Dunedin, I owe you an apology. And if I'm honest, this has been a long time coming. My parents moved to the Edinburgh of the South in December of 1999 - the same month I finished high school in Auckland and decided to go it alone, forging my own path in our largest city. As such, I'm guilty of holding on to a teenage-brained, vaguely patronising attitude to the place that claimed the only Auckland parents I know to move there rather than their university-bound children.
But here's the thing. Dunedin is a geographically blessed, culturally rich city that's overflowing with surprises, whether you're a first-timer, or whether you're someone who's been visiting their folks approximately twice a year for more than two decades. And of late, it's finally become clear to me that I've well and truly arrived at being a bona fide Dunedin fan.
Back to the apology. It wasn't until a family member recently said, "you always made it sound as if you never really liked Dunedin", that I realised I had a PR issue with the whānau and needed to set a few things straight. Let's start by acknowledging that, yes, Dunedin isn't ever going to be a contender for being either the sunniest or the warmest main centre in New Zealand, but who really cares? It has roughly the same annual sunshine hours as London and when the sun is still to set behind those storybook-curved hills of the North East Valley at 9.30pm on a still summer's night, Wellington's not the only place you can't beat on a good day.
Unfortunately, once upon a time, my blind spot about Dunedin's climate caused me to rarely take full advantage of all those trips south to see the parents. Then something twigged. Remember that story a few years back about the couple who booked a "Mystery Escape" with Air New Zealand and were then all upset that they got Invercargill when what they really wanted was Queenstown? I had zero sympathy. I'm sorry, if you were after a holiday in Queenstown, then maybe you should've booked a holiday in Queenstown!
The only aspect of their "plight" that carried a bit of weight was that they'd been promised a four to five-star hotel and what they got in Invercargill appeared almost comically drab. So yes, make a complaint about the hotel, but to demand a refund and then hightail it up the road to Queenstown without ever giving Invercargill and the Deep South a chance? The total lack of inquisitiveness bugged me.
And then I realised that my youthful put-downs about Dunedin's weather had somehow transferred into adult ignorance; a lack of inquisitiveness. I was as bad as the infamous Invercargill Mystery Escape couple! Well, maybe not quite, but with glasshouse shattering, it was time for a shift of mindset and to reassess a place I thought I knew.
Case in point, I love gardens and I love bushwalks and I'd strolled through the lower sections of the Dunedin Botanic Gardens countless times and always enjoyed them, but it wasn't until my most recent trip that I properly explored them. As in, every corner of that 158-year-old, 28ha "Garden of International Significance" that - whaddaya know - also contains a remarkable slice of native forest hiding up above the hill.
How did I not know this? I guess I never looked. Aesthetically more Fiordland than Mull of Kintyre, this is genuinely beautiful forest and connects to the Lovelock Bush, which in turn will spit you out at Dunedin's Northern Cemetery. From there I was pulled in by the sight of something that resembled a grand cathedral crossed with a tiny house and with a good dash of Rapunzel in the mix too. Overall, the historic Northern Cemetery is one photo op after another, but that particular church - or was it a lavish gravesite? - had me transfixed.
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Dunedinites will know exactly what I'm talking about: the building is indeed a tomb, and not just any tomb, but the "Larnach Tomb" where Eliza Jane Guise, first wife of William James Mudie Larnach, the same Larnach of Larnach Castle, was buried. Larnach had it built - complete with a 17m-high spire - in his wife's honour in 1881 and despite years of vandalism and disrepair, these days it's a protected, restored icon of the city.
Sure, you should definitely get to Larnach Castle too - something worth it for the 20-minute coastal drive along the Otago Peninsula alone - but this central city companion piece now feels like a crucial first point of call.
I've added it to my growing list of less-obvious Dunedin must-do's for out-of-towners that also includes the delightful nine-hole frisbee golf course at Chingford Park and the cliffs and white sand combo of Brighton Beach. Then there's the street art (I'm all about the massive Ed Sheeran mural), the imposing public buildings that date back to the 1800s, the boutiques, cafes and bars of the central city (Woof! is particularly cool for an evening beverage), and if you're a fellow nature lover, the fenced-off, 370ha Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a must.
So Dunedin, I'm sorry. Forgive me! You're awesome for all the famous reasons and you're even more awesome for the things I'm finally discovering.