Dunedin's Octagon is the hub of the city. © Miz Watanabe

Urban explorer: The Octagon


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Dunedin doesn’t really do the hard sell, but if effortless style and laid back libations warm your cockles, then chances are you’ll find yourself in its eight-sided heart soon enough. 

The Octagon precinct is a crash course in the local lifestyle, stretching from the Town Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral at one end, to the Railway Station and (recently refurbished) historic courthouse at the other. These architectural icons have been complemented in recent years by a resurgent interest in the restoration and reuse of grand old building stock. 

I sold out and moved to the more sedate surrounds of Port Chalmers a few years back, but the pull of the city centre has maintained a firm grip on my soul. It has been a teacher, a haven, and a lucky dip of friendships forged at all times of the day and night. 

Robbie Burns, the literary mascot of the Scottish diaspora, watches over proceedings from the centre, with the majestic Regent and its neighbour the New Athenaeum Theatre within earshot. 

The former hosts an annual calendar that just this year includes the NZ International Film Festival; Royal NZ Ballet; The Phoenix Foundation & the NZSO; Dunedin Fringe Festival; Black Grace dance company; Bill Bailey; and yes, the infamous 24 Hour Book Sale. The latter is a host and producer of more peripheral theatre and performance work, based in the old Cine Club screening room. 

The lower side is the prime spot for outdoor dining or late afternoon drinks in the sun.

The most reliable offering for eating (and coffee) sits in a shadier spot though, at Nova. It also functions as everybody’s second office during the week, if you’re interested in watching the comings and goings of little city bigwigs. 

Over recent years the centre of student social gravity has migrated from the campus to the Octagon, but if that’s not your scene there are equally boisterous spots of a very different variety within (responsible) stumbling distance. Albar is the closest thing to a ‘local’ pub in the city centre, with a splendid selection of beers and (more importantly) single malts. A glorious tumbler of rowdy suits and arty types. Upstairs, you’ll find the cocktail and disco set at Carousel, with its outdoor dancefloor. 

@ampianizmo thanks for the photo #carouselbarnz #cocktails #wine #dunedinnz #

A post shared by Carousel bar (@carousel_bar_nz) on Dec 8, 2016 at 12:37am PST

The south-west pocket of Moray Place is one of my favourite spots in the city full stop. Local design co-op Guild has a showroom there, directly opposite Eskdale Gallery. Depending on the time of day, coffee roastery Mazagran and the cheap and cheerful pan-Asian palace – simply The Asian – remain memorable stops. 

On the entertainment front, Dog With Two Tails runs a weeklong programme of diversions: local and touring bands; poetry performances; weekly jazz and quiz nights. Open all day, their coffee and food are safe bets. The boutique Metro Cinema sits tucked in the back of the Town Hall. Pequeño, with its dim lights, late evenings and roaring open fire, is another back-alley gem worth seeking out. 

In the mornings, and for the mornings’ after, you can’t go wrong with breakfast and cake at Morning Magpie or The Perc

Finally: In the case of romance or remorse, Estelle is easily one of the finest florists in the city. 

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