Wild coasts & ghosts: things to do in Dunedin

Wild coasts & ghosts: things to do in Dunedin


You can sleep in a castle, watch a sea lion basking on a rock, and go surfing in front of a European-style seaside strip, all in one day. Brenda Ward discovers the variety on offer in Dunedin.

They say there’s a ghost in Larnach Castle. I’d say they’re right. As a child, I felt chilled, panicky, and terrified in one bedroom in the castle and dashed out and down the stairs, for no reason. 

Back then, I thought it was the spirit of prominent politician William Larnach’s long-dead daughter who had left me shaking and short of breath. But when I walked back into the same room on this visit, I found they call it ‘Constance’s Boudoir’. 

This perfectly restored room was the bedchamber of the third wife of Larnach, the only spouse to outlive her MP husband, who shot himself in his parliament rooms.

My guide doesn’t admit it, but apparently she’s felt an icy hand push her from behind in there. However, the guide does tell me about the afternoon an elderly woman from the Philippines fell to the ground by the door and started speaking in a man’s voice.

Today, the room is only quiet, elegant and welcoming. 

Edwardian grandeur

Guests can sleep in a four-poster bed in the lodge, and live the life of the lord of the manor. At the end of the day, they can dine at the great table in the castle’s formal dining hall, chatting to the other guests. It might even be Orlando Bloom, from Lord of the Rings, sitting next to you, or a minor royal.

From your suite in the charming lodge, styled like an Edwardian couple’s hideaway, you can see across to the spires and rooftops of one of New Zealand’s oldest cities, and then down the Otago Peninsula to the open sea.

From wild seascapes to city comforts

A winding street down the hill to the coast road leads along the peninsula, where waves roll in relentlessly from the Southern Ocean.

Here’s the real Otago, the windswept coastline that greeted the hardy pioneers who braved snow and bitter conditions to make homes and start families here. 

At Allans Beach, reached by a gravel road along the wetlands, we walk on the fine, white sand until a movement on a rock catches our eye. A massive sea lion is peering over the huge stone where he’s basking, curious but too lazy to move.

Back in town, we stroll streets lined with beautifully restored buildings. Towering over the city is the cathedral, with its impressive organ pipes, and a bell that tolls when the first albatross of the year lands to start breeding.

Dunedin’s heritage is visible around every corner, from cafes near the busy Octagon at the heart of the city, to New Zealand oldest Jewish synagogue (now restored) in Moray Place. Our hotel, the Scenic Southern Cross, started life in 1883, but it’s now updated and houses the city’s casino.

Everywhere you’ll find superb coffee. At the Corner Store, owner Mark Anson has returned home from Melbourne to serve delicious coffees, with fresh food and the best bacon in town. And at the railway station’s colourful Saturday morning market, you’ll even find coffee made with gas-powered, lever-style La Pavoni monster, at a stall run by the eclectic RdC café on George Street. 

Epicurean delights

At the market stalls, piles of succulent peaches and plums jostle for space next to unusual, as well as less exotic, vegetables – eggplants and round courgettes side by side with artichokes and beans. We nibble on almond croissants from the country-bread stand.

Later, we pop into the charming, old-fashioned Albar for a quick beer on a hot summer’s day. The story goes that back in the day it used to be Central Bar, but part of the sign fell off. 

We climb up some stairs nearby and discover jewellers hand-making one-off pieces at Lure.

We’re delighted by the former Savoy building, now the home of Etrusco, a buzzy high-end Italian eatery, full of diners, where waiters dash about with bottles of Chianti and loaded platters. There we eat silky home-made pasta, rich with flavour. 

Beach style
The fine weather lasts another day, so we drive to the two city beaches. 

At St Kilda, we slither down the white sand dunes to the vast expanse of surf beach.

The beachside strip at St Clair feels like a European seaside resort, and we sit overlooking surfers silhouetted against giant waves. The Esplanade Café has an authentic Italian feel, with steaming pizzas that emerge from the kitchen, puffed, golden, and crisp-crusted.

As we return our rental car to the airport, we pass a market stall piled high of ripe stone fruit for departing travellers. We pop a NZ$5 pack of peaches into our hand luggage. The sunshiny taste of that Central Otago fruit kept our Dunedin weekend alive for another week.

Explore Dunedin

  • Albar: 135 Stuart Street, Dunedin.
  • Etrusco at the Savoy: 8 Moray Place, Dunedin, etrusco.nz
  • Flights: Air New Zealand, airnewzealand.co.nz
  • Jucy rental cars: jucy.co.nz
  • Larnach Castle: 145 Camp Road, Dunedin 
  • larnachcastle.co.nz
  • Lure, hand-made jewellery: 130 Stuart Street, Dunedin
  • The Corner Store: Corner Stuart & Bath Streets, Dunedin
  • The Esplanade Café: 250 Forbury Rd, St Clair, Dunedin, esplanade.co 
  • Tourist information: DunedinNZ.com

First published Autumn 2018

Story by Brenda Ward

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