Otago – breathtaking scenery around every corner
Otago is the second most southerly region of the country, and one of the most diverse. Its 32,000 square kilometres encompasses mountainous regions and vast open plains, glacier-fed rivers and deserted sandy beaches.
Nestled near the bottom of the South Island, Otago has a traditional farming heritage plus many little-known natural and historic treasures. Where else can you walk among wild seals, visit a life-sized but miniature castle, kayak through semi-submersed caves, or jet boat down rock-strewn rivers? Otago has it all – accessible wildlife, adventure tourism, world class vineyards and restaurants, historic sites, deserted white sandy beaches and vistas of staggering beauty.
Otago is a region of contrasts. Its unique character is defined by a magnificent landscape and diverse climate. Queenstown winters bring snow while Alexandra’s summers are among the hottest in the country. Snow-covered mountains, native forests and stunning southern lakes populate the west of the region while dry, tussock-covered mountains and valleys of rock complement this wild and beautiful land.
Otago has a number of areas worth visiting, each with its own personality and each different from the last.
Dunedin is the region’s only city (population 124,000). It lies at the head of picturesque Otago Harbour on one side and looks out over the Pacific Ocean on the other. It is surrounded by hills which are the remnants of an extinct volcano. A hive of activity during the academic year, it is the most southerly port of call for cruise ships visiting New Zealand.
Queenstown is the tourist mecca of the South Island and a must-see destination for all visitors to New Zealand. Sited on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the town is surrounded by snow-clad mountains in winter while in summer water sports are popular. There are a number of fabulous resorts and golf courses in the area, plus sufficient adventure tourism activities for the most die-hard adventurer.
The Catlins is the place to be if you want to get away from the crowds (if you can find any in Otago, that is). You’ll love the rugged, unspoilt beauty and abundant wildlife. The coastal scenery is superb and quite unlike anywhere else in the country.
Central Otago, known locally as just ‘Central’ is an area of vast open plains and endless skies. Known for its hot summers and very cold winters, there are vineyards of international reputation nestled alongside mountain-fed lakes and rivers.
North Otago centres around the eastern coastal town of Oamaru, which is of interest to history buffs. Many of its old stone buildings have been beautifully restored and house all manner of old fashioned businesses. The drive down the rugged coast is particularly rewarding, especially if you stop at the picturesque fishing village of Moeraki.
Dunedin is known as the Edinburgh of the South and is proud of its Scottish heritage. Many residents are descended from adventurous Scots who ventured onto the high seas in order to carve out a new home in what was then rugged wilderness.
Dunedin was settled at a time before the car was king, when ships and railways moved people and goods around. It is built in a natural harbour on a relatively small area of flat land surrounded by steep hillsides.
The area also has a strong Maori heritage and there are many sites that have particular relevance to the region’s indigenous people.
The Otago climate has it all. Coastal Otago tends to have a reasonably cloudy maritime climate and there is a relatively small shift in temperature from summer to winter. Inland there is less cloud and the climate is more continental. In places like Central Otago the summer days are hotter and the winter days colder, with much colder nights.
At 45°S, Otago experiences alternating periods of sun and rain. Warm summers and cold winters provide the perfect climate for winter sports and summer holidaying and adventure. However, visitors to the region are advised to ensure they bring clothing suitable for both warm and cold weather as conditions can change unexpectedly.
In Dunedin it does get cold: many of the streets are iced over in winter and every two or three years, the city is blanketed in snow.
The economy of the region is based around farming. Sheep farming is the most predominant, but dairying, horticulture and boutique farming (alpacas, goats and deer) all add significantly to local earnings.
Dunedin's University of Otago, established in 1871, is the oldest university in New Zealand. It is the South Island's second largest employer, and by far the biggest contributor to the Dunedin economy. Students make up over a tenth of the population.
Tourist activities, sights and events proliferate in Otago. Here are a few highlights:
Larnach Castle – New Zealand’s only castle and a miniature version of the English equivalent, with unsurpassed views of the harbour and stunning gardens.
Baldwin Street – the steepest street in the world, which is celebrated during the annual chocolate festival by the rolling of 15,000+ Jaffas down it.
Royal Albatross Centre – sited on the Otago Peninsula offers a unique opportunity to get close to these magnificent seagoing birds.
Otago Settlers’ Museum – showcases the area’s heritage from the days of the first settlers.
Taieri Gorge Railway – runs two services from Dunedin; one inland, to Middlemarch, the other coastal, to Palmerston. Each offers spectacular but quite different scenery.
Chinese Gardens – created in China and brought stone-by-stone to Dunedin, these beautiful gardens underscore the importance to the region of the many early Chinese immigrants.
Adventure tourism – Queenstown offers the largest range of adrenalin-rush activities in New Zealand. Try parapenting, hot air ballooning, rafting, jet boating, gliding, canyoning, abseiling, hang gliding, heliskiing, para sailing, river surfing, and the justly famous bungy jumping.
Sightseeing by air – one of the best ways to see the beauty of this mountain and lake-filled area is by fixed wing plane or helicopter. Charter your own or take part in one of the many sightseeing tours on offer.
TSS Earnslaw – cruise scenic Lake Wakatipu on board a vintage steamship to Walter Peak High Country Farm for a farmyard tour and horse trekking.
Milford Sound – this jewel in the New Zealand tourism crown is best viewed by boat. Drive or fly to Milford, and cruise Doubtful Sound for a first-hand look at this area’s famous scenery.
Oamaru – with strong links to its past is full of historic buildings, some of which house businesses with equally historic links, like the Bicycle Museum.
Moeraki – a quaint fishing village home to one of the country’s best restaurants – Fleur’s Place, a cliff-top lighthouse where you can walk among seals and penguins, and the ancient Moeraki boulders.
Matanaka – the site of the country’s oldest farm. The original buildings are beautifully preserved and give an insight into the conditions endured by the first settlers.
One of the country’s least known areas, the southern coastal area of the Catlins is known for its many natural landforms. These include the Cathedral Caves, Nugget Point (with its lighthouse and wildlife), the Purakaunui Falls forest waterfalls, and the rock pinnacles of Frances Pillars.
Otago Central Rail Trail – one of the area’s newest attractions, tourists can now bicycle along this former railway line, drinking in its spectacular scenery along with the local pinor noir.
Wineries – this area is becoming internationally recognised for the quality of its wines and many small wineries are open to visitors.
Winter sports – whether it’s skiing, ice skating or the peculiar sport of curling, there are myriad sports opportunities to try.
The people who live in Otago tend to be hard working, friendly and laid back. Life has a more relaxed pace; there is no fast lane here.
Otago people have a fierce loyalty to the land brought about by generations of families working it, living on it and using it for recreation. The locals make the most out of everything and have fun doing it. Although the “work hard, play hard” philosophy is big here, when you visit Otago it is time to enjoy life.