Anna King Shahab shares a Hibernian experience in Otago's bonniest city.
For now, there's no travelling to far reaches of the Northern Hemisphere to lap up lochs, explore windswept isles, or admire the impressive culture and heritage of a city like Scotland's Edinburgh. But we do have Dunedin on our doorstep. There's a bonnie time to be had – without the jet lag or sharp sting to the bank account – in this southern city which shares not just its name with Edinburgh.
Compared to the upper North Island that I've left behind, Dunedin in the morning greets me like a heritage vision: stately Arts and Crafts homes climb the suburban hillsides, and as I enter the central city, Edwardian and Victorian stone buildings cluster impressively – the most significant concentration of heritage buildings in the country is found here. Gracing the lofty exteriors of dozens of the city's old buildings are vast yet intricate artworks – Dunedin's significant street art scene bears echoes of Edinburgh's The Mural Project, with works by myriad local and international artists.
I downloaded a PDF of the art trail from dunedin.nz and spent the morning exploring the street leading off The Octagon, and down into the Warehouse precinct. The revitalised area around Vogel St possesses an "industrial energy meets tidy restoration" vibe that's enviable to this Jafa and, with its burgeoning dining scene, it's a good spot to hit when hungry. We grab an early lunch at Precinct Food. I can't say when I was last tempted to order eggs Benedict (1996, perhaps) but there it is in front of me: I couldn't ignore its blurb on the menu, served as it is with pickled pork and on smoked potato rosti – deliciously redeeming.
Sea, sand, and selkies
An afternoon touring the Otago Peninsula is good for the soul. Collected from the city by Elm Wildlife Tours guide Shaun, with just a couple of other adventurers, our first stop is the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head. The grownups are out catching dinner, but from the observatory we watch several delightful toddlers tidying their nests as they patiently await their next feed. Out at Cape Saunders, Shaun drives us through private farmland to park up and walk down to the white-sand beach, reminiscent of Scotland's best.
There, we brush right past a dozen (or more – they camouflage very well) sleepy sea lions as we walk along the sand. Some pile on top of each other for comfort, some poke their heads up at our approach and begin to make moves to come and check us out, one hides under a bush in what Shaun reveals is its favourite spot – it's known to lurch out to surprise people who unwittingly take the adjacent path – sneaky selkies indeed. We find a pozzie on rocks at the far end of the beach and as the tide rolls in and the sun begins to sink, we watch in silent delight as a trickle of hoiho surf into shore and waddle up the hill for the night. A few, having made it back, call out to welcome those penguins still on their way – a distinctive call that's also haunting when you realise the perilous state of their existence.
Castle on the hill
Having taken the low road the previous day to Taiaroa Head, this time I take the high road along the peninsula to reach Larnach castle, making several stops to gawk at the view across the harbour and back to the city.
On a guided tour, I learn titbits of the fascinating Larnach family history, progressing from pedestrian to somewhat Shakespearean. The prosperous William and young wife Eliza, ordering what was then named "The Camp" piece by piece from a catalogue, to be shipped over from the UK (the OG IKEA). Larnach's canny system for lighting the place – manure from the stables topped up with waste from the family and staff's own privy, converted to gas and piped into the rooms by a kid working a foot pump. Larnach's eventual suicide in Parliament Buildings, driven by financial ruin and, it's suspected, an affair between his eldest son and his third wife. Plenty to mull over as I enjoy high tea (with excellent scones) in the ballroom. The castle grounds, with beautiful manicured gardens framing views over the harbour, are an attraction in their own right, and a new Garden Pass allows access for a year to this dreamy picnic spot.
A natural castle
The Organ Pipes Track is a good way to break up a day of copious eating: after a sharp uphill hike I'm rewarded with the prize: magnificent basalt pillars rising in a peak reminiscent of a church organ's pipes, and excellent views. It's a bit like Scotland's Isle of Staffa, but just a short drive from Dunedin's CBD. If time permits, there are plenty of places worth exploring in this area, including the striking beaches of Long Bay and Aramoana, and a stop at Port Chalmers en route back to the city. As it is, the sun is almost setting which means the best thing to do is continue a little further up Blueskin Bay to call into the haven of a taproom at small-batch brewery, Arc.
Tastes old and new
New Zealand's only Scottish restaurant is found in a cosy old villa nestled in the centre of the city. The menu at Bracken is a love letter to chef and owner David Burt's Highlands upbringing, but equally to the bounty of local produce available here. There's haggis, yes – also a vegetarian take on haggis, for which I opted and enjoyed very much. Go for a whisky match if you're keen, or explore the wine list focusing on local boutique producers. Save room for dessert – I can highly recommend the orange pud of Katy McPhee, Burt's granny.
The bars radiating from around the Octagon come alive as the sun goes down, none more so than Albar, bursting its seams with good cheer when I call in before dinner. Go for a whisky tasting or a beer paddle – both drops are equally revered here – and order a few Scottish-style tapas while you're at it. Tuesdays are a bonus, with a live Celtic band. Across the road, funky new Woof is a top spot for a late night tipple. Scottish author and cocktail writer Damian Barr helped design the cocktail menu here. The large jar of Tunnock Tea Cakes at the counter isn't just a gimmick, I happily discovered when the young woman with a Scottish accent settled her bill and ordered "A tea cake for the road, please".
In a Victorian building with an impressive facade, Wains Hotel has just completed a tasteful renovation befitting its heritage listing. Calming deep blues and greys dominate the interior, with touches like woollen tartan throws on beds to inject local flavour. The restaurant, The Press Club, introduces plenty more local flavours, including interesting Waitaki and Central Otago wines.
The Chamberson offers spacious apartments in a heritage former warehouse – the perfect retreat from all the action outside on Stuart St.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com