A short detour from Dunedin lies Karitane, a peninsula that’s renowned not just for its rugged beauty, but also for its vital contribution to New Zealand. Alexia Santamaria combines city fun with some dramatic Kiwi history.
The South Island is full of endless possibilities for motorhomers. Its dramatic scenery means you don’t need to do much more than just park up and gaze out the window to have an incredible holiday. Dunedin itself is a great spot for some urban fun, but if you venture a little bit up the coast you’ll find a world that will recharge your soul in ways you didn’t know possible.
Have a stunner in Dunners
Fly or drive into the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ to start your magical weekend adventure. You often hear locals say Dunedin is a ‘15 minute city’ as everything is so conveniently located. And that really is very accurate – it never seems to take long to get anywhere. Basing yourself at the Dunedin Holiday Park when you arrive is a great move; it’s only a ten-minute drive into the centre of the city, where you’ll find everything you need or want for a good time – shopping, great cafés, breweries, museums, gardens, gothic architecture and so much more. Dunedin’s cool factor seems to rise a few points every year and there are truly endless options for having fun. The holiday park has good clean facilities and super helpful staff who can point you in the direction of whatever you’re looking for.
To the market and beyond
Before heading out of town – only 40 minutes out of town, mind you – hit up the Otago Farmers Market, one of the best-loved food markets in the country. Set against the backdrop of the stunning Flemish renaissance-style Dunedin Railway Station (as recently featured in the Netflix movie The Power of the Dog), it has up to 65 vendors at any one time. Go hungry, as you’re going to want to devour one of their great ready-to-eat delights – and wash it down with a coffee – before stocking up on fresh fruit, cheese, nuts, honey, sweets, coffee, charcuterie and a whole range of other artisan products. You’ll be snacking in style all weekend and supporting the local economy. What could be better?
It’s a lovely drive up the coast north to Karitane, where a walk around the peninsula will leave you speechless, with wild sapphire seas crashing onto chalky cliff faces and rugged rocky shores. If the name sounds familiar, it should – this is the birthplace of Plunket.
Karitane is also home to the Huriawa pā site and it isn’t hard to see why it was the perfect vantage point for a fortification. Factor in some extra time for all the photos you’re going to want to take of the incredible vistas.
If you like history, Seacliff is just 10 minutes down the road. This area was once home to the Seacliff Asylum, where Janet Frame famously spent time in the 1940s. While there are no buildings left standing now, you can clearly see from the picture on the sign where they were, and where 37 patients tragically lost their lives in the infamous fire of 1942. There’s an eerie feel to the area for sure, but also a strange sense of calm for a place with such a tortured past. For more history, The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is a small, and utterly fascinating, private museum in Dunedin itself that has some artefacts from the asylum (along with many, many other interesting things).
When you’re ready for a break, Port Chalmers is perfect for lunch and a poke round the shops. Stop at Evansdale Cheese on the way if you have time (you won’t regret it). Just two minutes out of the port – on the road towards beautiful Aramona – is Carey’s Bay Historic Hotel, which has been there since 1874. If you love an old-school seafood platter consumed in an historic pub, this huge plate piled with fresher-than-fresh local fish and other luscious, plump seafood, is the perfect way to satisfy your hunger on this part of the coast.
There’s a small freedom camping spot right near the hotel if that takes your fancy, otherwise Warrington Domain is just a 30-minute drive away. The coastline around here is stunning; a walk around Doctor’s Point will make you think you’ve found paradise. The craggy dramatic rock formations and vast sands are mind-blowing, and if you time your visit for low tide the nearby sea caves (naturally occurring arches in the rock cliffs) are pretty fantastic too. The whole area is very popular for gathering shellfish, especially cockles.
If you feel like you’ve earned a pint, ARC Brewing is just five minutes from Warrington Domain. This small family operation focuses on brewing small-batch handcrafted beers for the local market and there’s a great rotating cast of food trucks that pull up on different nights (check their social media for updates). Grab a flight to sample a few, and shoot the breeze with the locals.
A taste of the South
The options are endless for what you can do before leaving this gorgeous part of the South Island. Even though Karitane feels like a world away from anywhere, it’s only 30 minutes away from the centre of Dunedin. These local destinations have something for everyone, depending on your interests and mood:
Meander down the promenade at St Clair
The beach at St Clair is beautiful no matter what the weather, and a stroll down the promenade is lovely. If you’re hungry, Starfish Café does great café fare and The Esplanade is loved by locals for its Italian-inspired menu. It’s wonderful to be somewhere so civilised but simultaneously so wild, with the sound of the waves crashing just beyond the sea wall. If you’re there in summer take a dip at St Clair Hot Salt Water Pool (right on the beach), which has been around since the 1800s.
Explore Dunedin’s History
Toitū, the Otago Settlers Museum, is a captivating space, where Dunedin’s story is related in a highly interactive way. From the lives of local Māori to the Scots, the Chinese, and everyone who followed the discovery of gold, you really get to experience Dunedin’s highs and lows through an entertaining series of exhibits highlighting innovation, art, fashion, domestic life and transport. Factor in extra time, you’ll spend longer here than you expect.
Check out some really big works of art
It’s very easy to lose yourself in the Dunedin Street Art project. Hidden in unexpected places, these 30 plus enormous works (some up to three or four storeys high) by well-known international street artists are truly awe-inspiring. Pick up a map and have fun finding them all. It’s like a scavenger hunt for grown ups!
Explore Tunnel Beach
With its dramatic sandstone cliffs, arches and wild Otago waves (make sure you go down to the ‘tunnel’ if the tide is right) Tunnel Beach is a must visit. The 2km stroll, there and back down the same track, has got to be one of the most beautiful short walks in Dunedin.
Meet the local birdlife
If you’re heading back from Warrington to Dunedin, it’s not much of a diversion to visit Orokonui Eco Sanctuary, the flagship biodiversity project for the South Island – with its huge predator fence surrounding 307 hectares of Coastal Otago forest. There are opportunities to see takahē, kākā and other colourful characters in their natural environment. Truly delightful.
Eat and drink everything
Dunedin has a thriving food scene with everything from high-end fine dining to food trucks, Scandinavian food to some of the country’s best fish and chips (Best Café’s blue cod has a cult following). There’s even a fourth generation French distiller making local gin in a still in the window of a pub.
Soak in the architecture of a bygone era
Park up the motorhome and take a wander around the town centre, soaking up the magnificence of the city’s historic buildings. Dunedin is one of the Southern Hemisphere’s best-preserved Edwardian and Victorian cities, full of gothic-style architecture and heritage attractions.
Check out the castle
It’s a bit further up the other coast but if you’ve never visited Larnach Castle, you should. Fascinating historical architecture, stunning views, beautiful gardens and an amazing story all collide here. Make sure you get a guided or audio tour because the stories of William Larnach and his family rival the best soap opera scripts. The care that has been taken by the Barker family to restore the castle (originally built in 1871) to its original glory is incredible.
Whether you’re visiting Otago for the first time, or you are a long-time visitor, make sure you see a bit of the northern coast alongside your central Dunedin fun. Its untouched beauty makes you realise how lucky we are to live somewhere where nature can still do its wondrous thing without being overrun by commercialism. This coast will make you feel like you can exhale fully and totally reap the benefits of connecting with nature at its very finest.
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