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Travellers Backpacker
Image Credit: Chris Stephenson

Dunedin & Coastal Otago

Dunedin, the South Island's second largest city after Christchurch, is a university city which instantly injects it with a buzz and peoples it with a youthful crowd. The city centre's streets are often full of entertainers and buskers while the Gothic, Victorian and Edwardian architecture gives it a fairly distinctive look when compared to other urban centres elsewhere in the country.

Such delights as Cadbury World, some great museums and the steepest street in the world await you here along with some fun and free stuff to enjoy. The diversity of ways to spend your time run from watching the daredevil big-wave riders brave the icy ocean to climbing on board a scenic train or mixing it up with the steampunk faithful. However, few would argue that the true stars of this region are all natural. 

Just about anywhere in Coastal Otago you can get a full-on wildlife fix on either land or sea. Penguins – sometimes in great numbers - feature rather more than once while seals, sea lions, albatross and dolphins all make appearances too. Mother Nature has seen fit to gift some real treasures to this region as well such as the fascinating Moeraki Boulders and some incredible rock formations and sculptures all along the coast.

Un-missable THINGS TO DO in Dunedin and Coastal Otago

  1. Tick off marine life sightings by the bucket-load on a dedicated wildlife boat cruise
  2. Fill your day with both chocolate and beer on a Cadbury World/Speight's combo
  3. Watch the local tow-in surfers tackle mammoth waves around the Dunedin coast
  4. Take in the Dunedin highlights the easy way with a hop-on/hop-off bus ride
  5. Walk the hand-hewn tunnel to a stunning natural rock arch at Tunnel Beach 
  6. Take a scenic train ride with the Taieri Gorge Railway
  7. Marvel at the phenomenon of the Moeraki Boulders at Koekohe Beach 
  8. Embrace your inner steampunk and meet the penguins at Oamaru
  9. Head out to the Otago Peninsula for a wildlife-packed day or to visit a castle

1. Wildlife Spotting and Boat Tours

If wildlife spotting is high on your agenda and you'd like to bag several 'spots' in one day Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula are a good bet. As wildlife boat tour choices go there is quite a varied menu here - everything from quick 1 hour jaunts to whole days – many of which will get you to places you can't reach by land.

Quite what you might see depends but included on both possible and definite sightings are albatross colonies, little blue penguins, more than one species of dolphin, New Zealand fur seals, sea-lions and any number of sea-bird species both common and rare. Some of the tour operators offer sea-land combos and include a spot of sightseeing off the boat too.

2. Beer and Chocolate

There have to be very few people in the world who don't have at least a small love affair with either beer or chocolate (surely?) so together they are, for many, a combo made in heaven.  Dunedin happens to be home to both the famous Cadbury World and Speight's brewery along with tour companies who recognise that putting both the two together in one day makes many a backpacker very happy.

However, whether you decide to do both together or separately you can expect sampling of the wares as you learn about the history and processes involved in beer and/or chocolate production. Chocolate-passionate or not, the sight of the real chocolate waterfall at Cadbury World is something certain to make you pause in your tracks.

If you happen to be in town in July be sure not to miss the annual week-long Cadbury Chocolate Carnival which culminates in the surreal sight of thousands of giant 'Jaffas' rolling their way down the world’s most precipitous residential street (Baldwin Street) for the celebrated Jaffa Race.

3. Big Wave Riding

This is a part of the world where the full force of the mighty Southern Ocean crashes into the land which, when there are big swells running, can result in giant waves. Dunedin and her environs are big-wave surfing territory where some watery monsters are only ride-able with a tow-in start. St Clair beach is a favourite of the big-wave riding crew so head out to watch these hard-core girls and boys braving chilly waters, towering waves and waters full of sharks. It's quite a sight. 

4. Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tours

Short on time or lacking the ability for decision making? Either way Dunedin's hop on/hop off buses which leave every ½ hour from the Octagon in central Dunedin make for an easy and flexible tour option. The loop circuit takes in all of the city's major highlights such as the Botanic Gardens, Speight's Brewery, Cadbury World, the historic Railway Station and Baldwin Street. Get off when you like to explore something in greater depth and then hop on another bus later when you're ready to get going again.

Both within the bus loop and beyond there is plenty of both cultural and historical interest in this city of mixed architectural styles which include Victorian, Edwardian and Gothic Revival. Check out the Gothic styled Lanarch Castle or much-visited railway station or learn about the area's social history with a visit to the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. A more focused in-depth glimpse of how the country’s earliest privileged settlers lived can be found at the Jacobean-styled Olveston dating from the very beginning of the 20th century.

5. Tunnel Beach 

Back in the 1870s one dedicated father made the decision to make a direct access route his children could use to get from their farm to the lovely beach which adjoined their land. This might sound straightforward but this actually necessitated digging a tunnel through solid hand.

Today, if you head a couple of kilometres south from Dunedin, you too can walk through this historic tunnel which is lined with millions of years old fossils. On emerging from the other end you'll find yourself in a small cove which is surrounded by wind- and wave-carved rocks in all kinds of beautiful forms including a vast rock arch and sea caves; all of which just adds to the magic of the place. 

6. Taieri Gorge Railway

Some train rides are not about the destination but the journey itself and so it is with the Taieri Gorge Railway. Climb on board at Dunedin's lovely railway station, and then sit back and watch 77km of scenery pass by which falls in categories from pretty to breath-taking.

With a helpful on-board commentary imparting interesting facts as you go, you will rattle your way across old iron viaducts, whizz through tunnels which have been hewn out of the bare rock by hand and enjoy several stops to make the most of those oh-would-you-look-at-this spots and take a picture or two. 

7. Moeraki Boulders

How is it New Zealand manages to do so different and extra-special over and over again? Surely rocks are just rocks...right? Apparently not so, here in this country full of natural wonders, because here you can head out to Koekohe Beach and find a coastline strewn with almost perfectly spherical boulders of a giant size.

Sizes vary with the biggest measuring a whopping 2.2 metres in diameter and some hang about in large clusters while others sit all alone. Maori legend tells us they are the debris from a wrecked canoe although science tells us a different story which involves chemistry and geology. There are always heaps of people here taking photos so don’t expect to have it all to yourself unless you come very early in the morning.

8. Oamaru

In 2016 Oamaru – already known in some circles as the nation's steampunk capital – double stamped its right to that title by earning itself an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest ever gathering of steampunks in the world. The record was set during Oamaru's 4-day annual Steampunk NZ festival. Fans of steampunk - a thoroughly 21st century but Victorian steam-age influenced 'tomorrow as it used to be' concept – or the simply curious will enjoy the town's various nods towards the theme. Some are subtle while others such as the art gallery-ish Steampunk HQ exhibits all kinds of quirky with scatterings of industrial parts, contraptions and sculptures in its buildings. 

Another big draw for Oamaru is the colony of little blue penguins which have taken over a disused quarry here. The penguins initially arrived all by themselves but over the years volunteers worked hard to make this a suitable breeding area and once that was successful started organising guided tours. Things have evolved from there and the whole is now very much a commercial-feeling venture which attracts 75,000 penguin watchers over the span of a year. If you prefer you nature watching a little less mainstream and more natural you should head a little south out of town and check out the rare yellow-eyed penguins which call Bushy Beach home.

9. The Otago Peninsula 

No more than a short drive or bus ride away from the South Island's second largest city of Dunedin can be found the naturally lovely area known as the Otago Peninsula. Eco-hero and naturalist David Bellamy once described the Otago Peninsula as 'the finest example of eco-tourism in the world' and so exceptionally rich in wildlife is this little corner of the world, nature lovers are going to be in their element.

All within a relatively small radius of each other can be found the planet's only mainland Royal albatross colony, Penguin Place which has hides for viewing the rare and endangered yellow-eyed penguin and the Marine Studies Centre where you can discover seahorses, octopus, crayfish and sharks. Hopping on board one of the many boat trips on offer might let you add seals, sea lions and dolphins to that wildlife spotted list.

Otherwise, this area is packed with gorgeous beaches, has tons of stunning views, a fair helping of wilderness walks and is home to New Zealand's one and only castle (rather more Gothic mansion than true castle) – Lanarch Castle.

Find out more...

Official Tourism Website - Dunedin - Everything you need to know about Dunedin!
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