Freya Hill


Dunedin: A Quirky, Playful Intellectual City

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We took the bus to the seaside on the Sunday morning.  We walked along the Dunedin foreshore in the sunshine wearing winter jackets and sunglasses,. Saint Clair beach turned out to be a lovely place to spend our last day in the city of Scarfies, and after enjoying a meal at a busy cafe (clearly the place to brunch that Sunday) we walked in the sunshine down the beach and back into town.

When planning our Central Otago Rail Trail holiday, we wanted a city to base ourselves in before and after our four days on the trail.  Dunedin and Queenstown were the obvious choices.  The thought of Queenstown in peak ski season,when we weren’t going to be skiing jarred with my need for a laid back yet intellectually and culturally stimulating city break; Dunedin on the other hand seemed to tick those boxes.

After a clear run from Auckland to Dunedin, we descended upon the good folk of the Dunedin Palms Motel, several hours before it was really polite to demand we check-in. This was no bother for our friendly hosts, as they showed us the way to the garage where we (or one of us…) could assembly our two bikes for the trail.  Having somewhere to assemble and store the bikes and to leave our bike boxes and extra gear while we were on the trail was an essential requirement of our Dunedin accommodation.  We were more than satisfied by the accommodating nature of the Palms Motel.

Bikes Dunedin

Assembling Bikes

Our accommodation was a short walk from the Octagon, and after a refreshing second breakfast we quickly found ourselves at what would become our ‘local’ while we were in Dunedin – the Al Bar. A cavernous little bar on Stuart St, the Al Bar delighted with its hand pumped pints. We returned to the Al Bar three more times in our trip, including a rather memorable night  to do their ‘Tour of Scotland’ whiskey tasting night. Our tour guide, the busy barman, was attentive and informed and our only mistakes was possibly that we had the ‘tour’ on empty stomachs and while continuing to drink other beverages….


Determined not to spend too much dosh in the Otago capital, I was delighted that all the museums and art galleries we visited had free entry.  We spent a lovely morning at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum , including some time spent admiring their collection of vehicles, a particular highlight for my automotive-loving companion.

We also enjoyed the stillness, modernity and visual wealth of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. It is an absolute asset to the city and deserves to be internationally recognised as such.

A glorious train station

Waiting For The Train (Willesden Junction) Jacques-Joseph Tissot- part of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery collection

A poignant exhibition at the Gallery was the photography exhibition ‘Anzac’ by Laurence Aberhart, which focuses on the war monuments which decorate the towns of New Zealand and Australia. When we had been travelling on the Trail, I was touched by the sombre little statutes in ‘towns’  that now scarcely housed two or three people. The monuments were not just a tributes to the fallen sons, but to the communities which mourned their sons, which are now also departed.

One of the works in the ‘Anzac’ exhibition


Whilst making sure we got out cultural quota, we also embraced Dunedin’s quirky and youthful side. Dunedin is of course the home of Otago University and its students, the Scarifies.  I was keen to attend some theatre while in Dunedin so we joined around 50 others, mainly students, in a lunchtime performance by the University’s theatre studies department. It was fabulous value at $5 a head and gave us a sense of being on the campus with a purpose, rather than just tentatively toddling through as gawking tourists. It made me a little nostalgic for being a university student and I ardently read my copy of Critic, the student magazine. The top story was ‘Are Student Residences Cliquey?’ I was comforted to know that student’s concerns don’t change that much!

In the heart of student land is a little brewery called the Green Man brewery. We booked a tour and were the only tour takers that chilly Saturday night, yet our host was giving of his time and his thoughts, and of course, the beers.

There were two places we visited more than once in our 5 days in Dunedin – the Al Bar and the Otago Museum. We first experienced the Museum to attending an  scientific talk about zombies, as part of the inaugural  ‘DunDead’ zombie festival.  We returned to the museum later in our trip and spent a couple of hours just exploring their wildlife sections. I kept seeing signs for something called ‘Animal Attic’. I thought that the modern ‘taxidermied animals in realistic flora and fauna settings’ was this ‘Animal Attic’.  I was wrong. We climbed the stairs and were greeted to the luminous attic of the museum – part of the traditional 19c museum building. The attic is set out as it would have been in the late 19c, with cabinet after cabinet of stuffed exotic animals, without explanation or context to where or what their lives might have been like. It was a stunning experience in the history of museum exhibitions and the purpose of museums.

Animal Attic at the Otago Museum

Animal Attic at the Otago Museum


The quirkiness of ‘Animal Attic’,  part educational, part playful poke at the past, summed up our experience of Dunedin well. Here is a city proud of its recent and settlers pas and its youthful heart, the students. Yet it is also a city that offers some of the best of modern city life in New Zealand – lively bars, sophisticated dining, locally designed fashion and brunch by the waterfront and a stroll on the beach.


freya • September 28, 2014

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