The best things to see and do in Port Chalmers

Elisabeth Easther finds Dunedin's 'arty' suburb - with stunning scenery and rich history - is worthy of a film.
Port Chalmers Container terminal. Photo / Alistair Paterson
Port Chalmers Container terminal. Photo / Alistair Paterson

Where is it? 15km northeast of Dunedin's CBD, it's Otago's main port.

Originally called: Koputai — te reo for "full tide".

Origin of name: Named for Thomas Chalmers, 19th century leader of the Presbyterian Free Church.

Population: 3000.

Claim to fame: The first shipment of frozen meat left Port Chalmers for Britain in 1882.

ImPORTant fact: By 1864, Port Chalmers was the third largest port in Australasia.

Deep freeze: In November 1894, Port Chalmers hosted explorers from the Norwegian whaling and sealing ship Antarctic; in January 1895 those daring adventurers made the first "substantiated" landing on the frozen continent.

Scott and Shackleton followed in their wakes.

Local icon: Iona Church is an arresting landmark. Built in the 1870s of Oamaru stone, it features kauri beams and stained glass windows. An Instagram fave.

Famous locals: Ralph Hotere (artist), Pinky Agnew (personality), Mary MacKillop (Australia's first fair-dinkum saint visited port for a few months), Dougal Stevenson (broadcaster), John Grenell (country music dude), Robert Scott (musician), James Robinson (artist) and Mary MacFarlane (artist).

Best website: portchalmers.com.

Big business: The port of course, bringing with it freight and the cruise ship crowds.

Now see hear: Combining solid historic appeal with grinding industrial clunks and clangs from the port's crouching gantries, it's very atmospheric, like visiting a solid seafaring film set.

Picture perfect: Parts of The Light Between Oceans was filmed here, notably the bookshop and haberdashery scenes. During shooting the main street was covered in gravel and thousands of people turned up each day hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars.

What's so cool: You're just 15 minutes from Dunedin's CBD, yet it's like entering another world. Plus there's free Wi-Fi on the main street.

Town fiestas: The biannual Seafood Festival is fun, marrying music, molluscs and beer. The Dunedin Marathon finishes in Port Chalmers. The monthly Community Market held the third Sunday of each month is also very lively.

Here for a short time: Hire a bike and follow your nose, walk to Back Beach, browse the cute shops or settle into a cafe or pub and watch the world go by.

Kids love: Orokonui Ecosanctuary is astonishing. There's 307 hectares of cloud forest enclosed in a predator fence, it's home to takahe, eels, robins, kaka, kiwi, tuatara, Otago skinks and New Zealand's tallest tree. The views are amazing, the visitor centre a work of art. Take a guided tour or wander at your own pace — did you know takahe do seven metres of poo each day?

Orokonui Eco Sanctuary, Dunedin.
Orokonui Eco Sanctuary, Dunedin.

Kids also love: Frolicking on the beaches or watching the port's big machines.

How cool is this: Locals raise funds to pay for an artist in residence at the local school and, once a year, the pupils parade up the main street with their incredible artworks.

Best park: The school has lots of space for running around, a fine playground and next door you'll find the rugby grounds.

Sunday drive: Heading along the coast from central Dunedin, it's just so picturesque, pretty little bays, sweet houses, photogenic sheep.

Best walks: Stroll around the cemetery, astonishingly fascinating, lovely views too. Wander up to The Lady Thorn Rhododendron Dell, stunning use of an old quarry filled with flowers and birds. Or walk to Back Beach along a little dirt track, past boats moored and in dry docks. Or wander to Carey's Bay, and visit the historic hotel for a drink, a think and a bite.

Best view: Pop up Flagstaff Hill where the bay stretches out before you and helpful information panels tell you what's what. Trudge up to the Scott Memorial for more views or just gaze down the main street — Port Chalmers is a living, breathing postcard.

Best swim: The heated indoor pool next to the school, open September to March. Or visit Aramoana Beach or The Spit — on good days there's a coffee cart here.

Be well: Out in the harbour you'll find Quarantine Island — Kamau Taurua — where the community focuses on rejuvenation, sustainability, social justice and conservation. Attend retreats, volunteer or just stay in the simple accommodation and snuggle up to nature.

Best museum: The Regional Maritime Museum tells the stories of the region's seafaring history. Exhibits relate to fishing, Antarctic expeditions and social history, with loads of striking photographs.

Noted: Ian Davie is a luthier (maker of stringed instruments) who crafts guitars in his studio at Carey's Bay.

Nice arts: Hotere Gardens up Flagstaff Hill is home to a handful of eccentric sculptures that are well worth seeking out. Plus there are some lovely design stores, from The Crafty Banker (fine arts, crafts and collectibles) to White Rabbit Inc. (general groovy stuff).

NZ artist Ralph Hotere. Photo / Ross Coombes
NZ artist Ralph Hotere. Photo / Ross Coombes

Top shops: There's so much shopping from Debra Fallowfield's jewellery to second-hand books, the curiosity shop Box of Birds to second-hand clothing emporiums.

Cream of the coffee: The Galley and Union Co Cafe both do a fine cuppa.

Baked: Union Co Cafe. Their baking, both savoury and sweet, is exceptional and it's such a beautiful space. Or for something on the run, stop in at The Cottage Bakehouse for a pie or fresh bread.

Best food: The Portsider is classy and fun, some Fridays there's a six-course degustation with craft beers while Wednesday is steak night where you can mix and match your sides and sauces. Or pull up a pew at The Galley for pizza (and all sorts of other dishes like whitebait fritters), regular live music in the courtyard brings in the crowds.

Wet your whistle: Carey's Bay Historic Hotel is full of character, great for a drink and the food's grand too, especially the kai moana.

Best cycling: Hire a bike from Union Co and tootle around the bays, just 11km to Aramoana and it's all flat.

Best kept secret: Purakaunui is the most gorgeous cove and a great place to gather seafood — get a load of those cockles. Go up and over the sand dunes to Canoe Beach or visit the pa site at Mapoutahi for a lesson in Maori history.

Safety warnings: Due to the port's layout, logging trucks have to come through the main street, so keep your eyes peeled. And don't kayak in front of cruise ships.

The verdict: Port Chalmers, you're charming.

CHECKLIST

Jetstar flies daily from Auckland to Dunedin.

- NZ Herald

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