With its sheltered bays, tumbling hills, wonderful wildlife and sandy beaches, it’s fair to say the Otago Peninsula is one of the best places in New Zealand to feel at one with nature.
The peninsula is only an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Dunedin and is set to pique the curiosity of its visitors with its wonderful collection of historic sites, unspoiled landscapes and picturesque walking trails. Take a look at 10 local gems you don’t want to miss.
Penguin Place is the first conservation project in the world to be entirely funded by tourism. The private reserve’s environmentally friendly pursuits were established in 1985 by Howard McGrouther. When he started there were only eight breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins under his care, but within the next decade breeding pair numbers had peaked to 36. All proceeds earned from Penguin Place’s guided tours go straight into the on-site rehabilitation centre as well as various projects related to predator control, habitat restoration and research that can benefit these native penguin species.
Ōtākou Marae lies in a small settlement at the edge of the Otago Peninsula, approximately 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from Dunedin. This is a traditional Māori meeting house marked by its historic importance: the marae was one of the key places where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840. Every three years, the marae hosts a special Treaty of Waitangi Festival to commemorate their important contribution to the signing of the document.
Taiaroa Head is a breathtaking headland on the Otago Peninsula that has gathered global attention for its remarkable conservation pursuits. Not only is Taiaroa Head home to the world’s only royal albatross mainland breeding colony, it is also a place where New Zealand travellers can get up close to a number of endangered seabirds and native marine wildlife. Guided tours around the headland and its Royal Albatross Centre will enable you to see the area’s celebrated birds as well as little penguins, fur seals, Stewart Island shags and yellow-eyed penguins.
The seaside village of Portobello lies right in between Dunedin and Taiaroa Head. The picturesque town has, over the years, become a hub for nature and science: partly because of the University of Otago’s Portobello Marine Laboratory premises; partly because the Royal Albatross Centre is within easy reach. Besides offering plenty of opportunities to embrace the Otago Peninsula’s sandy shores, Portobello is known to charm its visitors with quaint attractions like its Happy Hens shop, which has become a local icon thanks to its hand-painted ceramics and wooden chickens.
The Otago Peninsula Museum was originally created as a single exhibition space at the Portobello Community Hall in 1976, when community members came together to showcase the photographs and historic relics they carried with them. By 1986, the museum had outgrown its original setting, relocating to its current site and expanding the scope of their displays. A replica barn was built to house the farming equipment donated by locals and collected from the countryside, and various spaces dedicated to the wider Otago Peninsula’s past have been established since. The museum has also collected genealogical and photographic records from local families and used these to publish a book about Portobello’s history.
Port Chalmers is the Otago Harbour suburb that houses Dunedin’s main shipping port. Given its nautical importance, it’s a no-brainer that one of Port Chalmers’ top attractions is its Maritime Museum. Owned and operated by the Port Chalmers Historical Society Inc, the museum resides in a former post office building that has been a commanding fixture of the suburb since the early 19th century. Port Chalmers Maritime Museum features a number of collections that showcase its historic fishing, shipping and Antarctic exploration pursuits. A large window inside its gallery also enables visitors to take a closer look at the port’s daily operations.
With prominent sand dunes, windswept shores and beautiful coastal vistas, Sandfly Bay is arguably one of the most beautiful places on the Otago Peninsula. The sheltered bay is located just 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) east of central Dunedin, and its name reflects the windy nature of its sandy shores – which goes against common belief that the area was named after a common biting insect found on New Zealand’s forests and beaches. Wildlife lovers will feel right at home on Sandfly Bay: a walk around its tracks will enable you to see yellow-eyed penguins and sea lions making the most of their coastal habitats.
Glenfalloch is a private garden and chalet restaurant in Macandrew Bay. The original Glenfalloch Gardens date back to 1871 when George Ray Russell purchased the 100-acre block of land and planted an impressive assortment of Radiata Pine trees before heading back to his motherland, England, in 1900. Glenfalloch has been under the care of the Otago Peninsula Trust, a private charity focused on preserving the region, since the late 1960s; these days, the Woodland Gardens feature an extensive collection of native ferns, exotic flowers and indigenous trees that showcase the area’s rich botanical history.
A walk around Allans Beach’s wild coastlines is another good way to spot the Otago Peninsula’s resident penguins and sea lions among other beach-loving native animals. A short five-minute stroll from the car park will take you across Allans Beach track – it’s not uncommon to find yourself facing the resident marine critters as soon as you venture into these shores. Keep within a 20-metre (66-feet) distance from all wildlife to avoid any risk of being attacked – fur seals in particular can be quite hostile if they feel threatened.
With 3.5 kilomteres’ (2.2 miles) worth of coastlines at its disposal, Victory Beach is the longest on the Otago Peninsula. Expansive oceanic views are a natural given, but the grasslands that surround this sheltered beach are definitely worth exploring too. Walk across the well-maintained track by Victory Beach’s car park to reach a geological marvel known as The Pyramids – a series of basalt volcanic columns that were named for their incredibly symmetrical shape. From there you can go up the surrounding sand dunes to relish the alluring vistas and watch the basking fur seals relaxing under the sun.