For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Heritage and Culture in Dunedin

No matter the weather, Dunedin’s stash of heritage draws burst with storied intrigue, fanning out from the time-honoured Octagon. You’ll find a world of indoor possibilities to match the plethora of outdoorsy sights. Founded in 1860, the Otago Museum is a perennial people-magnet, free to enter and absolutely brimming with treasures, with superbly presented Maori, Pacific and Classical collections. Stand-out exhibits include a moai from Easter Island and a feathered cape belonging to Hawaii’s last queen.

Star specimens in the Natural History section include the complete skeleton of the world’s largest eagle, the extinct Haast eagle, and New Zealand’s largest fossil of a plesiosaur, or fish lizard. And I love the Sir Edmund Hillary Collection, featuring many of his personal items that he ascended Everest with, including his passport and camera.

If it’s your first foray to Dunedin, there’s no overlooking the crown jewel, Larnach Castle, built in 1871 by the merchant baron and politician, William Larnach for his venerated first wife, Eliza. Exterior construction spanned three years, engaging 200 workers, while embellishing the sumptuous interior took over a decade. No expense was spared, with the finest materials deployed. Still privately owned, the Barker family purchased the home just over 50 years ago, dedicating decades to the castle’s restoration, furnishing the palatial landmark with a trove of original New Zealand period furniture and antiques.

You could not wish for better custodians of history and the Larnach legacy than the Barker family. When they took possession of the rundown castle, it was devoid of furniture and many of the glorious architectural features were missing. Studiously researching the original décor, artwork and furnishings, the castle’s impeccable restoration has been undertaken while keeping the faith with its original glory. I particularly adore the Music Room. Like the home, the expansive hillside grounds were also in a state of extreme neglect, when the Barkers took possession.

But today, just like the splendour of the castle, the 35 acres of grounds and gardens are a visual symphony, a wonderland of vistas, secret paths, radiant flower beds, hedge rows and trees.  So much so, they’re feted as a “Garden of International Significance” by the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Since the late 1960s, the radiant redevelopment of the gardens has been a tour de force for Margaret Barker, alongside the restoration of the historic buildings. My latest visit spurred me to plant some blazing Waratahs, that thrive in the Larnach Castle gardens. I love how there are specialised collections within the grand botanical spread – don’t miss the spectacular Laburnum Arch. Instagram heaven!

Savour one of New Zealand’s finest “old house” experiences, Olveston, vividly brought to life by an artfully narrated guided tour. The 35-room historic home, completed in 1906, was commissioned by a Jewish immigrant, David Theomin. The landmark Jacobean-style manor is clad in Moeraki gravel and Oamaru stone. Bequeathed to the city of Dunedin in 1966, the magic about Olveston is that it crystallises the sense of high-society living, from a century ago. The “lived-in” feel of the house, and its authentic, cluttered charm, leaves you wondering if the Theomins have just popped out for the day. It’s a runaway hit.

Just a few doors down from Olveston on time-honoured Royal Terrace, the Museum of Natural Mystery is a truly quirky Dunedin gem. Housed in a 19th century villa, Bruce Mahlaski displays his gob-stopping collection of skulls, bones, cultural curiosities and art pieces which he’s been gathering all his life.

Whether it’s the mighty hippo skull on display or his own textured art creations, this museum and gallery is quite the visual adventure. And there’s plenty of skeletal and shell artworks for sale. His prized headwear pieces of art, destined for the World of Wearable Arts Awards next year are superb. Kooky, but cool.

Best eats? Dunedin’s newest restaurant, Titi, has instantly fostered rave reviews for its inspirational and contemporary cuisine that draws deep on the region’s land and sea. Hyper-local and hyper-seasonal, the menu is strictly governed by the freshest produce available. Boasting a prime seaside perch in St. Clair, Hannes and Mel of Glenfalloch Restaurant fame are at the helm of Titi. Dinner is a set-course ‘trust the chef’ dining experience, with protein or plant-based menu options. You won’t be disappointed. Be sure to book.

If a five-course degustation menu floats your boat, make your way to Dunedin’s on-trend warehouse precinct by Queen’s Gardens, and tuck into the delights of Moiety, where Sam Gasson is at the helm. A blend of French and Japanese cooking techniques underpins Gasson’s creations. The food is unpretentious, bursting with vibrant flavours and ingenuity.  The current main course of beef cheek with pumpkin, kimchi, shallot and shungiku is a winter triumph. (Shungiku, for the uninitiated, are the tangy, grassy petals from the Spring Chrysanthemum, deeply revered in Japanese cuisine.)

I enjoyed a fantastic stay at the Heritage Dunedin Leisure Lodge. The renowned property officially became a Heritage property just over a year ago – an ideal fit for such a time-honoured beacon of southern hospitality. Now in its fifth decade of faithful hotel service, the property was artfully designed by Warren and Mahoney – and it’s stood the test of time. Nestled in two acres of park-like grounds, with beautifully tended gardens, it occupies the former site of the McGavin Brewery, where the last beer was brewed in 1958.

McGavin’s merged with the Speights Brewery, however the rich back-story has been honoured with the retention of the gorgeous old stone Oast House, the former malting kiln. It was ingeniously repurposed as a striking conference venue for corporate schmoozing, small events and weddings.While I was staying in-house, it was certainly in popular demand. The Qualmark four-star-rated hotel boasts 76 guestrooms, free carparking, Sky TV and Wi-Fi. You can wine and dine at the convivial McGavins Restaurant and Bar – where many a business deal has been celebrated.

My accommodation was generously-sized and super comfortable with the ranch-slider opening out onto the lovely, leafy grounds, amping up the relaxation factor. As you’d expect from any Heritage Hotel, this Dunedin bastion is powered by the most outgoing, personable and charismatic staff who will make you feel right at home, the moment you check-in. I just loved staying in this characterful hotel in a garden.

Ablaze with sightseeing possibilities and experiences to cherish, make your first stop Dunedin’s official website, packed with visitor tips and inspiration.