One of Dunedin’s gems is the Otago Peninsula. Extending out into the Pacific on New Zealand’s East Coast, it forms the Otago Harbour and is a central part of the Dunedin landscape. For visitors (and locals!), it provides a treasure trove of adventures. You can wander the trails which criss-cross the headland, run down gigantic sand dunes in Sandfly bay, or stop for delicious treats at one of the many cafés dotting the road out to Taiaroa Head, where the albatross nest and fly.
Where to find the wildlife
The peninsula is known for its wildlife - albatross, seals and sea lions, the quirky hoiho (or ‘yellow-eyed’ penguins) and even the occasional pod of whales or dolphins can be spotted in the ocean and air surrounding the peninsula.
Taiaroa Head is the only place in the southern hemisphere where royal albatross breed on the mainland - meaning you can take a tour through the royal albatross to see the impressive birds, their nests, and possibly even some hilariously scruffy (but adorable) little albatross chicks. Late January to early February is when you have best chances of seeing a freshly hatched chick. The tours do cost (adult prices range from 20 NZD/13 USD to 50 NZD/33 USD depending on the tour you choose), so if you’re on a budget, drive out to Taiaroa Head and wander the boardwalk.
If there’s a bit of a breeze you may well see the albatross flying above you, 3-metre wingspan on display. I’d recommend exploring the visitor centre (no cost), as there’s a wealth of information about the albatross that will blow your mind. Seals and sea lions can be found lounging on any of the beaches of the peninsula, but Victory beach and Pilots beach are very good bets. Victory beach is also a breeding ground for penguins, so is well worth a visit.
Where to wander
An informal survey of my Dunedin friends revealed that the favourite trails to walk include ‘lovers leap’ (you guessed it – a pair of lovers leapt off a cliff there once, according to legend), ‘the pyramids’, and ‘soldier’s memorial’. The ‘lovers leap’ walk is a 40-minute return trip, or if you continue and follow the Sandymount circuit, an hour. The trail is well maintained and not challenging, taking you through native forest, tree tunnels, and across farmland overlooking the Pacific. Note that the track is closed between the 1st September and 15th October for the lambing season.
‘The pyramids’ are hillocks that vaguely resemble pyramids…enough to (barely) justify the name, and can be climbed in 5 minutes for a sense of accomplishment and a view of the surrounding tussock-land and ocean in the distance. This track is also well maintained and flat, with the option of carrying on past the pyramids to Victory beach where Hoiho breed and fur seals and sea lions can often be found lazing in the sun. The distance from the carpark to the beach is approximately 2.5km, taking around 45 minutes one way.
The Soldier’s Memorial overlooks the city of Dunedin and the Peninsula and provides commanding 360 degree views of the surrounding landscapes. From the road to the memorial following the steep gravel trail takes about 10 minutes.
The absolute must-see and must-do (apart from the albatross colony) according to the local residents I surveyed (and me!) is Sandfly Bay. The bay is home to sea lions, hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), and provides stunning views. There is a hide at the end of the beach from which you can watch the curious hoiho coming in from their day of fishing at dusk to feed their chicks nestled in the cliffs. To get to the by, there is the chance to sprint down a gigantic, and very steep, sand dune; arms outspread and legs going faster than you think they ever could and seeming to move of their own accord. I would highly recommend trying this out, but if you think your knees aren’t up to that, it is also possible to take it slowly! Note that the return requires ascending the same very steep dune, which can be challenging.
After all that exploring and adventuring, you’ll certainly be in need of refreshments and a replenishment of energy. This can be done at any of the locales along the winding peninsula road. The dairy (corner store) in Macandrew bay sells ice creams and other snacks, or you can visit Portobello Treats and Sweets (a café , sweet shop, and ice cream parlour) for a slightly more refined dining experience. The classic kiwi beach-side dinner is fish and chips, which you can order at Ric’s Fish and Chips in Portobello to take outside and eat on a bench overlooking the harbor. Beware the very brazen seagulls, they will steal your dinner if you aren’t careful!
The albatross await your arrival!
The Otago Peninsula is the place to visit if you’re passing through Dunedin on your way to the slopes of Queenstown or the awe-inspiring Milford Sound. Wilderness and wildlife, cliff-top trails and classic kiwi experiences are all there, affordable, and all easily experienced in the space of a day. The albatross chicks are waiting!