifts are unloading Maersk containers — and in the summer tens of thousands of passengers from up to 90 visiting cruise ships.

"I like to come up here with a coffee and watch the Port," says the treasurer, staring wistfully at the action.

"If it's okay, I'd like to join you one day," I say. The Port is compulsive viewing.

Taking a left off Beach St, we climb towards Observation Point, a hill offering 360-degree views of the Otago Peninsula. The sea is unusually settled and calm on the first day of spring, and we amble through Ralph Hotere's sculpture garden; a free, permanent collection of his and others' work. It would be the perfect spot for sunset fish and chips and a flask of tea.

As 5 o'clock approaches we schlep down the hill to the Portsider — an excellent pub that serves craft beer, sophisticated (but not too pricey) food, and Dutch bar snacks (the chef is Dutch).

I order a pint of Emerson's pilsner and a range of snacks, including Bitterballen (a ragout of slow cooked beef shoulder coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried), wontons with lamb and leek, a pork pate and edamame beans. It's steak night and I could easily linger on but darkness is falling and Sharon says we need to get to Leith Valley before the temperature drops.

Driving along George St, we take a left up Duke St and wind our way through Leith Valley. It's a mild night and we lace up our sneakers and head into the thick bush, Nicols Creek thundering past. The walk is easy — if muddy — and after 10 minutes we reach a historic, concrete "viewing" platform — and look up.

Above us a rock wall strewn with fern arches is alight with glow worms. Hundreds flicker before us, and with the splash of the stream and the wind in the trees it's a dream-like experience — as if we're in touching distance of the night sky.

Excited, we splash up Nicols a little into a natural amphitheatre, with glow worms blinking at us on every side. Some young children and their mother join us, rugged up in beanies and jackets.

"Mum, I want to take a glow-worm home," whispers one child.

I have the same impulse.

"I want to come back," says Sharon, "with a deck chair and a little bottle of something."

I want to come back too. Dunedin is blooming.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Dunedin from Auckland up to four times a day. A variety of in-flight product choices are available including; Seat, Seat+Bag, Flexitime and Flexiplus.

- NZ Herald

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