Visiting Port Chalmers and Dunedin by Cruise Ship
Dunedin guide for cruise ship passengers
Your Dunedin experience starts off being dependent on two external factors. The most important of these is the weather the other is which direction you have come in to reach Dunedin.
The weather is most important because it determines what you can actually do in Dunedin. To understand this it is important to understand Dunedin weather.
Dunedin weather is highly variable. It is not as variable as on the west coast of the South Island, but variable nevertheless. This is down to it being an island climate, particularly on the coast. If you were to travel inland towards central Otago, such as on the Tairei Gorge train it becomes more continental and stable with higher temperatures in summer and lower in winter.
This brings us to the second thing about Dunedin weather - that it is mild. That means that it doesn’t get very cold in winter or particularly hot in summer. For instance Dunedin is warmer than Canberra during the winter, but it certainly isn’t during the summer. On a normal summer day in Dunedin you can expect temperatures in the 20’s centigrade. Some days may get to the low 30’s but this is not common and should not be expected. It is also possible for temperatures to be in the single digits during your day in Dunedin but this is also uncommon. You should plan for it to be in the teens or twenties.
One day only
The reason why this matters so much is that you only get one day in Dunedin per cruise ship visit and how that day is weatherwise determines what kind of day you are going to have. For instance if you come in and it’s 10 degrees and raining heavily you’re going to have quite a different day to if its 25 degrees and cloudless. It is also quite common to get such days following one another.
Because of this variability it pays to bare in mind such issues when planning your activities so that you don’t sent your sights on doing one weather dependent thing and find that you can’t do it. There is also a 5-10% chance that the ship won’t even get into the harbour due to weather and it pays to bare that in mind too.
At Exploring New Zealand we offer a full refund if a trip cannot proceed due to weather and we will alter trips to include more indoor activities if it is too wet to be outside. Another interesting statistic is that Dunedin gets less rainfall than London but it also gets more days with rain!
Finally on weather New Zealand generally is host to the phenomena known as ‘four seasons in one day’ which means that the weather can change radically from hour to hour and because of this it pays to carry clothes for all conditions regardless of the current conditions.
First or Last Port?
The second factor with Dunedin is its location as either your first or last port of call. This is mainly something which affects your perceptions but is also a factor because you probably want to get off the boat, as its either going to be your first chance to do so after boarding or your last chance to do so before disembarking. It is important to realize for these purposes that Fiordland isn’t a port of call or even a tender port. There are a very limited number of people who may depart or board the ship to head overland from there to Queesntown and the like, but this is an expensive and not particularly popular option. Infact there is a limit of 200 persons that may get off the ship in Fiordland so that’s less than 10% of most cruise ship’s passengers.
What generally happens in Fiordland is that the ship will enter Milford Sound, and perhaps come up to a waterfall or the like. So it’s sort of a ‘close encounter’ with the land rather than a port call.
The spectacularness of Fiordland may provide a contrast to Dunedin’s pretty, but less vertical hills. New Zealand has many different landscapes. Fiordland is basically a glacial valley landscape flooded by the sea. Dunedin, Akaroa and Auckland are volcanic. In the case of Dunedin the harbour is basically a flooded extinct volcano. Luckily it’s not an active volcano like Auckland! The volcanic nature makes Dunedin famously hilly, having for instance the world’s steepest street. However much of the historical central city, is actually built on reclaimed land from the harbour and is flat.
If coming from the north ie Akaroa you will find that the landscapes of the Dunedin harbour and Akaroa harbour are similar. The main differences between the two places is in the distance to the main city area and what is available in the port town itself. This also manifests itself in the cost of getting to the main city from Akaroa and Dunedin. It costs about $45 return to go Akaroa to Christchurch and about $10 return Port Chalmers to Dunedin - although the cruise ships themselves may charge more.
Akaroa has basically everything you need for a day’s visit ashore however, especially if you haven’t seen Christchurch since the earthquakes a day trip to the central city may be worthwhile.
Port Chalmers on the other hand may only provide a few hours worth of exploration and activities. The author being someone who lives in Port Chalmers I can certainly say it is worth a visit, it just may not fill the day to go only there. Dunedin is only 20 minutes away and it is certainly worth a tour to have a look around - particularly if that tour is with Exploring New Zealand!
The passenger’s eye perspective of a day at Port Chalmers/Dunedin
Private tour pickup point
The first thing to be aware of, especially if it is your first time on a cruise ship visiting Dunedin is that there may be quite a wait to get off the ship due to the fact that thousands of people may want to do so an once. Secondly be aware that they let people who have prebooked tours out before the rest of the passengers.
Upon exiting the ship in whatever weather conditions that is you will walk along the wharf in an easterly direction a pathway will have been set up along the wharf area past buses for prebooked private tours to guide you to a large tent marquee with “Free Wifi" written on the roof. Inside this marquee there will probably be quite a few people. Some people will be selling tickets for the cruise ship shuttles into Dunedin, while others will be staff of Dunedin isite, offering information about various attractions and activities in Dunedin. There will be various promotional media such as posters on the walls of the marquee promoting these tours.
I am going to imagine that you walk through the marquee, past the cruise ship shuttle sellers and through a large shed that houses the cruise ship shuttles, of which there will likely be one waiting, as it fills with people. As you exit the shed you will follow a path which takes you past taxis and on the other side of the road you will see a cliff face, at the bottom of which you will likely see more buses waiting to go into the port to pick up passengers. There is a small maritime museum, and across the other side of the road, a library which opens at 9.30 weekdays and also offers free wifi and computer terminals.
Crossing a second road takes you into the main commercial area of Port Chalmers where you will find a small selection of shops and cafes. Outside the bakery is a sign for the public buses which stop at 9.00am and 10.00am as well as other times. Across the other side of the road outside the Port Royal cafe is a bus stop which the public buses which come back from town stop on.
Further along the street are more random shops and finally a New World supermarket which has quite a good selection of food and other products you would expect to find in a supermarket. There is a bus stop with a bus shelter outside the supermarket.
The journey into town
Depending on whether you ultimately decide to take the cruise ship shuttle, our shuttle or the public bus your destination will be similar. The cruise ship shuttles pick up in the shed on the wharf and drive direct to Dunedin, and drop off in the Octagon which is the official centre of Dunedin. The trip takes about 20 minutes. Our shuttle leaves either from the wharf with prebookings or from the bus stop on the main street and drops off in the Octagon. The trip takes about 20 minutes. The public bus leaves from the bus stop on the main street and drops off in George street, just down from the Octagon. The trip takes about 30 minutes as the bus also picks up and drops off along the way and goes via some other west harbour suburbs.
It is likely that whatever you do you will disembark in or near the Octagon. The Octagon is a special place in Dunedin as it is known as the centre of town and houses the administrative center of the council as well as the Anglican Cathedral. Also nearby on the east side is Princess street where Dunedin isite which is the main booking center in Dunedin is located.
Further down Princess street is an area known as the exchange where the old commercial centre of New Zealand was. There are many historic victorian buildings as well as one which now houses Dunedin casino.
The main commercial area in Dunedin these days is along George street between the Octagon and Albany street where you will find an enormous number of shops “the best high street in New Zealand” A few blocks down George street is Wallstreet mall which provides shopping in a pleasant indoor environment if the weather is inclement.
Down from the Octogon is Dunedin Railway station, one of Dunedin’s architectural wonders, and just beside it is The settlers museum, a massive and interesting indoor space with a wealth of information about Dunedin’s past. Also from here you can see the back of First Church, located on Moray place which is the ring road around the Octagon.
The above description encapsulates that which is in comfortable walking distance of Cruise ship passengers from the Octagon however there are many other worthwhile areas to explore both within the city and further afield.
Within the city
St Clair Beach. A beachside esplanade with heated salt water pools. Often people surfing.
University of Otago Dunedin’s oldest university, notable for its architecture.
Otago Museum. Dunedin’s natural history museum. Located right beside the university, it houses many natural and cultural treasures as well as a butterfly house where live butterflys fly around and land on you.
The Dunedin Botanical Gardens. New Zealand’s oldest botanical gardens. Provide a relaxing place to rest and walk around. There is also a large avary, housing many varieties of birds
Baldwin street. In north east valley. The world’s steepest street and a popular stop for passengers to look at and walk up.
Lookout point. A fabulous lookout over the city, harbour and sea, featuring bronze ‘buddhas’ that represent early settlers and a rock from Edinburgh Castle.
Cadbury Chocolate factory. Have a factory shop and also offer tours throughout the day. Bookings are required for tours.
Olveston - Historic house containing the original furnishings and fittings.
Outside the city
The Taieri Gorge is the main destination for cruise ship passengers because the train picks up from the ship. Whether it is worth it as an activity for the day depends on the weather and your view of train trips. It is often relative to your expectations.
Larnarch Castle. On top of the hill out on the Otago Peninsular is in a similar category. In Australasian terms its a fairly unique building with a very interesting history, but you would not compare it to say Highclere Castle (used for Downton Abby) for instance.
When people ask me to compare the two main ex-private grand residences: Larnarch Castle and Olveston in terms of which is the best, It depends on what you’re interested in.
Larnarch Castle castle is famous for being the only castle in Australasia, that is it looks a bit like a castle and it’s really fun to go up to the turrent along the circular staircase.
Olveston on the other hand is more like an Edwardian time capsule and so is fascinating for that reason.
Nature and wildlife
The nature and wildlife element is where Dunedin’s true uniqueness lies. It’s basically a regional centre, it’s got some really interesting old buildings from the time that it was New Zealand’s biggest city and built on the revenue from the Goldrush, but the wildlife is something that you can’t find elsewhere in mainland New Zealand.
In particular there is the land birds of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary which are preserved by a predator proof fence. This is well worth a visit if you are interested in New Zealand’s living natural history. It is also on the right side of the harbour to be convenient for Cruise ship passengers to visit.
For seabirds there is the Tairoa Head, Royal Albatross Centre. Very well worth a visit if you want to see the biggest flying birds in the world. This is the only mainland colony. For cruise ship passengers however there is a good chance they will see them for free on the way out of Dunedin harbour in the late afternoon/evening.
Yellow eyed Penguins, seals and sometimes sealions may be seen at Penguin place and Natures wonders. Both these places are worth a visit and my only reservation with recommending to cruise ship passengers is the distance from the ship and the cost of admission.
I provide tours around Dunedin and I will provide charters to anywhere that people want to go. If you have a specific interest in any of the places I have mentioned by all means go either by chartering me if you have a group or by some other operator.
What I have found is that people in Dunedin for the first time in particular just want to have a general look around at the place at a low cost and that is what I provide on my half day garden and city tour. Extended to the full day it becomes the Nature and city tour.
There are a number of different companies that provide a ‘general look around at the city’ so why should you choose mine?
The main reason is that I will look after passengers and give them time to look around at the area without rushing from place to place. In my view it is not the number of landmarks that can be ticked off per hour but the quality of time spent at each place. That is why I stop and allow people to get off and have a look around at each place we visit.
I hope to see you on the tour!