When it comes to New Zealand cruises that pass the South Island, make sure your itinerary includes Port Chalmers, the gateway to the great southern city of Dunedin. Originally settled by hardy Scots and founded on gold mining and hard graft, today the city is famous for its impressive beaches, historic buildings and university culture. A mere 20 minutes (13km) by bus or train from port to the centre of town, the Otago Museum is perfect for getting your historical bearings. Open 365 days a year, it tells the stories of early Maori and colonial settlers, from gold miners to Chinese market gardeners, farmers to mariners. There’s even a live rainforest butterfly experience. Art lovers will gravitate towards the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, home to New Zealand’s oldest public art collection. The Dunedin Street Art Trail is also impressive, currently featuring 25 imaginatively painted walls, and taking about 75 minutes to complete. If you’re feeling thirsty, a tour of Speight’s Brewery is essential. Active here since 1876, the Speight’s brand is a genuine southern icon and the tour is as much about heritage as it is about beer. Or simply wander the pretty shopping streets, admire the Edwardian and Victorian architecture – Larnach Castle never fails to impress – stroll around the university or settle in with a drink at one of the many bars, cafes and restaurants that ring The Octagon. Staying put in Port Chalmers is also an option, easily negotiable by foot, you can happily while away a lazy afternoon among the heritage buildings, browsing in the boutiques or drinking in the views from a cafe.
St Clair is a leafy coastal suburb just 5km from the centre of Dunedin. If it’s summertime, take your swimming costume and maybe even pack your wetsuit because Dunedin can be very chilly at times. Perhaps you’d rather have a dip in the Hot Water Salt Pools – opened in 1884, this open-air public swimming pool is nestled within the rocks, just metres from the ocean. Wander the sandy beaches towards St Kilda or hike up to crumbling old Cargill’s Castle and look out to sea. The coast around the peninsula is terrifically rugged and there are plentiful public walkways that access these isolated and dramatic beaches. Sandfly Bay is wonderful for exploring, with its gigantic sand dunes and public penguin viewing hides. If you’re lucky you might see sea lions, penguins and albatrosses – the Otago Peninsula is the only mainland breeding ground for albatross in the world, with several operators offering wildlife tours.
The Taieri Gorge Railway is an absolute treat. Departing from the historic Dunedin Railway Station, the journey covers 116km and takes four hours return, trundling through some of the country’s most spectacular bush, plains and gorges. The train negotiates several bridges and viaducts, and passes through 10 tunnels. The combination of nature’s splendour and impressive feats of engineering render passengers agog. This is one of the world’s great train trips and is also a very cosy option if the weather isn’t being too kind. Be warned: the temperatures in Dunedin can be pretty extreme, sitting as low as 2°C in the winter and as high as 30°C in summer.