Found yourself heading to Dunedin, located on New Zealand’s South Island, and wondering what to do when you arrive? Being the wildlife capital of New Zealand there is so much to do here! Sadly though Dunedin often gets missed out by visitors taking road trips in New Zealand as they tend to prefer the South Island’s south-west side as opposed to the south-east (where Dunedin is located). However Dunedin – the oldest city in New Zealand, was actually one of my favourite parts of the South Island! If your itinerary allows, I really recommend you to spend one day in Dunedin! Read on to find out the best things to do in Dunedin!
Luckily if you are seeing New Zealand by cruise ship, Dunedin is often a stop on the cruise ship itinerary. Now if like me, you don’t like doing the over-priced and rigid shore excursions recommended by the cruise liner, you can explore Dunedin on your own without a tour guide. It is very easy to get around and there are plenty taxis available as the tourist spots are quite spread out.
Central Railway Station
Dunedin Central Railway Station is a prominent landmark in the city and should not be missed during your time here. Dating back from 1906 and built in the Renaissance style with dramatic black basalt rock and white Oamaru limestone, the edifice has a very striking appearance and certainly catches your eye. Not only the grand architecture but the sheer size of the building earns it the title of the second most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere (after The Sydney Opera House of course!).
The lawns at the front can get quite busy during the day with tour groups and tour buses, but if you come before/after the crowds are here you can really admire and appreciate the building.
Tunnel Beach is an incredible secret beach and is definitely one of the highlights in Dunedin! The beach is so unique, secluded and rugged and makes for some incredible photographs! Not only this but the walk to Tunnel Beach from the car park provides spectacular coastal views.
Tunnel Beach is called so as it can only be reached via a tunnel. Previously an inaccessible beach, in the 1870’s Mr Cargill had a hand-carved tunnel dug out that would lead to this beach so that his family could go to the beach in private.
How to reach Tunnel Beach
To access the beach, drive to Tunnel Beach Road (a 10 minute drive from Dunedin centre). The road comes to an end and you’ll see a few free parking spots on the right. There is space for about 20 cars. Park your car here, being careful not to leave any valuables on show. At the end of the road you’ll see a fence with a stile going over it and the sign ‘Tunnel Beach Walking Track’. Climb over the stile (4 steps) and follow the path down for about 20 minutes (1 kilometre).
Halfway down the walking track you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the rocky coastline and cliffs. You’ll see a sea carved natural archway over the water caused by erosion (think along the lines of London Arch on Australia’s Great Ocean Road). You might at first think this is Tunnel Beach but Tunnel Beach is actually to the left of it and can’t be seen until you’re right above it. Keep going down the path and then it will turn to the right where it will end in a grassy area. You’ll see small wooden barriers around the grass verge but stay on the path when you go down.
Do not go over any of the wooden barriers as it can be very unsafe! The land is exposed, the drops are very steep and it can be windy!
Tunnel Beach is below the cliff drop on your left hand side and if the tide is low you can partially see it (see above left picture). Don’t go over the barriers or lean over to get a photo, it’s not worth it. When going down then slope be very careful if the ground is wet – I slipped down the slope a couple of metres and landed on my bum and it wasn’t even wet! If you walk near the barrier at the front on the left you’ll see a tunnel. It can be quite hidden and took me a few seconds to find it. You kind of need to go back on yourself to find it. As I said, don’t go over the barriers, but if you follow the barrier round to your left you’ll find it. If you look in the above right picture, the tunnel is found underneath where the barrier juts out. You can also see the signpost to guide you.
The tunnel has 72 small stairs going down – it goes down quite far and is often wet inside too so take care not to slip. It is not pitch black inside, there is enough light coming from both sides of the tunnel to see without a torch, however you may still want to use one. There are no handrails.
Only go down if the tide is low and there are no storms and it looks safe. This is so important: it is for your safety.
The beach is very secluded, surrounded by 30 metre high towering cliffs. The current is also very strong here so this is a no swimming beach. Also very important: make sure you check the tide times before you go to ensure you visit at the best time and don’t get caught out.
When you get to the bottom you will need to scramble over some big rocks to get to the sandy part of the beach. Be careful incase there is any wildlife here – only when I left, I realised I had been sharing the beach with a sea lion! If you do see any penguins or sea lions do NOT block their path to the water and do not approach them as they may become aggressive.
Being alone (or so I thought) on this beach was incredible. I was here just after sunrise and the beach was so stunning. It is so beautiful and definitely worth the adventure to get here, just please be safe and use your common sense!
Going back up the track to the car park is naturally a bit more difficult and time-consuming than coming down but should take around 30 minutes.
St Clair Promenade and the Old Pier
After you’ve visited Tunnel Beach drive the 6km to St Clair Beach. Or if coming from the centre of Dunedin it is just 5 km – this is Dunedin’s local beach and is a popular place for the locals. It is really beautiful with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the soft white sand. Plus there is free parking here on the streets just off the promenade.
St Clair Beach reminded me a lot like typical beachside towns in England with the promenade and lots of locals around both old and young. Stroll along the beach – whatever time of the year it is you’ll see lots of people walking their dogs here and lots of surfers in their wetsuits as this is New Zealand’s most consistent surf break. You can even try your hand at surfing here – rent a board or get surfing lessons at the board hire place on the beach.
Be sure to head over to see the remnants of the Old Pier – now called St Clair Poles as the pier got destroyed and this is all that is left. There is also a hot water salt pool at the southern end of the beach that you can visit. Built in the late 1880’s it is the last remaining salt water pool in Dunedin. At 28 degrees and on the beachfront it makes for a perfect alternative to getting in the cold sea! St Clair Hot Water Salt Pool is only open from October to March and costs $6.90 for a visit.
There are several nice cafes lining the promenade, perfect to stop for some food and watch the world go by, especially if you’ve been to Tunnel Beach before hand too! I went to a lovely Italian cafe on the corner of The Esplanade and Forbury Road called Esplanade. It does great breakfasts, has a great atmosphere and really nice interiors. Especially in the summer it gets very busy.
As mentioned earlier, lots of the sights around Dunedin are spread out. The next 3 sights are situated on the Otago Peninsula, situated to the east of Dunedin City Centre.
A 20 minute drive east of Dunedin along the Otago Peninsula will take you to Larnach Castle. Larnach Castle is New Zealand’s only castle – built by William Larnach in 1870. He was an Australian man who came to Dunedin after the gold rush in search of wealth. Larnach lived here until he took his life in New Zealand’s House of Parliament. His children sold the castle several times, it became abandoned, and then wasn’t rediscovered until 1967 by the Barker family, who then went on to purchase the property.
The castle is located up a steep windy road. You can’t see the outside of the castle when you’re driving up as it is completely hidden amongst the trees. This was planned intentionally as the Larnach family wanted privacy. So even just to get a photo from the outside of the castle you’ll need to pay the $17 entrance to visit grounds.
If you would like to go inside the castle too it costs $34 in total. Opening times are from 8am until 7pm last admission to visit the gardens, or 8am-5pm to visit the castle. Note from October to March if you arrive between 8am and 9.30am you can get reduced entry of $25 for the grounds and castle!
When you pay for your entrance at the tollgate they’ll give you a leaflet showing you a guide to the grounds and all the different gardens. You’ll also get a native plant trail leaflet you can follow, which features plants unique to New Zealand. The leaflet explains them all very well, with pictures and where to find them too.
The gardens are quite large, very beautiful and peaceful. If you head to the South Sea Garden there is a really nice lookout point. Or if you head towards the end of The Green Room (outside area in front of the castle) there is a beautiful pergola going down the middle that frames the Castle in one direction, and the view in the other direction. As with many parts of New Zealand, no drones are permitted.
There is also a rainforest at the back and a cafe at the front with stunning views of the castle on the Tapestry Garden open from 9.30am-4.30pm and serving lunches and morning/afternoon teas. Accommodation is available here at the back in the old stables.
Penguin Place Conservation Reserve – Yellow Eyed Penguins
Carry on driving for roughly another half hour towards the tip of Otago Peninsula and you’ll see Penguin Place. Penguin Place is a Conservation Reserve dedicated to helping and protecting the Yellow Eyed Penguin. The Yellow Eyed Penguin is the world’s most rarest and endangered penguin species on the planet. The south-east of New Zealand and Stewart Island is the only place in the world where these penguins are found, bar a couple of sub-Antarctic islands.
The work they do at Penguin Place in helping and monitoring the yellow eyed penguins is incredible. They have a Penguin Hospital here for injured or starving penguins. They perform surgery when necessary and also help malnutritioned yellow eyed penguins back to health, as many come in because they are on the brink of starvation. Penguin Place does not receive Government funding. All the money from tours is used to fund surgery and treatment and care of these penguins. Even Prince Charles has visited Penguin Place and you can see his pictures and the letter of thanks he wrote on the wall!
Why are Yellow Eyed Penguins becoming extinct?
The reason Yellow Eyed Penguins are becoming extinct is mainly because of overfishing and the ocean temperature rising as a result of global warming. The increased ocean temperatures leads to fish swimming deeper in the ocean to cooler water. Therefore these penguins then have to dive deeper to reach their food. These penguins cannot breathe underwater: they only breath oxygen. They can hold their breath for up to 4 minutes when they dive down to catch their food.
Previously this was enough time for these yellow eyed penguins to dive down, catch food then swim back up. Nowadays however, because the the fish are swimming further down in the ocean it means the penguins are having to dive down deeper, and into darker water making it harder to look for food. Often it will take the penguins 2 minutes to dive down deep enough to the level of the fish, which leaves the penguin only a few seconds to search for food before they need to go back up for air again. As a result, many yellow eyed penguins are starving as they just cannot access any food.
Tours at Penguin Place
The tours at Penguin Place are 90 minutes long and are thoroughly enjoyable and really informative. They start with a talk explaining about Yellow Eyed Penguins, traits they possess, their habitat and how they are becoming extinct. You will then see penguins close up at the Penguin Hospital (you will be behind a fence with a gap to look through so you don’t scare the penguins). Here at the Penguin Hospital is where you can get some really good close up shots here as any penguins you see in the wild will be a lot further away.
After visiting the Penguin Hospital you will go on the Penguin bus/truck towards the private beach where the penguins come. You won’t be on the beach, instead you will go into the dug out trenches so you can look for penguins without them feeling threatened as they can’t see you. The Conservation Centre has build some small huts for the penguins to use as houses so you’ll usually see them relaxing at home. 🙂
The trenches you will walk in are covered and it is a fairly easy and short walk. There is a 15cm gap you can look through so it is easy to get photos. The guide just asks that you be quiet and don’t stick anything through the gap as the penguins get spooked very easily.
The ride down on the bus is a bit bumpy but there are nice views going through the fields with all the sheep and you’ll see stunning views of the beach. As you go from one trench to another you get some nice views looking down onto the beach and you can maybe see some sea lions on the beach down below like we did (see at the bottom of the below left picture).
Am I guaranteed to see Yellow Eyed Penguins in the wild?
As it is nature, it is not guaranteed that you will see yellow eyed penguins in the wild. You will always see them at the hospital here though, so you will definitely get to see them, just maybe not in their natural habitat. The tour guide told us that during the tour if we see 3 wild penguins that is considered incredibly lucky. We actually saw 4 though – and one was a baby a 7 weeks old, so still had brown fur and hadn’t ever been in the water yet! It was incredible to see this beautiful endangered species.
Arranging a tour
It is best to book beforehand (ring up or enquire online) incase a big tour comes, for example from the cruise ships that come into Dunedin. Tours are normally every half an hour in the summer, but only one tour a day in the winter months due to decreased demand. Tours operate daily except Christmas Day and are priced at $55 per adult. All proceeds go back into Penguin Place.
Location of Penguin Place
Penguin Place is actually set on a private farm The owner set off an amount for the penguins and he planted lots of trees for the penguins where he previously used to have fields and sheep grazing. The penguins like the trees as it is protection from the weather but also so they are able to hide from predators.
You can even stay overnight at the lodge – prices are very reasonable. It is a nice rural environment with some lovey views out to the bay and sheep in the fields.
Yellow Eyed Penguins in the wild
Usually if an animal feels threatened it will run. But penguins stand still if threatened. This is because New Zealand used to be a land of birds only. Penguins stood still so birds (especially the eagle) wouldn’t attack them. However since the introduction of mammals into New Zealand in the 1800’s by the Europeans, prey standing still is not always the best thing to do if being threatened by a mammal. For example when a dog sees a penguin and the penguin then stands still, it makes it very easy for the predator to attack the penguin. Therefore if you have a dog please don’t walk it off-leash on the beaches here! There have been so many penguin attacks by dogs.
If you see a Yellow Eyed Penguin in the wild always keep a distance of 50 metres and try to not let them see you. They are incredibly shy and if they see humans they get scared and won’t come back to the beach, even if their eggs or babies are there. This will then leave to the babies not surviving, which is only contributing to their shrinking numbers. Only a very small percentage (roughly 1%!!) of babies go on to successfully reproduce themselves, which is why it is so important the parents need to feed their young until they can survive on their own.
In comparison to other species of penguins who are very social, yellow eyed penguins are lone creatures. They learn to do everything themselves and don’t have anyone to teach them so often they don’t make it to reproductive age. Therefore we need to do all we can to help these poor creatures.
Seeing the Blue Penguins come back to land from a day out at sea is an incredible and fascinating sight. A hundred or so blue penguins – the smallest penguin species in the world (also found in areas of Victoria Australia such as St Kilda and Phillip Island) drift into land and waddle up to their homes and babies after sunset.
To see the Blue Penguin Parade, head towards the Royal Albatross Centre. Keep driving past Penguin Place for 5 minutes until you get to the end of the Otago Peninsula known as Taiaroa Head (Pukekura). There is only one road so you can’t go wrong, and you can’t miss it as it is at the end of the road. You’ll see, hear and smell the albatross – there are perhaps a hundred albatross here and don’t expect your car to be free of bird poo when you come back!
The Penguin Parade happens on Pilot’s Beach. This beach is private and you can only access it as part of the tour. The area of Pukekura holds significant meaning to the Maori people here as it is one of the only pieces of land returned back from the Queen to the Maoris.
Blue Penguin Tours
The tours cost $35 and leave at dusk. They usually last an hour or so. Summer is a good time to experience the Penguin Parade as the Blue Penguins have chicks so will always come home. The chicks don’t go out swimming as they haven’t grown their waterproof coats yet, so stay at home all day. Almost 100 came home when we were there and it was so amazing to see, even though this was actually my second time seeing a Blue Penguin Parade.
Usually about 20 or so penguins come back to land together. They stay close together and from the distance it looks like there is a dark patch in the water, but it is just the penguins staying together. This is called a raft of penguins. They stay close together for safety. When you are watching the penguins you must make sure there is no flash on your camera as it can blind the penguins. You’ll be able to see well and still get good pictures as there are lights here that point upwards so as not to disturb the penguins. Blue Penguins are very sociable creatures and you can hear them calling to each other, it’s so cute! You’ll also see some of them waiting for the next raft of penguins to come inland. Click here to view the website and book tickets, although you can turn up without booking tickets too.
If driving north up the State Highway 1 to Christchurch or Lake Tekapo you must stop off along the way to see the impressive Moeraki Boulders (click here for Google maps location). Located 75 km north of Dunedin (1 hour drive) is a cluster of incredibly large spherical boulders formed around 65 million years ago in the ocean bed. The mysterious boulders are 1-2 metres in diameter and most of them are perfectly spherical, although some have been eroded and you can even see the hollow interior of some.
Ideally you should go at low to mid tide, as at high tide the boulders can be submerged by water. I was actually there at high-ish tide and this is how it looked. When it is low tide you can climb onto the boulders, but I liked that the water was amongst them. Sunrise is a great time to come, as the sun rises over the ocean. For me that wasn’t possible – I was there at about 4pm and there were a few other people there too, but it was easy enough to get photos without other people in as there are several clusters of boulders.
You can also go up to the viewpoint to see the boulders from above.
There are 2 car parks from which you can access Moeraki Boulders Beach. When you come off the highway at the turning for the boulders, you can either drive straight on or turn left. If you carry on straight this is for the beach access and means you have to walk 10 minutes along the beach (going left) to get to the boulders. But if you turn left and drive to the other car park you’ll actually be much closer to the boulders. There is a gift shop and restaurant here too if you need.
Alternative itineraries for cities in New Zealand:
Christchurch – What to do in Christchurch in one day
Wellington – One day in Wellington walking itinerary
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