The Eastern Otago region houses some of the South Island’s most unusual natural curiosities that make it the wildlife capital of New Zealand. There’s the spherical Moeraki boulders, the abundant wildlife on the Otago Peninsula, the steep streets of Dunedin and the beautiful Waitaki Valley. Known for its Scottish heritage, gold rushes in the 1860s were the catalyst for rapid economic growth in Dunedin, and you can see the extravagance of the era in the Victorian and Edwardian buildings that still stand today.
KEY TOWNS AND REGIONS
Dunedin and Otago Peninsula
Set between rolling hills and rugged coastline, Dunedin is popular for its unique combination of a bustling university, architectural heritage and exotic wildlife. It is recognised as one of the best-preserved sites of Edwardian and Victorian architecture in the Southern Hemisphere with some fantastic buildings to explore. Modern culture is thriving in Dunedin with theatres, art galleries, cafes restaurants and bars scattered throughout the city.
The Otago Peninsula is predominantly of volcanic origin; steep and very rugged on the Pacific Ocean side, while the harbour side is warm, sunny and sheltered. Coined as the wildlife capital of New Zealand, the peninsula is home to the royal albatross, the yellow-eyed penguin and a variety of seals and sea lions. A number of walkways give you access to breathtaking views and sheer cliff face with names such as The Chasm and Lovers Leap. New Zealand’s only castle, Larnach Castle, built from 1871, is located on the top of the peninsula, and boasts magnificent carved ceilings, an exciting, sometimes scandalous and tragic history, and expansive gardens of international significance.
A short drive from Dunedin, the charming habourside village of Port Chalmers offers a unique mix of heritage attractions. The deep-water port was founded in 1844, and brick and stone soon replaced the early wooden buildings as the wealth of the gold rush began to trickle in. Today, Port Chalmers is an artsy, bohemian town and its seaside setting is a popular weekend excursion for Dunedin locals. A further fifteen minutes up the coast will take you to the tiny seaside town of Aramoana, the beach a surfing favourite with locals.
A harbour town just 90 minutes north of Dunedin, Oamaru is home to some of New Zealand’s best 19th century architecture and one of the country’s oldest public gardens.
The Victorian Precinct in Oamaru’s main commercial district ranks as one of New Zealand’s most impressive streetscapes with buildings constructed from Oamaru stone. Just five minutes from the city centre is the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, a natural nesting area for hundreds of the world’s smallest penguin species. Spot them just on dusk waddling comically up the beach to their cliff-side homes after a day out at sea.
About half an hour north from Oamaru is the Waitaki Valley, which straddles the borders of Otago and Canterbury. The Valley is an unspoilt paradise with three lakes and a braided river, and is becoming known for its developing wine industry. The town of Duntroon is home to incredible geological formations such as the Elephant Rocks, and has preserved some of the more unique aspects of its past in a restored gaol and blacksmiths forge. Omarama, meaning the lace of light, is a good stop on the way to Queenstown, and has a strong reputation as the gliding capital of the world, where you can soar over the beautiful Waitaki Valley and McKenzie Basin.
Getting here and around: Dunedin International and Domestic Airport lies about 20 minutes west of the central city and serves as a gateway to the wider Otago region.
Getting around the city itself is relatively easy, as distances are not great. Independent transport options include public bus, rental car or taxi. When driving yourself, remember fuel is not sold on the Otago Peninsula.
Regular coach services connect Dunedin to other towns and cities in the South Island.
Port Chalmers is the gateway to visiting cruise ships.
Climate: Spring (Sep-Nov) – warming up with clear days and showers clearing, 6-18°C; Summer (Dec-Feb) – dry and sunny, 18-26°C; Autumn (Mar-May) – cool and frosty, 6-17°C; Winter (Jun-Aug) – cold, frosty and snow, 2-13°C.