The stayers are the ones who really know Dunedin. If you come here, hunt out these people – they will show you the heart of this town.
When you spend enough time in Dunedin you soon begin to recognise the stayers – the people who, amid the comings and goings of this university town, choose to remain here.
You can find them at St Clair beach on a clear, chilly morning, carrying surfboards into the break under a lens of a sky so sharp you might see all the way to Antarctica.
You’ll find them discussing geology or music in cosy craft beer nooks with log fires blazing and good Scottish whisky stacked to the ceiling.
You’ll find them at rock gigs in old pubs, stalwarts who treasure the glory days of the famous Dunedin Sound music scene amid a new raft of music lovers perpetuating the fierce creative streak that underpins this town.
In the city centre, the patron saint of the Dunedin arts, Robbie Burns, watches over the comings and goings with seagull guano running down his bronze cheeks – a reminder to the city’s artists, perhaps, to not take their role too seriously. After all, the solid Scottish conservatism that built Dunedin also came laced with an adventurous, musical spirit and an egalitarian openness marked by a willingness to accept people as they are.
The stayers know this town’s magic. They know that for every bitterly cold southerly day there is another one, bright and blue, in which the harbour’s beauty will take your breath away and you wish to be nowhere else on earth.
These are days when visitors and locals walk the basaltic backbone of the Pineapple Track, the broken volcano that Dunedin is built upon laid out around them and the Pacific Ocean stretching south to infinity.
These are days when the big surf piling up on St Clair beach threatens to overwhelm the town, days for walking the Esplanade to feel the power of the sea, and for drinking coffee on the roadside tables at seaside cafés.
Connecting with the spectacular part of the planet that surrounds Dunedin is a big part of what makes the city tick and the University of Otago hums with world-class research dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of land and sea.
To feel the academic pulse of the town, take a picnic onto campus and sit on the grass beside the Leith Stream among the swirl of students and seagulls. The tiny Geology Museum here is open to the public and its spectacular fossils offer a glimpse of the vanished world contained in the limestone of the surrounding hinterland. If you’re lucky you’ll see palaeontologists unearthing 30-million-year-old whale and penguin bones from solid rock right before your eyes.
Across the road, the Otago Museum offers spectacular displays of the region’s history and natural history.
A visit to Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is also essential for understanding the ethnic foundations of the town. Dunedin was once made rich by the gold pouring out of the interior and this rush brought people from around the world to the region. The stories of Chinese and Lebanese immigrants are captured here, as well as insights into the town’s music and filmmaking heritage.
Dunedin is currently experiencing a cultural renaissance and the revitalisation of its heritage district is the most obvious, visible manifestation of that, with Vogel Street right at the centre of the revival. Start here for a tour of some of the spectacular street art murals that have popped up in recent years. If you happen to visit in October, the Vogel Street Party is not be missed – an opportunity to see dozens of local bands and get a feel for the rich creative community here.
The Dunedin Midwinter Carnival in June is the city’s other great festival – a mystical celebration of the cold, when gigantic paper lantern sculptures are paraded around the Octagon, creating an atmosphere of peaceful calm on the darkest night of the year.
You’re spoiled for choice for food and drink in Dunedin, and while you should probably avoid the Octagon’s beery morass on a Friday or Saturday night, there are good spots just away from the city centre – Albar, Tonic, Zanzibar and Carousel can all be great for an early or late evening drink.
It’s in places like these you’ll find the stayers, the ones who guard a poorly kept secret – that Dunedin is one of the world’s great cities, without the traffic and with all the natural splendour of ten other cities.
Spend a few days here, breathe in the atmosphere and the clean salt sea air of this lovely city and who knows, maybe you might feel like sticking around too...