Dunedin was my home for four years when I was a student, and I’m regularly telling people it’s the coolest city in New Zealand.

But is it really? Or do you have to be 19 and full of Speights to fall in love with it?

Armed with a wool coat and my boyfriend Tom, who’s never been, I’ve returned for a weekend in winter to find out.

It’s midday when we arrive, so the first thing on the agenda is lunch.

I‘ve been dreaming about the lamb’s fry at Café Nova and, as testament to its excellence, we find it still on the menu. The crispy bacon, tender liver and sweet gingerbeer sauce is as good as I remember, while the gigantic cream donut for dessert is a welcome new addition.  

After a mosey around the Dunedin Public Art Gallery next door, we button our coats and head out for a chilly wander through town.

It’s hard to say what gives a town character exactly, but you know it when you see it and you see it in Dunedin.

It’s in the crumbly Victorian flats that tumble down the steep, sloping streets, in the neo-gothic church spires that pierce the sky, and in the colourful street art (council approved and otherwise) splashed across brick alleyway walls.

Perhaps it’s this character, combined with cheap rent, that attracts so many artists, fashion and jewellery designers to the city. Whatever the reason I’m glad they’re here because it means Dunedin is blessed with some of the country’s best shops.

I waste no time dragging Tom into Plume – home of local label Nom*D and racks of achingly cool European designers – where, sadly, the only thing I can afford is a pair of socks.

At Preservation Society (formerly Modern Miss), vintage beaded dresses, silk kimonos and Moroccan cowboy boots all suddenly feel like wardrobe essentials and, in Slick Willy’s, my heart is stolen by a pair of gold leather brogues.

A quest to see an old flat takes us south of the Octagon, to the historic warehouse precinct. It always used to feel a bit sad around here – lots of charming but decrepit old buildings with cracked and boarded up windows – but recently, a band of enthusiastic investors have been showing it some love. Apartments and offices are moving in to newly earthquake-strengthened spaces, and buildings that once seemed destined for demolition are now gleaming proudly under fresh coats of paint. Dunedin INP1

One of the most impressive new shops we call into is the joyously named Wine Freedom, a bright and airy wine store with exposed brick walls and polished concrete floors. We find owner Paul moving between the customers like cupid, expertly matching each one up with their perfect bottle.   

For dinner, a local recommends Plato Cafe, which is down near the docks in the old Seafarers Building.

Getting there involves walking over a concrete overpass surrounded by dark, deserted streets, so it’s a relief to step into the boxy ‘60s building and to find it warm and full of life. Surrounded by Plato’s retro kitsch decor (shelves crammed with vintage teapots, Kiwiana and toys) we feast on paua fritters and pan-fried salmon, washed down with Otago Pinot Noir.

Saturday is one of those blue-sky Dunedin days that in recent years have acquired their own Instagram hashtag: #dunnerstunner.

By 9am we’re at the farmers' market, shuffling indecisively past artisan chocolates, fresh sourdough and cured meats, settling eventually on crepes filled with delicious stewed French lentils. I’m about to give my change to a busker whose sign reads: “Need money to rebuild the Death Star” (nothing like a good cause), when he puts his guitar down mid-verse and wanders off to get a coffee.

It strikes me that Dunedin has got a whole lot hipper while I've been away.

We do the same, heading up the road to a new café called Morning Magpie. As we wait for our cold brew coffee, I note the barista’s carefully waxed moustache and leather apron, the range of specialty single-origin coffee beans on offer and the stylish, minimalist interiors, and it strikes me that Dunedin has got a whole lot hipper while I've been away.

'Dunners stunners’ are not to be wasted, so we jump in the car and head to Port Chalmers for lunch. The half-hour drive is a heartbreaker; meandering past hilly farms and under lush, leafy canopies, while the long blue arm of the Otago Harbour glitters to our right.

In the sleepy logging port we find a craft beer pub called The Portsider and settle down at a sunny table for a long ploughman’s lunch. 

“How do you like Dunedin so far?” I ask Tom, between mouthfuls of pork rillettes and pickles.

“It’s cool,” he tells me. “Sorta like Wellington but more laid back. And with better weather.” Dunedin INP2

I’m not sure that last observation is strictly correct but I don’t want to spoil the impression. Instead I take him to St Clair Beach, where surfers bob like seals on the unfolding blue surf.

I remember swimming here once – it was like being a sock inside a washing machine – but it’s a lovely beach for a walk. We trudge along the creamy fine sand around the bay, while kids hoon, shrieking, down the steep dunes on boogie boards.

That night, after a cheerful pizza dinner at Zucchini Bros, I insist on leading Tom down a dark, sketchy-looking alley near the Octagon.

He looks nervous until I push open a door to reveal one of my more sophisticated student haunts: Pequenos, a cosy cocktail bar with a crackling fire and leather armchairs. The lighting is low and the Negronis are strong, just the way I remember them.

The next morning, heads slightly foggy from the cocktails, we make our way to the quietest, most serene spot that Dunedin has to offer on a Sunday morning: the university.

Nothing moves but the gentle Leith River, ambling under weeping willow and cherry blossom past the imposing stone university buildings. Eventually a few students mooch past with laptops and water bottles, no doubt pained at the prospect of having to study on the weekend.

Call it nostalgia, but I can’t help but feel envious of them.

There could be no better place to be trapped in a library than in New Zealand’s coolest city.

Reported by Alice Galletly for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue

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