TOP KIWI DESTINATION

So far in the series of ‘My Favourite Places’ I have taken you to St.Bathans, Matakana Marlborough Sound and Russell. In this blog I take you back to the South Island and to perhaps the most favourite of all my favourite places.

OTAGO PENINSULA   

Each time I visit the Otago Peninsula, my spirit sings. Last year, Lonely Planet rated this amazing part of New Zealand one of the world’s top ten cycle routes.  

Portobello Road, the ‘Low Road’ from Dunedin, snakes for 30 kilometres around Otago Harbour on its way to Taiaroa Head. Dotted along its length, 43 distinctive boat sheds add manmade eye candy.  These attractive structures have been a feature of Dunedin since the 1920s when they were built to house the rowboats to transport the peninsula’s inhabitants. One of the larger ones sold for $43.000!

Otago Peninsula (dunedinnz.com)

Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens is the first major attraction along this road. With its 12 hectares of outstanding plants and trees, it’s classified a Garden of National Significance. When I stopped by one spring to take photos, trees were covered in delicate blossom and the lawn in front of the homestead was yellow with daffodils. Rhododendron bushes showed off their pink, red, purple and white blooms. I felt I was on a fantasy film set.

Macandrew Bay is the peninsula’s main settlement and is crowded on summer weekends. On the short main street there is a classic Kiwi corner dairy where my sister and I used to get a Sunday ice cream when our parents took us for a drive around the harbour. Although it’s a Dunedin suburb, Macandrew Bay feels like a seaside village. The bay has a beautiful little beach offering one of the best harbour views in the country. The city lights curving around the end of the harbour on a still night are quite a spectacle. It is a mystery to me that there is not a hotel or even a motel in this delightful seaside village. If it was located in Auckland, there would be million-dollar apartments along the waterfront, but I guess the organic appearance is part of the areas charm.

Macandrew Bay (projectaware)

Portobello is a further 10 minutes along the road. In 1904, the University of Otago opened New Zealand’s first marine laboratory here. It’s now internationally recognised and the aquarium is a popular attraction. Visitors can take a ‘voyage’ in a submarine to explore ocean life around the Otago coastline, but it’s the good old-fashioned outdoor tanks, with their live sharks gracefully swimming about, that have been the enduring attraction.

Quarantine Island, the largest island in the harbour, is a short boat ride across a ribbon of water from the laboratory. It was used to isolate the early settlers who arrived from Britain with infectious diseases. On the 18th July 1863, baby William Kelly was the first of 72 victims to die and be buried here. The double storied skeleton of the remaining accommodation building is a local landmark. Attempts are underway to save any further deterioration of this important colonial relic. Wandering around the decaying interior, I felt a sense of melancholy, but there’s a fascination in the sadness of this place. Was the gentle swaying of a weatherboard beside a window frame just the breeze?

Accommodation Block Quarantine Island (Ceidrik Heward)

Tourists come from around the world to visit the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, the only mainland breeding ground in the world for these magnificent birds. During the summer, the trip from the city can take over an hour on a road clogged by tourists in rental cars crawling around the numerous corners to take in yet another breath-taking view. 

WAR MACHINE

In the 1870’s Taiaroa Head was fortified to protect the young colony from a perceived threat from Russia and an Armstrong Disappearing Gun was installed.  This mammoth example of Victorian military technology has been faithfully restored in its original position under the birds’ breeding ground. I had to smile when I read a warning engraved on a plate attached to the gun: ‘When the cock is down on the buffers, air mixed with a spray of water should blow out of the cock’ Needless to say, the gun remains silent! There’s a small museum in the tunnel with some interesting exhibits, lovingly displayed on a modest budget. A short distance from the busy modern visitor’s centre, I stood on this headland inhaling nature’s sweet aromas—-and experienced the silence. The sun suddenly disappeared and the temperature dropped as a huge roll of fog engulfed the area, another special moment on the Otago Peninsula. Taiaroa Head is a very elemental place! Perhaps that’s what attracts the growing number of seals to the rocks nearby.

Fog Rolling in at Taiaroa Head (Ceidrik Heward)

The rare and endearing Yellow Eyed penguins go about their business at another major attraction on the peninsula.  Penguin Place has been cleverly designed to hide human visitors from the birds. It’s hard to believe, when you see them pop out of the surf and waddle up the beach, that they’re not battery powered and controlled by someone with a remote! Unfortunately, there is great concern about these cute creatures as their numbers are declining and their future here is far from certain.

NATURE’S MAGIC

It’s hard to imagine while driving along the dirt road beside Hooper’s and Papanui Inlets, that these isolated places are only 25 minutes from the centre of the South Island’s second largest city. A salty tang hangs in the air. There is a special stillness. I love it here. On my last visit, I sat on a Hooper’s Inlet jetty on a warm summer’s evening breathing in the atmosphere as I watched ducks, shags and terns settling in for the night. A young German couple pulled up nearby in their campervan. They had been exploring this part of the peninsula all day and told me it had been their most memorable day in New Zealand.

Papanui Inlet (Ceidrik Heward)

The Dunedin City Council’s website promotes 22 peninsula walks. Perhaps the most dramatic is the one to Lover’s Leap’ and ‘The Chasm’. The walk starts at an atmospheric tunnel of macrocarpa trees above Hooper’s Inlet. It sets the mood for the wild seascape to follow. Lover’s Leap is a natural stone arch created by the sea. The thundering of the waves 200 metres below, echoing around the windswept cliff edge, made me shiver in awe at the immense power of the wind and sea to shape this land.

Highcliff Road, also known as the ‘High Road’ connects Portobello to Dunedin across the peninsula’s spine. The views along Otago Harbour on one side, and the dramatic seascapes on the other, are unforgettable. It’s a narrow, winding road, with no side barriers, so it’s important for drivers to keep their eyes ahead, a tough call!. In summer, the wide blue sky meeting the vast blue horizon of the Pacific, gives a feeling of infinity. It’s awesome!  In winter, the mist only adds to the drama of the place.

NEW ZEALAND’S TOP MAN MADE TOURIST ATTRACTION

Larnach Castle is up here. I was impressed with the developments the owner, Margaret Barker, has made to this iconic New Zealand building. I wandered across the lawn and inhaled the smell of burning wood from an open fire in the ballroom café. I stopped to appreciate the beautiful call of a bellbird amplified in the crisp winter air—-I climbed the thick concrete steps to the solid front doors and pushed a large antique brass button. A bell echoed inside. A smiling hostess let me in.  I asked a group of Spanish tourists what they thought of the place. “It’s not big like the European castles, but we love the atmosphere—It’s very peaceful here.” 

The castle grounds feature a Rock Garden, a South Seas Garden, a Rainforest Garden, as well as a marble fountain, and are of national significance. The views from the castle over the peninsula have been described as some of the finest in New Zealand. Looking towards the harbour entrance past Harbour Cone, is one of my favourite NZ views. TV companies from around the world frequently visit the castle on ghost hunts. Two staff members told me they had experienced paranormal activity. The ghost of Larnach’s daughter, Katie is believed to haunt the ballroom. I’ve personally experienced the heavy wooden doors open by themselves while I was there shooting a TV film. Apart from being recognised as one of New Zealand’s most haunted buildings, Larnach Castle really deserves its place as a major New Zealand tourist attraction.

Larnach Castle at Sunset (Ceidrik Heward)

The first co-operative dairy factory in New Zealand opened nearby in September 1871. Five years later, the country’s second dairy factory was established at Pukehiki, on the very saddle of the peninsula. The first Presbyterian service was held in this settlement on April 19th 1868 in a lovely little wooden church. The kauri interior is unique, with the aisle skirting the central block of seats. Recently restored, it is the only church of its kind in Otago, and one of the few in New Zealand remaining from this period still used as a church. The storybook appearance of the tiny wooden library neighbouring the church makes Pukehiki a favourite stop for photographers. The impressive stone walls found on this part of the peninsula echo the Scottish Highlands, and are another treasured legacy of these early settlers.

As Highcliff Road drops down off the peninsula, it dramatically reveals Dunedin and its urban sweep across seven hills to the Taieri Plain and beyond. In my opinion, these are some of the best city views in the country. Travel in either direction on any road on the Otago Peninsula and realize it is unrivalled anywhere for its unforgettable scenery, intriguing wildlife, fascinating history and above all, its unique atmosphere. The German couple at Hooper’s Inlet summed it up when they told me, “It’s like paradise”                                                                                            

GO trav’ler, unto others boast
Of Venice and of Rome;
Of saintly Mark’s majestic pile,
And Peter’s lofty dome;
Of Naples and her trellised bowers;
Of Rhineland far away: 
These may be grand, but give to me

Dunedin from the Bay.       

                                            Thomas Bracken (writer of the NZ national anthem)

Ceidrik Heward