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GO NZ: Get your feet wet in Dunedin

Not for sale

A first-timer and a former Scarfie visit Dunedin to find out what's new (and old), writes Hamish Fletcher

There were no couches set alight by hordes of Scarfies. There were no Jaffas bounced down the world's steepest street. There were no calls to the police from a paperboy on a chilly June morning. This was not the Dunedin of popular imagination. This was Dunedin at its most discerning. A Dunedin of degustation dining, a Dunedin of gin palaces, a Dunedin of designer boutiques - equal parts peculiar, prepossessing and palate-stretching.

There was a taste of southern Gothic to this 36-hour stay; thick rain blanketed the city's grim Edwardian buildings and low clouds enclosed our winter weekend in gloom. No matter though; for us - one, a first-time visitor to the southern city, the other a former Scarfie, almost 20 years removed - this Dunedin was a revelation and a delight.

And you know what they say: the cold never bothered me anyway. Especially when you find yourself dodging the weather with full bellies, because when it's wet, eating your way around a city is always a good distraction.

We began our wet weekend hiding from a rainy night in Moiety - an award-winning restaurant in Dunedin's historic warehouse precinct where the industrial minimalist interior belies a menu erupting in flavour. Chef Sam Gasson takes no prisoners, offering either snacks or a five-course meal and nothing in between. A champion of local cuisine, there's a pretty good chance Moiety's dishes will be slightly different each time you visit, depending on the time of year. During the evening when we dined we were treated to the most spectacular dessert of roasted pear with caramel, a Whittaker's chocolate ganache and an almond crumb.

As well as boasting an array of wines from across Otago, Moiety also sells jars of pate to take away, an essential memento to squeeze into any carry-on luggage.

Walking has long been the best way for a tourist to work up an appetite - or burn off any gastronomical gluttony in turn. And even when the streets are glazed with rain, Dunedin makes for pleasant perambulating.

What better place to start than at the Otago Farmers Market, which is held every Saturday morning at Dunedin Railway Station. The historic landmark is the perfect backdrop for more than 50 stalls selling locally grown and made (and distilled - hello gin lovers, you must check out No8 Distillery) treats, and the market itself is the perfect place to start a gentle stroll around the city.

It was still early, but locals clearly know the early bird gets the worm. Or pastries in our case; crispy, light ones, packed with walnuts and chocolate from Caitlins Kitchen. After joining the puffer jacket army, lined up five, six, seven deep for warming coffee, it was impossible to go past Ready to Eat, the unassuming food truck tucked in right by the entrance, serving bing - a savoury Chinese crepe encasing egg, vegetables and meat. Light, crunchy and flavoursome, they're by far the most unique offering across the stallholders.

And if unique is your sort of thing, it's worth making a retail detour to the perfectly named Two Squirrels Vintage Emporium. It's a small, but perfectly formed and carefully curated selection of vintage clothes, accessories, shoes, tartan and yes, fur. Just across the road, Taste Merchants is a great spot for everything from vintage vinyl, Star Wars memorabilia and Temuka pottery. A real gem.

Two Squirrels Vintage Emporium is a small, but perfectly formed and carefully curated selection of vintage clothes, accessories, shoes, tartan and yes, fur. Photo / Dunedin NZ
Two Squirrels Vintage Emporium is a small, but perfectly formed and carefully curated selection of vintage clothes, accessories, shoes, tartan and yes, fur. Photo / Dunedin NZ

Keep walking to get the true lay of the land - and spy Dunedin's changing face and fortunes - and do it with the fascinating Athol Parks of City Walks.

A former taxi driver turned author and local guide, Athol's two-hour treks offer an insider's track to the city. They touch on the past and present lives of its landmarks and buildings, the shifts in the city's geography and the politics surrounding empty heritage buildings awaiting redevelopment. It's a tour of Dunedin's ebb-and-flow from the country's biggest and wealthiest centre during the 1860s gold rush to its status as middling New Zealand city today.

Out with Athol, you can't avoid encountering Dunedin's street art, which property owners have allowed and encouraged to sprawl across the side of the city's buildings. More than 30 murals spiral up mid-rise towers or decorate doorways and are maintained entirely by a network of volunteers and enthusiasts. Painted by artists who travelled from as far afield as Belgium and Argentina, the works are a wonder to encounter whether you seek them out or come across one by chance.

For us, the rain was still falling as the sun set. We escaped the inclement weather to try a newish player on Dunedin's dining scene. The Indigo Room is a cosy wine bar tucked down an alleyway with an interior paint job that is more than worthy of its name. With too many cocktails to responsibly work your way through (although a special mention must be made of the Maple Old Fashioned and the Strange Brew - a combination of gin and lager that should not be knocked until it is tried), the key to this Asian-tinged menu is to soak the booze up with a generous plate of whipped honey miso butter on thick white bread. The rest of the menu is worth a nibble, too.

Dunedin cafe Adjo is a small eatery/gallery space near the botanic gardens, with a focus on Nordic cuisine. Photo / Dunedin NZ
Dunedin cafe Adjo is a small eatery/gallery space near the botanic gardens, with a focus on Nordic cuisine. Photo / Dunedin NZ

Dunedin equally excels at daytime dining - and hosts what I'd argue is the highest number of jam-packed, bustling cafes per capita of any New Zealand city. The pick of the bunch (or brunch) are Side-On, Buster Greens and Adjo. The latter is a small eatery/gallery space near the botanic gardens, with a focus on Nordic cuisine and a menu that centres around grod (porridge) and smorrebrod (open sandwiches). The incredibly friendly staff are more than happy to help you pick which of the wild and wacky schnapps flavours will put hairs on your chest - for us, it was chilli chocolate and rye bread - and a visit to Adjo taught me that if you aren't already mixing peanut butter in your oats or potatoes in your sarnies, you're missing a trick.

Olveston House in Dunedin is a surprising and must-visit attraction. Photo / Dunedin NZ
Olveston House in Dunedin is a surprising and must-visit attraction. Photo / Dunedin NZ

Bellies full once more - I'm not sure they ever got below three-quarters full, to be honest - it was time for a bit more time travel, and rain dodging. Dunedin's Olveston House certainly kept us warm and dry and also, literally, offered us a glimpse into the living room (and parlour, billiard room, bedrooms) of one of the city's wealthy 20th-century families. Built between 1904 and 1906 by Dunedin businessman David Theomin, the 35-room Jacobean-style mansion was gifted to the city by his daughter Dorothy when she died in 1966. Extremely modern for its time, with central heating, a service lift and internal telephone, Olveston remains a sort of mausoleum to the family's life. All the house's original decor and contents - from the furnishings in the dining room to the crockery in the kitchen - remains as it was when Dorothy passed away. On paper, it is perhaps a dry place to spend a morning, but this was a truly pleasant surprise and a fascinating window to the past.

Barely a stone's throw from Olveston is a museum of a very different kind. Occupying the front rooms of an old villa, the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is an assortment of animal skulls, bones, teeth, ethnographic art and miscellaneous pop-cultural curios.

It is the passion project of the man who lives in the Royal Terrace house, Bruce Mahalski. The son of scientists and conservationists, Bruce began gathering bones when he was 8 years old and has a 60-year-old family collection on display. Does he find it macabre living with all those skeletons?

"These structures are the very bedrock of life itself...personally I see bones as signs of life, not symbols of death," Mahalski says in a sign alongside the exhibition.

DUNEDIN BY THE BOOK

"The sweeping blast, the sky o'ercast / The joyless winter day / The leafless trees my fancy please / Their fate resembles mine!"

So the poet Robert Burns opined about the inclement Scottish weather. He may well have been describing the rain that soaked his statue that keeps a watchful eye over the so-called "Edinburgh of the south". Burns has been immortalised in steel in Dunedin since 1887, though died well before his countrymen could populate the area around the Octagon where his likeness holds court. He isn't the only writer Dunedin celebrates; peppered around his statue are plaques to poets, playwrights and novelists connected to the city, including luminaries Thomas Bracken, Charles Brasch, Janet Frame, James K. Baxter, and Hone Tuwhare.

Designated a Unesco City of Literature since 2014, what better place in New Zealand to curl up with a good book when the weather turns foul? If you find yourself short of reading material, head to Dead Souls - a second-hand bookshop that's less than 15 minutes walk from Burns' statue. Shelves overflowing with literary tomes, you could spend hours rifling through its wares to find that perfect holiday read.

Moiety is an award-winning restaurant in Dunedin's historic warehouse precinct. Photo / Dunedin NZ
Moiety is an award-winning restaurant in Dunedin's historic warehouse precinct. Photo / Dunedin NZ

A WINTER'S TIPPLE: WHERE TO DRINK IN DUNEDIN

Try these three spots to warm the cockles of your heart during the chilly months.

Woof!

A vibrant and busy drinking destination in the centre of town, with a long list of delicious cocktails and craft beers. Try to get a spot in the glasshouse, a room spilling over with house plants of every variety. Disclaimer: Woof! is co-owned by my wonderful cousin (the velvet pink sofa by the fire used to be in my grandparents' formal sitting room).

Adjo

A Scandinavian spot near the botanic gardens serving wine, beer, cocktails and the piece de resistance - schnapps. Do your taste buds a favour and work your way through a handful of the 20-odd intriguing flavours.

New New New

A brewery housed in a heritage building with an aesthetic borrowed from Japanese 1980s corporate giants. Worth the 15-minute walk from Dunedin's centre, try the Peach and Nectarine Sour ale.

CHECKLIST: DUNEDIN

ACCOMMODATION: The new Ebb Hotel is a modern boutique hotel in the heart of Dunedin, with five room types to choose from. On-site Ebb-Cafe is open from 7am Tuesday to Sunday. ebb-dunedin.co.nz

DETAILS

For more information, see dunedinnz.com

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newfinder.co.nz and newzealand.com