Located on the Otago Peninsula on the eastern seaboard of New Zealand's South Island, Dunedin is a thriving city of 125,000 with obvious links to Scotland in terms of history and architecture. In fact, the name means "Edinburgh" in Scottish Gaelic. Its popularity with cruise ship passengers is thanks to an easily navigable city centre, 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 Scottish poet Robert Burns) settled in the region, starting in the mid-1800s. 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 hub of the city, and most streets surround it in a simple grid. This is where cruise lines set up shuttle stops. Large parks and rolling hills add charm and rural 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 up to 65 ships would arrive on a single day 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. As expected, the fortunes of prospectors fluctuated, 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.
It's the oldest city in New Zealand, but don't let its age fool you. It's a lively place, with lots of students studying at the University of Otago. Dunedin is also spotlessly clean and full of friendly, helpful people with a keen sense of hospitality. Life proceeds at a gentle pace, with Victorian and Edwardian buildings -- as opposed to skyscrapers -- built to charm, rather than stun.
The picturesque 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 lined with shops, restaurants and cafes, including many familiar brands. The surrounding hills afford a view of Dunedin and its lush, green countryside.
Large cruise ships dock in Port Chalmers, a suburb of Dunedin at the entrance of Otago Harbour that's less than eight miles (13 kilometres) from downtown and requires shuttles bus or taxi transfers. Smaller ships can dock in the city port with much easier access.
Port Chalmers is a relatively small community, so when cruise ships dock there is a temporary i-Site Visitor Centre set up. Port Chalmers features an ATM, maritime museum, cafe, cute pubs with excellent beer and music, a sculpture garden, a New World supermarket and free Internet access at the library -- all nearby. Even though you can enjoy yourself quite easily in the little port, most visitors aim to explore Dunedin's city centre.
Because Dunedin is located on a far southerly latitude on New Zealand's South Island, the weather can be changeable, with several weather patterns possible in a single day. Bring sunscreen, hat, rain jacket and gloves.
By Shuttle: A shuttle bus usually runs from the dock to the Octagon in the city centre, about eight miles or a 15-minute drive. Allow 30 minutes for the journey. The road follows the bay, so you'll get a short sightseeing trip as well. Check the fare with your ship; some lines offer the service for free, but on our Holland America Line cruise, the cost was $15 per person roundtrip (paid in U.S. dollars to the ship). Taxis are also available at the dock.
On Foot: 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, the i-Site.
By Bus: Find bus and taxi services that depart from the Octagon to routes around the city.
Currency is the New Zealand dollar. ATMs and banks are plentiful throughout town and are usually the cheapest way to get New Zealand dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted.
English, with a distinct Kiwi accent, is the predominant language in Dunedin and all of New Zealand.
New Zealand is known for its lamb and fresh seafood dishes. The centre of Dunedin, considering its size, offers an excellent range of restaurants and cafes for a relaxing lunch.
The Reef Seafood Restaurant: 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 steak with your choice of three sauces. The easiest part is the fantastic service -- attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. The interior decor isn't fancy, but the food (can't beat the $10 express lunch) and service more than makes up for that. (329-333 George Street; lunch noon to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 p.m. daily)
The Palms Restaurant: For a taste of Dunedin cuisine, look no further than The Palms Restaurant, which is housed in the historic 1906 Imperial Building. The 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 noon to 2 p.m.)
Best Cafe: If fish 'n' chips is your thing, don't miss Best Cafe across from the railway station. Continuously operating since 1932, Best Cafe features seven kinds of fish. (Try the mixed platter if you just can't decide.) The restaurant also offers the requisite chowder, oysters and whitebait patties when in season, as well as a takeaway next door. (30 Stuart Street; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Velvet Burger: 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 11:30 a.m. until late daily)
Look for "kiwiana" -- items common or unique to New Zealand -- such as paua, the polished shells of abalone that are turned into jewellery. Try New Zealand Gift Shop (1 George Street) and the Dunedin i-Site tourism office (26 Princes Street) to find paua and much more.