Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Great Southern Escape from Queensland


Left: Seals on the Otago Peninsula.

Right: Keiran Dooley at his inner city Arc Cafe. Below: Art deco 1920s-40s flats; retro collector Fritz at Purple Rain; the ornate Dunedin Railway Station and surrounding buildings; Victorian facade meets stark 60s.

MARCH 16, 2009: The New Zealand South Island city of Dunedin is the ultimate contrast to the Gold Coast. For tourists it’s a transition from the brash beachfront of high-rise glitz to a sedate, civilized provincial city of some 118.000 people. Where the Gold Coast boasts glassy residential towers, Dunedin parades one of the richest displays of Victorian (and more recent) architecture anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. The Otago Railway Station and nearby hotels (above left) are punctuated by examples of some not so pretty styles as seen in the distinctive but garish 60s office building (right) adjoining a Victorian frontage. A steep city centre street (above right) also feature art-deco 20s-era apartments. A couple of ultra-mod examples are Otago University's Centre for Innovation and the Information Services Building.
Getting to Dunedin from Australia meanwhile, is not so easy over winter. Air New Zealand plans to suspend flights between Dunedin and Sydney from April 16 to October 24 2009, but the Brisbane link will stay open. That’s a good thing for people from balmy Queensland, who still have the opportunity for not only the popular Aussie jaunt to the South Island snowfields in winter, but to escape the summer humidity for some refreshing Otago weather. Mind you, Otago records some of New Zealand’s hottest summer temperatures with brief bursts into the mid 30s. In such circumstances, a quick dip at a Dunedin beach or in one of the high country lakes will very quickly remind you you’re in southern latitudes.
Dunedin, perhaps like Adelaide, likes to defy its own staid image. Fed by the annual intake to Otago University, New Zealand’s oldest institution of higher learning, the city naturally has a vibrant youth culture. Dunedin bands claim their own particular sound – although descriptions of that hometown sound are a bit vague. Students do get a bit out of hand in March at the start of the academic year. We negotiated dozens of them clad in caveman outfits surging across the road towards town. The annual toga parade turned a little ugly and vile this year and a few years ago there was a real riot in the student quarter. But don’t fear, it’s mostly all good fun. Dunedin’s cold snaps cool off the worst hotheads and send you scurrying into one of the many cosy internet cafes and pubs around The Octagon in the city centre, graced with a statue of the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
A couple of nights later on a quiet Monday night we chanced upon the spacious Arc Café, looking for some internet time. As a local death metal band thrashed away at practice in the adjoining live music venue, café proprietor Kieran Dooley most generously obliged with some $2 brewed coffee as a ‘swap’ for some free PC use. Kieran likes everything organic and his chocolate covered banana cake was superb. The city also has a great range of secondhand and antique stores on Princess St that my wife and daughter couldn’t resist. One example is Odds ’n’ Ends run by a charming elderly gent with a long white beard. He specializes in cups and saucers. The jam-packed place could keep you busy for hours. Across the road is the trendy Purple Rain run by a Dutch-Kiwi man by the name of Fritz (top left) who has tapped into some great supplies of quality retro such as his beloved Wurlitzer juke box and a big old booming cathode tube radio that recalls an exceptional and long-lost AM sound. Fritz (upper right), like other Dunedinites, seems to appreciate the city’s past. There’s no fretting over the height of the next high rise project, although a proposed new $190 million sports stadium to replace the famous ‘House of Pain’ rugby stadium at Carisbrook is raising some hackles. Speaking of rugby, there’s a great rugby shop on busy George St and a pub on the northern side of the Octagon is also dedicated to the game. There’s also a Scottish shop with kilts – a rarity indeed – and haggis. Scots, of course, founded the fair city. They were laymen from the Free Church of Scotland, invited by the New Zealand Company to establish a new settlement at a whaling station at the head of Otago Harbour. It all started in 1847.
Today the car brings the city, harbour and surrounding hills all within easy reach. In the city centre the spectacular architecture of the railway station, university and cathedrals gives way to the charming Otago Peninsula, where narrow, winding roads take you across almost mountainous sheep farms to Larnach’s Castle, wild ocean beaches graced by seals and penguins and placid harbourside bays adorned with compact settlements. We bought two good-sized sole (flounder) at one of the Saturday markets for $6. Back in town there’s a Cadbury’s chocolate factory open for tours most days. And don’t forget Baldwin St in North Dunedin, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s steepest street. Great exercise to work off the chocolate.

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