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Located on the Otago Peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand, the bustling city of Dunedin has strong links to Scotland in terms of history and architecture -- so much so that its name means "Edinburgh" in Scottish Gaelic. This port city is becoming quite popular with cruise-ship passengers, thanks to a compact city center, interesting museums and galleries, chocolate-focused Cadbury World, fresh seafood at a variety of restaurants and several interesting shore excursion options.
Looking to escape religious persecution at home, Scottish emigrants (including the nephew of Scot poet Robert Burns) settled in the region, starting in the mid-1800's. Because they surveyed the land and planned the city carefully before starting to build, Dunedin is laid out in a way that makes exploration easy. The Octagon, an eight-sided plaza bisected by the city's main street, is the center of the city, and most streets surround it in an easy-to-navigate grid. Large parks and rolling hills add bucolic character.
Dunedin started to grow in earnest after gold was discovered in the area in 1861. At first, just 150 men began digging, but soon, 65 ships on a single day might arrive with new prospectors. The population of Dunedin doubled to almost 6,000 in the course of six months. By 1870, it was the biggest and wealthiest city in New Zealand. The fortunes of prospectors fluctuated over time, but a more lasting effect on the city's prospects came in 1882, when the first shipment of refrigerated meat left the port for Britain.
Today, it is the oldest and the fourth-largest city in New Zealand with a population of some 120,000. It is a lively place, with lots of young people, thanks to the University of Otago, which has many buildings in the north end of the city. In line with New Zealand in general, Dunedin is very clean, and the people are friendly. Life proceeds at a gentle pace, and everything in the city is on a human scale with Victorian and Edwardian buildings -- as opposed to skyscrapers -- all built to charm, rather than stun.
The compact city is built in a narrow valley around the end of Dunedin Bay and is easily walkable. Two principal streets, Princes Street and George Street, start at The Octagon and head south and north, respectively. George Street is particularly busy with shops, restaurants and cafes. The surrounding hills afford a great view of Dunedin and its verdant countryside, but they're a few miles away, and you need transportation to get there.
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Look for "kiwiana" -- items common or unique to New Zealand -- such as paua, the polished shells of abalone that are often turned into jewelry. New Zealand Gift Shop (80 The Octagon) and the Dunedin i-SITE tourism office (26 Princes Street) are great places to find paua and much more.
English, with a distinct Kiwi accent, is the predominant language in Dunedin and all of New Zealand.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the New Zealand dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com. ATM's and banks are plentiful throughout town and are usually the cheapest way to get New Zealand dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in Port Chalmers, a suburb of Dunedin in the mouth of Otago Harbour that's less than 10 miles from downtown.
Port Chalmers is a relatively small community. When cruise ships dock, there is a temporary i-SITE information center at the port to help passengers. Port Chalmers does feature an ATM, a cafe, a New World supermarket and free Internet access at the local library -- all nearby. Serious shoppers will most definitely want to head into Dunedin, however.
A shuttle bus usually runs from the dock to The Octagon in the city center, about eight miles or a 15-minute drive. To be on the safe side, allow 30 minutes for the journey. The road follows the bay side, so you'll get a short sightseeing trip, as well. Check the fare with your ship; some lines may offer the service for free, but on our Holland America cruise, the cost was $15 per person roundtrip (paid in U.S. dollars to the ship). Taxis are also available at the dock.
Once in Dunedin, thanks to its compact size and clear layout, you will be able to cover the city center on foot. The Octagon is the heart and center of Dunedin, and many sights are within an easy walking distance of The Octagon, as are shops, grocery stores, a post office and the tourist information office.
Buses to various locations around the city depart from The Octagon, and taxis also wait for passengers there.
Watch Out For
Since Dunedin is located well south on New Zealand's South Island, the weather is quite unpredictable, and you can go through several weather patterns in one day. Be sure to take your sunscreen and your rain jacket -- and possibly gloves.
Otago Museum explores the region's rich cultural and natural past and present, and it's one of the most complete collections of Maori knowledge on the South Island. (419 Great King Street. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
If art is more your thing than history, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, on the southwestern side of The Octagon, is an attractive building, with a spacious lobby rising through three floors and columns that recall the Art Deco style of Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The collection itself focuses on contemporary painting and photography and also features changing exhibits. A lively restaurant and bar, located off the lobby, is popular with tourists and students. (30 The Octagon. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Follow the seductive scent of chocolate to the massive and family-friendly Cadbury World. Factory tours, liquid chocolate waterfalls and chocolate tastings combine for an outing worthy of Willy Wonka. (280 Cumberland Street. Full 75-minute factory tours run 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Shorter 45-minute weekend tours omit the factory and focus on the chocolate treats from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.)
Once the kids have their sugar rush from Cadbury, it's time for Mom and Dad to enjoy their version of candy at Speight's Brewery. Immerse yourself in beer history at the 90-minute, interactive tour of New Zealand's first beer, which has been brewed at this location since the late 1800's. After the tour, you can sample each of Speight's different beers. (200 Rattray Street. Tours run 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. Monday through Sunday, with the last tour of the day at 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday.)
Been There, Done That
The only castle in New Zealand, the late-Victorian Larnach Castle, is situated on a hilltop some 12 kilometers from the city center and offers stunning views over the Dunedin Bay and the ocean. This is not Versailles or Blenheim Palace; it only has a dozen or so rooms, and you will not see them all. The rooms are designed in an eclectic style, often with dark wood paneling, reflecting the Scottish ancestry of William Larnach and his family, for whom it was built. Still privately owned, the building has been beautifully restored, and the surrounding gardens are truly pleasant. You can make an advanced booking, but it is not required. (145 Camp Rd. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
If you wish to venture farther afield, the Taieri Gorge Railway has daily departures from the city's railway station -- usually at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. -- over cast-iron bridges and tunnels built in 1879, to the scenic river gorge. Some tours are sold by cruise lines, and if you book one of those tours, the train will depart from the dockside at Port Chalmers. Otherwise, trains leave from the pretty Edwardian train station on Thomas Burns Street in Dunedin (and tickets cost less than the cruise ships charge).
New Zealand is known for its lamb and fresh seafood dishes. The center of Dunedin offers a good range of restaurants and cafes for a relaxing lunch.
The hardest part about a casual meal at The Reef Seafood Restaurant is deciding between the green-lipped mussels, the seafood curry with sole and prawns, or the melt-in-your-mouth T-bone with your choice of three sauces. The easiest part is the fantastic service -- attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. The interior decor lacks a bit, but the food (can't beat their $10 Express Lunch) and service more than make up for it. (329-333 George Street. Lunch served daily from noon to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 p.m.)
For a taste of local cuisine, look no further than The Palms Restaurant, which is housed in the historic 1906 Imperial Building. The local New Zealand fare is influenced by tastes from around the world, including smoked salmon in various incarnations, kumara curry (kumara is New Zealand's version of sweet potato), mussel and fish curry, lamb chops and rump steak. The wine list is exclusively made up of New Zealand and Australia producers, with the exception of a few Champagne choices from France. (18 Queens Gardens. Lunch served noon to 2 p.m.)
If fish-n-chips is your thing, don't miss Best Café across from the railway station. Continuously run since 1932, Best Cafe features seven different kinds of fish for the ultimate fish-n-chips. (Try the mixed platter if you just can't decide.) They also have the requisite chowder, oysters and whitebait patties when in season, as well as a takeaway next door. (30 Stuart Street. Lunch served 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner served 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.)
If you're craving a burger, check out Velvet Burger with two Dunedin locations and (at last count) 16 varieties of burgers. Velvet Burger promises "the best gourmet burger using the freshest ingredients that this beautiful country of ours has to offer." From patties of beef to venison and lamb with unique toppings like grilled pineapple, kumara chutney and fried eggs, Velvet Burger will satisfy the most discerning of burger aficionados. (150 Lower Stuart Street and 375 George Street. Open daily 11:30 a.m. until late.)
Staying in Touch
Netplanet (78 St. Andrew Street) offers many terminals and fast connections. Otherwise, the Visitor Centre at The Octagon (open 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily) will help you find the nearest Internet cafe that suits your needs (including some with terminals for those not traveling with laptops).
Best for First-Timers: Dunedin's Highlights & Olveston Mansion tour offers an efficient way (typically four hours) to view the sights of Dunedin, including the Victorian and Edwardian architecture of the Otago Museum, Otago University and Railway Station, as well as the splendor of the antiques, porcelain, paintings, ivory and crystal of Olveston Mansion.
Best for Train Buffs: On the Taieri River Gorge Experience, you board a train at the dock for a journey through farmland before climbing to the gorge, where cast-iron bridges and viaducts carry the line past cliffs and ravines and along the river. It is truly a classic marvel of Victorian railway engineering. Morning tea and a snack box are served on this half-day excursion. Several stops are made during the journey to allow you to take pictures of the dramatic scenery.
Best for Wildlife Enthusiasts: Featuring a 1.5-hour cruise to the Otago Peninsula, a visit to the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre and an offroad adventure in an amphibious all-terrain vehicle, the Nature's Wonders Wildlife Cruise & Safari is a must for an animal- or nature-lover. With the opportunity to see great albatross, fur seals and a nesting area for the elusive yellow-eyed penguin, this tour will even keep the little ones engrossed. Lunch is served on this full-day tour.
For More Information
On the Web: www.dunedinnz.com.
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--by Kari Reinikainen; updated by Lynn and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic Contributors.