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Dunedin for Dummies

NZ’s often-ignored town is a haven of a casual student vibe, fantastic marine life and a cheese roll to die for

brunch Updated: Oct 23, 2017 12:56 IST
Jamal Shaikh
Due to its size and architecture, people refer to the Dunedin Railway Station as “The Grandest Gingerbread House You’ll Ever See”!
Due to its size and architecture, people refer to the Dunedin Railway Station as “The Grandest Gingerbread House You’ll Ever See”!(James Lewis)

Be honest: if you were unable to pick the right pronunciation of a destination you were about to discover, would you be intrigued, or simply confused? We’re not talking about a place in China or in Africa here, where the basics of language could compel you into such a situation. We’re talking New Zealand, where the Queen’s English rules, squeaky clean despite Maori influences.

Dunedin, a speck of a town on the South-Eastern coast of the South Island, is pronounced by Kiwis differently depending on where they come from. You’ll hear Dyoon’d-in from most North Islanders, Dun’din from those in the South, Doone-din from certain ethnicities, and some from the bigger cities call it Dunnay-din. For a country where diversity can be your ticket to permanent residency, you’ve got to agree, this is a lot of variation!

Call it what you like, the truth is that Dunedin is a small, often-ignored port town with immense potential. Once a crucial commercial hub, the city with a population of a mere 125,000, has now metamorphosed into a vibrant student hub. It has a thriving university – one of the more reputable ones in the country – and has students not just from all over NZ, but also from different parts of the world. As many well-travelled souls will agree, nothing brings more character to a place than free-spirited students, with their natural curiosity, eager energy and sometimes reckless youthfulness.

Scotland of the south

The city was built on the lines of Edinburgh, and has similar named streets and architectural styles

For history buffs, Dunedin has another story to tell. Apparently, the city was home to many Scottish settlers who decided to replicate their city of Edinburgh down under. So if Beirut is the Paris of the East, Dunedin is the Scottish haven of the South. Streets and squares share names with those in Edinburgh, older buildings sport similar architecture, and at the centre of it all, is the Dunedin Railway Station, with size and embellishments that has people refer to it as “The Grandest Gingerbread House You’ll Ever See”!

Cheese rolls are a regional favourite in Dunedin (Shutterstock)

Unfortunately, the “much-photographed” station doesn’t really serve as a transit point for travellers. It is, instead, a tourist spot, serving as the start and finish point for tourist trains leading up to the Taieri Gorge and back. The four-hour ride up one such train and back is pleasant, but better suited for older people who want to relax by seeing and hearing about challenging railway construction from the previous century, sipping beer on-board and indulging in a game of cards.

The young, and those young at heart, should head straight to the college grounds instead! The University area at the eastern end of the city is not unlike any big American college town, with students on skateboards and bicycles, caps worn backwards, set to discover the world on their own terms.

Indian vegetarians will be delighted to discover the Cheese Roll, which happens to be a regional favourite!

Indulge in conversation, and you will be pointed to Roy Roy ice cream, a local parlour that is everyone’s favourite, open every day from early to late. Then, you’ll also discover the regional favourite thing to eat: the Cheese Roll!

To the delight of the Indian vegetarian, this city in the country that is known for the best lamb chops in the world, has cheese melted on bread and rolled up, as its comfort food. Every restaurant and fuel station will have a version, but be careful: it’s addictive even for an outsider, and one could easily gain a couple of extra kilos trying a few. On my part, I overate, only to hear my host tell me later: “You know it doesn’t really taste good, right? It’s comfort food that our minds believe tastes good.”

Touristy is as touristy does

Amongst the other tourist attractions you’ll be goaded to head to is the Larnach Castle up on one of the peninsular hills. This is the home of the gentleman who was once the richest in the region, and tells a dramatic story of family feuds and deception. Unfortunately, for an Indian, the size of the building could be a disappointment: it’s certainly smaller than Shah Rukh Khan’s home in Bandra – the new modern building the Bollywood actor has recently built not included. However, you could walk around the flower gardens instead: they’re one of the most beautiful in the world. Apparently, gardeners smuggle in seeds from different parts of the world to plant here, often risking arrest. NZ, like neighbouring Australia, is anal about any livestock, food items, and plant life, including soil, being brought in by anyone. (Those stories you may have heard of tourists being made to clean their trekking boots by the customs department at the airport aren’t all untrue.)

Tourists will also be led to the Otago Peninsula, which is home to some rare wildlife and marine species. An evening programme when blue penguins return from the sea and walk up to their nests is extremely popular. But what’s more fun is renting a boat and heading out into the Pacific Ocean, albatross-spotting.

The world’s largest seabird, the albatross, is native to the region and can fly non-stop for over 10,000 miles

For those who don’t know, the albatross is the world’s largest seabird, with a wingspan of over 10 feet, and can fly 10,000 miles in a single journey, staying airborne for six months at a stretch. The birds native to this region breed on the peninsula, then fly out to circumnavigate the globe, only to return here years later. Seeing the magnificent bird take flight can leave you enthralled. But if you’re lucky, you’ll see the young ones trying to take first flight…the clumsy attempts can teach us a lesson or two about life.

Blue penguins, one of the smallest species of the birds, are seen in plenty on beaches and by the sea

A moment of rest

Unfortunately for discerning tourists, there aren’t many luxury accommodations at hand. The single luxury hotel I came across during my four-day stay was called Distinction Dunedin Hotel, and the receptionist proudly announced, “We even have a concierge service.” When showing me around the rooms, she said, “What’s almost special is that each room has got its own washing machine! So you don’t have to step out to do the laundry.” Turns out, the fiercely independent Kiwis from different parts of the country love that, but I had no heart to tell her that people from my part of the world would not have been impressed!

I spent my four days in Dunedin at a motel, and even though my room overlooked a driveway and an inner courtyard, the quality of the room was at par with any five star I’ve ever visited. It didn’t take me long to discover that it was the strict New Zealand rules at play here. “We can’t call our’s a hotel because we don’t have a 24-hour coffee shop,” the owner’s wife, who manned the reception in the afternoons and lived on the first floor of the establishment, informed me. Then, she handed me a customised map made for the motel, quality at par with any luxury hotel in the world, and coupons to two really exquisite coffee shops, where I could have my breakfast for free. I’d pick this motel over a luxury lodge any day!

A design high

On my last day in Dunedin, I found myself walking George Street. I was surprised to discover several design stores, many with women’s clothing, but, more interestingly to me, a few with bed linen and upholstery that reeked of top quality and design. Apparently, this little university town also has a design school, its own fashion week and enough “Dunedians” who don’t want to leave their city, so they open their boutiques right here.

Unfortunately for me, I was flying back on an airline that wouldn’t allow me 100gms more than my 23kg baggage allowance, and I had to leave my finds behind. But only with the personal promise to myself to come back for these, and more delightful discoveries that this unique, undiscovered city has to offer.

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From HT Brunch, October 22, 2017

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