Dunedin is an unexpected gem located on the southeast coast of New Zealand's South Island at the southern end of Otago Harbour. With a population of close to 130,000 (including thousands of university students), the city exudes a hip vibe and boasts a varied selection of shops, restaurants, cafes and craft breweries. In addition, Dunedin offers a combination of Scottish heritage, turn-of-the-century architecture and access to untamed wildlife areas.
In fact, European settlers were first attracted to Otago Harbour for its wildlife, more specifically, hunting seals, resulting in Port Chalmers being a deep-water whaling port that provided services and trade for ships to the area. The seals are no longer hunted there; instead, passengers can take a tour to the end of Otago Peninsula, known as Taiaroa Head, for panoramic views, and enjoy close encounters with fur seals and other wildlife in their own habitat.
A highlight of our tour at Natures Wonders was watching the seals and their pups. We were far enough away to not bother them, yet close enough that we could watch, listen, and say, 'aaaaaww'. Some seals basked in the sun while hungry pups looked for their mothers, crying out until an adult seal called back and they were reunited on the same rock.
In contrast to the Otago Peninsula's wildlife and dramatic landscape, our tour provided a history lesson of Dunedin including stops and detours past historic buildings that offered a glimpse into the city's early prosperity. Established as a Scottish settlement in 1848, it was the discovery of gold in 1861 that led to an influx in the city's population, making Dunedin New Zealand's largest and wealthiest city by the late 1800s.
Subsequently, the city's prosperous economy left behind great examples of Edwardian and Victorian architectural heritage, including the Dunedin Railway Station, the University of Otago, Larnach Castle, New Zealand's first botanic garden, and a number of impressive churches. Originally, Dunedin was planned and designed to mimic the characteristics of Edinburgh, as evidenced by the city's street names and even the name of the city itself is Scottish Gaelic for Edinburgh. At the heart of the city is The Octagon, an eight-sided plaza that is bisected by main streets, George Street and Princes Street.
Most ships' shore excursions include a stop at The Octagon and the cruise ship shuttles tend to drop off and pick up near this hub. The Octagon's central location to historic sights, restaurants, shops, and public transportation, make it a convenient jumping-off point from which to explore Dunedin. Although cruise traffic only arrives in Dunedin from October to April -- in New Zealand's summer -- the southerly latitude of New Zealand's South Island means the weather can be unpredictable so be prepared with both a rain jacket and hat.
If you have time before or after your day in Dunedin, check out Port Chalmers. Although there's not a whole lot to see and do here, the historic buildings and the free Wi-Fi on George Street make it worth a stroll. Once back onboard your cruise ship, make sure to watch the ship's departure as she passes the Taiaroa Head Lighthouse on her starboard side; the lighthouse has been marking the entrance to Otago Harbour since 1864.
Most cruise ships dock in Port Chalmers, a suburb of Dunedin, located inside the Otago Harbour. The port uses two main berths -- Beach and Container Terminal (C/T) -- and both use the same terminal building. The building doesn't have much to offer except for tables and chairs to sit at and enjoy the free Wi-Fi. You will also find helpful locals who are here to provide information.
Outside of the terminal building, Beach Street intersects George Street, the main street through Port Chalmers, where you can find ATMs, a supermarket, and free WiFi (available in all public spaces on George Street). Most of the town's historic buildings have been transformed into quaint cafes, restaurants, pubs, shops, and a maritime museum.
Most passengers don't stay in Port Chalmers, instead making their way to downtown Dunedin, about 12 km away, or further afield to the Otago Peninsula. Alternatively, smaller vessels may dock in downtown Dunedin. The Port Otago website details the cruise ship schedule and berthing arrangements for all cruise ships.
Visitors can enjoy free public Wi-Fi at a number of hotspots across Dunedin including at The Octagon, Dunedin Railway Station, Dunedin Botanic Garden, and all of George Street in Port Chalmers. Stop by i-SITE, New Zealand's official visitor information (located at 50 The Octagon) if you need directions or recommendations. And, when crossing a street or catching a bus, do keep in mind that all of New Zealand drives on the left side of the road.
By Shuttle: The cruise lines offer a shuttle bus for about $15 roundtrip (paid in the currency of the ship) from Port Chalmers to The Octagon and it takes about 15 to 25 minutes, depending on traffic. Most tours operated by the cruise lines include a stop in Dunedin, so an additional shuttle is not necessary. Independent shuttles to the city centre are also available on George Street in Port Chalmers for about $6 per person each way.
By Taxi: A taxi (mini-bus) from Port Chalmers to the City Centre costs around NZ$60 each way, which is a good option if you have a large group and can use it to transfer from Port Chalmers to the centre of Dunedin.
On Foot: Once in Dunedin, use The Octagon to orient yourself as it's in the heart of the city. Many sites are within easy walking distance of The Octagon including the Dunedin Railway Station, Speight's Brewery, Otago Museum, Olveston Historic Home, a number of historic churches, plus a diverse selection of restaurants and shops. For art lovers, pick up or download a free Dunedin Street Art Trail map, which is a self-guided trail to the whimsical street art throughout Dunedin.
By Public Bus (Orbus): The bus system makes it easy to navigate around the city. All Dunedin bus routes connect through the Central City Bus Hub on Great King Street off Moray Place (near The Octagon). Visitors can pay cash to the bus driver. A single fare is based on how many zones you will travel through.
To get from Port Chalmers to Dunedin city Centre, take Bus #14 at the George Street No. 3 Bus Stop in Port Chalmers and get off at Central City Bus Hub in Dunedin. This bus runs every 30 minutes. Arrive at Dunedin Botanic Garden by taking Bus #5, #8 or #10. Take Bus #8 from the Central City Bus Hub to get to Baldwin Street (the steepest street in the world).
By Train: Passengers can book a tour on the Taieri Gorge Railway Train, which boards alongside their ship at Port Chalmers. The train travels through the breathtaking Taieri Gorge with a stop at the Dunedin Railway Station on the way back to Port Chalmers. Although passengers can book this train independently from Dunedin, it must be booked through the cruise line when travelling to and from Port Chalmers.
Currency is the New Zealand Dollar. For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com. There is an ATM on George Street in Port Chalmers. ATMs are plentiful in Dunedin and a couple of machines can be found at the corner of George Street and Moray Place. Credit cards are widely accepted throughout Dunedin although it may not be possible to use credit cards on the Taieri Gorge Railway due to the remote nature of the journey.
English, with a distinct Kiwi accent, is the predominant language in Dunedin and all of New Zealand. Kia ora -- pronounced kee a ora -- is a Maori language greeting that you'll hear throughout New Zealand; it translates to 'hi', 'be well' or 'be healthy'.
An excellent range of restaurants, cafes, and breweries are within walking distance of The Octagon. Additionally, the Warehouse District is Dunedin's historic industrial area with many establishments housed in the repurposed buildings. Many restaurants offer menus that feature locally sourced ingredients, fresh seafood and vegetarian options.
Plato: Located in a converted Seaman's Mission near the docks of the freight yard, Plato has an emphasis on South Island fish and seafood, local produce and organically grown herbs. Menu items include homemade fish and chips, white fish pie and crispy squid. Plus, Plato brews its own boutique beer onsite at Birch St Brewery.
(2 Birch Street; +64 3 477 4235; open for lunch, Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 2 pm, and dinner Monday to Sunday, 6 pm to late)
Velvet Burger: Craving a burger? Choose from a menu that includes 14 varieties of gourmet burgers including vegetarian options. Try Velvet Burger's signature Beet Drop Burger, a New Zealand grass-fed beef and beetroot patty. Those with less of an appetite will appreciate the option of the smaller mini burgers, which are a fraction of the price. Don't forget to order a side of fried pickles or native kumara chips (aka sweet potato fries).
(150 Lower Stuart Street or 375 George Street; +64 3 477 7089; open daily, Monday to Sunday, 11.30 am to late)
Vogel St Kitchen: Located in the revitalised warehouse district, a five-minute walk from The Octagon, Vogel St Kitchen offers a selection of wood fired pizzas, sandwiches, and an all-day breakfast that includes Eggs Benedict with from-scratch hollandaise sauce. Their loft-style industrial building features high ceilings, exposed bricks and beams, and exudes a relaxed caf?-style atmosphere.
(76 Vogel Street, Warehouse District; +64 3 477 3623; open Monday to Friday, 7.30 am to 3 pm, Saturday and Sunday, 8.30 am to 4 pm)
The Portsider: Located in a Port Chalmers' Victorian-era Heritage building, this upscale pub is the perfect place to perch at the end of your day before heading back onboard the ship. The Portsider has a selection of New Zealand craft beers on tap and its menu is not your regular pub fare. The bread is made inhouse and the fish and chips are served with homemade tartare sauce and hand-cut fries.
(31 George Street, Port Chalmers; +64 3 472 8060; open Monday to Friday 3 pm until late, Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to late)
Speight's Brewery: Speight's has been brewing in Dunedin on the same site it has occupied since 1876. The guided tours through Speight's historic working brewery offer a mix of Dunedin history and technical brewing information. The best part of the tour is the 30-minute unlimited sampling session of Speight's beers. Stay for lunch at the Speight's Ale House or buy some beer gear at their onsite shop.
(200 Rattray Street; +64 3 471 9050; Brewery tours are offered between noon and 7 pm; The Speight's Ale House opens daily from 11.30 am)
Emerson's Brewery: Take a behind-the-scenes tour of this local craft brewery and taproom and learn every step of the brewing process, from the malt room, to the fermentation, bottling, and most importantly, tasting. Emerson's Taproom has more than a dozen beers on tap, including their flagship dark beer, London Porter. The lunch menu is extensive including sharing platters and options for kids.
(70 Anzac Ave; +64 3 477 1812; summer tours daily from October to March between 10 am and 6 pm; winter tours daily from April to September at 10am, 2pm and 6pm; The Taproom opens daily from 10 am)
OCHO (aka Otago Chocolate Company): Take a tour of OCHO's Vogel Street factory and learn about its chocolate-making process. OCHO use ethically grown cacao beans from the Pacific and roast, grind, temper and wrap the chocolate bars by hand. All of OCHO's handcrafted chocolate bars are nut-free and most of its chocolate is vegan except for a few items such as the Sea Salted Chunks of Caramel.
(10 Roberts Street; +64 3 425 7819; Chocolate Factory Tour and Tasting, Monday to Saturday 11 am and 2 pm)
Otago Farmers Market: If your cruise ship is in Dunedin on a Saturday, this is where you will find the locals. Located adjacent to Dunedin Railway Station, more than 60 local artisan stalls and food vendors sell takeaways that include falafel, crepes, smoothies, coffee, craft beer and more. It's also a great spot to pick up a souvenir such as bean-to-bar chocolate, beeswax products and handmade jewelry.
(Northern Carpark, Dunedin Railway Station, Anzac Square; Saturdays from 8 am to 12.30 pm)
Look for 'Kiwiana' - items that are associated with New Zealand's nationhood such as the kiwi, silver fern, or Speight's Beer gear. Unique souvenirs include jewellery made from polished paua shells or gloves made of Merinomink, an exclusive blend of fine Merino lambs' wool, possum fur and silk. The Octagon has a number of souvenir shops including Aotea Gifts Dunedin (19 George Street), New Zealand Giftshop (1 George Street), and Dunedin i-SITE (50 The Octagon). Also, check out The Scottish Shop (17 George Street), which is a reminder of Dunedin's heritage with items such as traditional woven tartan, clan regalia and shortbread cookies for sale.