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What to see on a Southern roadie: Dunedin to Christchurch

NZ Herald
By Alexia Santamaria
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Like many North Islanders, I've flown in and out of Dunedin and Christchurch many times, but never actually travelled the kilometres between these charming southern cities by road.

I was very glad to have the opportunity recently to see what I had been missing.

Although the trip is only a 4.5-hour drive, there's so much to explore along the way. Take your time and stop often - even over two days - if time permits. It's a beautiful part of the stunning South Island.

What to see and do in Dunedin

It's hard to get around all the fabulousness of the Edinburgh of the South in one trip but anything less than a couple of days would be criminal.

Craft breweries, albatross colonies, eco sanctuaries, hip eateries, seaside strolls by the exhilarating waves of St Clair Beach, Larnach Castle, beautiful churches, the fascinating Toitu Otago Settlers museum, tastings and tours at Ocho chocolate factory, the Chinese Gardens - it's endless.

If you're hitting the road on a Saturday, make sure your last stop is Otago Farmers' Market to pick up delicious artisan treats for your trip. It has one of the best market settings in the country, in the shadow of the Flemish Renaissance-style Dunedin Railway Station.

The best pit stops between Dunedin and the Moeraki Boulders

It's an hour direct from Dunedin to the famous Moeraki Boulders but there are many interesting places to stop if you're taking it slowly.

You've been warned: Near the Blue Penguin colony in Ōamaru. Photo / 123rf
You've been warned: Near the Blue Penguin colony in Ōamaru. Photo / 123rf

Detour to Port Chalmers for a poke around the cafes and quirky stores (if you like seafood, don't miss the giant platter at Carey's Bay Hotel that's heaving with local bounty) or just drive further up the coast for southern beauty at its best.

If time permits it's worth a walk around Karitāne Peninsula to see wild sapphire seas crashing on to chalky cliff faces and rocky shores; or a stop at Doctors Point beach for expanses of barely-trodden sand leading to magnificent rock arches and small sea caves.

Those with an interest in New Zealand's history might like to stop at the Seacliff Asylum ruins, notorious for the huge fire of 1942, which killed 37 patients. There's nothing left of the extravagant Gothic building where so many troubled souls were committed (including Janet Frame) but you can clearly see where it stood, and feel the eerie atmosphere as the wind whistles through the trees.

Driving from Moeraki to Ōamaru

You can't miss the Moeraki Boulders on a trip up this coast. Located on Koekohe beach these mystery spherical rocks stand up to 2m high - smooth grey orbs, their shape seemingly so out of place in a typical New Zealand coastline setting.

The famous Moeraki Boulders. Photo / Lode LaGrainge
The famous Moeraki Boulders. Photo / Lode LaGrainge

Māori legend says gourds washed ashore from the canoe Āraiteuru; scientists say calcite concretions formed more than 65 million years ago. Either way, they are spectacular.

Anyone who knows New Zealand food will also know that Moeraki is the home of Fleur's Place, made famous when Rick Stein said he would fly across the world for a meal there, and justifiably so. If you have time for a meal, this is the place to have it, before you drive half an hour on to beautiful Ōamaru.

What to see and do in Ōamaru and Timaru

Ōamaru is such a special place. All that impressive ornate Victorian limestone architecture holding fortress against the boisterous white caps of the Pacific ocean. It really does make you feel you've travelled back in time as you meander down Harbour St amid cafes, restaurants, galleries and artisan shops all constructed from that distinct white stone.

If you're a food lover, you're going to want to visit Whitestone Cheese, and Steampunk HQ is a must, whoever you are. It's very hard to adequately describe this treasure trove of sound, light, bizarre gadgets and ghostly figures, with strange creatures fashioned from scrap metal, and a large yard of "steampunked" transportation.

Ōamaru is also famed for its penguin experience and I challenge you to find much cuter than these little guys waddling up the shore en masse after a hard day fishing in those wild southern waters.

The drive from Timaru to Christchurch

There's much to do when you arrive in coastal Timaru, but if you only have time for one thing, make sure it's the Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre, where amazing examples of traditional art have been cut from regional sites more than 100 years old and brought here to compile one of the most significant collections of ancient Māori rock art in the country.

There aren't too many places where you can see our Māori geographical and cultural history preserved so well.

There are plenty of places to eat in this area, so grab something to go and take a lovely stroll around Caroline Bay before you complete the last two hours inland to Christchurch.

Driving into Christchurch

Christchurch is the perfect place to end your trip, and again make sure you allocate some decent time to see it before flying home.

Earthquakes may have destroyed parts of this city but don't let that fool you into thinking there's not much to do. It's one of the few cities where a visit to the library is an absolute must (this multimillion-dollar five-storey building has won numerous architecture awards and is so much more than a place to borrow books).

Plus there's the incredible new Riverside market complex, Botanic Gardens, Port Hills, Art Gallery, New Regent St (with a mandatory trip to Rollickin Gelato), great new shopping areas, Quake City and the sombre but stunning Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial.

This is only a small selection of the things to do on a road trip through this picturesque part of New Zealand. It's an easy drive full of fascinating discoveries and you should definitely add to your New Zealand wishlist.