The ridge-top road winds its undulating way through a patchwork of paddocks and a sparse human population.
Otago Harbour is a long ribbon of silky-smooth water far below and Dunedin City, the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ nestles in its green belt against a dramatic backdrop of forested hills. The road to the peninsula’s tip, Taiaroa Head, is not only a scenic drive but also the way to the South Island’s most accessible wildlife area.
Taiaroa Head is renowned as the only northern royal albatross breeding colony in the world that is close to an inhabited area. The visitor centre displays are excellent and on top of the hill are glassed-in viewing areas, which overlook the nesting sites.
At a nearby bay you can view the world’s rarest penguins. A viewing area off Portobello Rd has special hides, so that visitors can approach within a few metres of the beautiful little yellow-eyed penguins. Tours are available to other sites on private land.
Guided tours are available to secret beaches where the very first Hooker’s sea lion pup was born on the New Zealand mainland after a gap of 700 years. The formidable-looking creatures you see are predominantly bachelor males that have swum the vast distance to Taiaroa Head from the Campbell and Auckland Islands.
After paying your respects to the rare wildlife in sheltered coves, there is still a wealth of sightseeing back up the peninsula. The most remarkable local attraction is Larnach Castle, a neo-Gothic mansion complete with ballroom and battlements, set on the peninsula’s highest point – don’t miss the rooftop views. This garish symbol of Dunedin’s gold rush wealth was built on the fantasies of a well-known merchant and politician.
Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens on Portobello Rd have amazing rhododendrons, azaleas and colourful birds. The Westpac Trust Aquarium nearby, reveals a few surprises amongst the local marine habitats. Scenic farmland and beach walks lead to some fascinating places on the peninsula’s flanks including the cliff scenery of ‘The Chasm’ and ‘Lovers Leap.’
Dunedin itself has some scenic delights, which include Baldwin St, the world’s steepest street. Top billing should go to the Taieri Gorge Railway, which leaves Dunedin’s mind-boggling Renaissance railway station and penetrates an inaccessible mountain landscape on a tortuous track through tunnels and over viaducts.
Between the rare wildlife, weird architecture and wondrous mansions, the Otago Peninsula is choc-full of interesting experiences. Allow several days to do it justice.