Out of the shadows

Once in the doldrums, the small South Island city of Dunedin is enjoying a renaissance, writes Julietta Jameson.

Paqueno is an atmospheric little laneway bar in downtown Dunedin. The fire is roaring, the wine is flowing and the crowd is a mix of rugby players post-game, hipsters, nerds, rock types and normal folk, all getting along famously.

I'm chatting to a young couple from Christchurch.

I ask what brings them to Dunedin. They tell me they are both visual artists and lost a decade's work - and their studio - in the 2011 earthquake. So they moved to Auckland, before one of them won a prestigious scholarship in Dunedin. Two weeks into their adventure they are thrilled at the huge heritage house they are leasing for a fraction of what their Auckland apartment cost, and relishing the community in which they have found themselves. It's a place, they say, where they can afford to live and work as artists, and where art is encouraged.

Dunedin's strong place in the fashion world is well known. Its annual iD Fashion Week attracts international attention. The Otago Polytechnic has produced some fine designers; many have their studios in the funky spaces above the central business district streets.

Art is no new thing in Dunedin, but in recent times it has reached a critical mass.

Lots of available space in the city has meant inexpensive rent, which - combined with the amazing lifestyle Dunedin offers with its fantastic old homes, beautiful beaches and access to wilderness - has attracted many artists to settle permanently.

The weather may be touch and go but, like another inclement coastal city, Seattle, Dunedin is forging an identity as a place of creativity and innovation, and in many respects its heritage architecture is driving that.

Founded by Scottish Presbyterian breakaways in the 1840s, New Zealand's oldest city boomed on the back of sheep and gold. It was the country's financial powerhouse. Churches, companies, associations and citizens erected grand buildings - statements of confidence and prosperity: striking neo-Gothic cathedrals, gracious Georgian terraces, huge hilltop mansions, a fancy theatre and elaborate commercial edifices decorated with gargoyles, gods and garlands.

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A turn-of-the-century Chicago-style office building - Consultancy House, built in 1910 - was then the tallest building in the southern hemisphere.

After the New Zealand Land Wars ended and settlers gained access to the North Island, the so-called "drift north" saw Dunedin diminish. Apart from its acclaimed University of Otago, it became overshadowed by Wellington and Auckland. The city lay in a somewhat dormant state, and many of the beautiful buildings of its glory days were abandoned or neglected.

But the point is they remained. The 1980s rush towards modernisation and mall-building largely skipped the city. And therein lies the silver lining to Dunedin's decline: it now has a wonderful asset in its concentration of historic architecture.

The current custodians are making the most of it, breathing new life into old spaces and with all that art, this lovely little city is having its very own renaissance.

Athol Parks runs walking tours of Dunedin through his company City Walks. He invites visitors to take in the impressive and prolific civic and church work of 1800s architect Robert Lawson, which characterises much of the CBD.

Then Parks points out the finer details in Dunedin's tapestry, the backdrop to Lawson's grandeur - the less notable buildings, which nonetheless are monuments to the city's early boom. Parks says these are the future of Dunedin, and although he believes it was eco-tourism and the university that turned the fortunes of the city for the better, those low rents - and a happy collaboration between building owners and council to save old buildings - did the rest.

Along Moray Place and Princes, Stuart, Dundas and Dowling streets we check out an intriguing array of structures, all part of a heritage reuse drive in Dunedin, many inhabited by jewellery makers, photographers, painters, gallery owners and other creatives.

We come to Dunedin's railway station and Parks explains how there were moves to pull the station down after it fell into disrepair when the train service through it was discontinued. Now regarded as one of New Zealand's most beautiful buildings, this Edwardian Hogwarts-like curiosity, with its roof of Marseille tiles, Scottish granite pillars, locally quarried stone walls and foyer garnished with a Doulton frieze of cherubs and foliage, is home to another popular tourist attraction, the Taieri Gorge Train.

As well as being a backdrop for iD Fashion Week events, every week the station hosts a fabulous farmers' market for quality Otago produce. (The bacon butties are a students' and locals' favourite hangover cure.) With immaculate gardens out the front, the station can be seen from various points in the city and is the heart of Dunedin.

Another standout reclamation is the Otago Settlers Museum, which, after a renovation and redesign of the exhibits and visitor experience, reopened in December. In 1992 the museum was expanded into the adjacent NZ Rail Road Services building and joined to the original building, a 1908 hall for the Otago Early Settlers' Association, via a clever foyer and reception area.

The old bus building is a spectacular art deco ocean liner-style landmark, faithfully preserved, a jaunty presence amid a busy traffic precinct.

Not far from it is the Warehouse District, which Dunedin City Council's heritage policy planner, Glen Hazelton, says is the next big reclamation. Once derelict and used as squats and band practise spaces, the distinctive industrial area is being transformed for residential and creative industry use.

"These heritage buildings are an important cluster, quite rare in New Zealand," Hazelton says.

For visitors, Hazelton sees Dunedin as having the funky elements of Melbourne combined with the access to eco-tourism only a New Zealand city can offer.

"Lots of people come for eco-tourism on the peninsula and are then surprised by what's here: the shopping, architecture. It's unique and out of the box.

"Dunedin is a small city but it has lots of things a city its size wouldn't normally: really good museums, a fantastic stadium, good public facilities; plus it's got a student vibe, it's sports mad and really artistic."

But in typically understated New Zealander fashion he adds that he doesn't want to "oversell it".

"Dunedin is not big. It's got little elements of uniqueness, its own feel about it. It's a great little city that's easily enjoyed."

Julietta Jameson travelled as a guest of APT, New Zealand Tourism and Tourism Dunedin.

Trip notes

Getting there Virgin Australia flies direct to Dunedin from Brisbane. Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch with connection to Dunedin via its regional service. You must collect your bags at Christchurch and transfer them yourself.

Staying there The Brothers Boutique Hotel, across the road from St Paul's Cathedral, is an old Christian Brothers monastery. Balcony rooms have fantastic views of the cathedral and harbour. The owners serve a complimentary evening glass of wine and basic breakfast. There's free wi-fi as well. Rooms from about $140 a night. 295 Rattray Street, Dunedin. +64 3 477 0043, brothershotel.co.nz.

While there Classic Jaguars offers airport transfers, limousine service and tours of Dunedin and beyond in impeccable Jags driven by experienced drivers. +64 3 476 4564, classicjaguar.co.nz.

Athol Parks, of City Walks Dunedin, runs various tours of the city. +64 2 7356 9132, citywalks.co.nz.

Hair Raiser Ghost Walk is a fun way to poke around moody old alleyways in Dunedin, with a genuinely spooky narration along the way. The tour includes a peek inside the wonderful Carnegie Building and a creepy descent into its gloomy, dank cellar. The walk runs 6pm April-September and 8pm October-March most nights barring terrible weather. There is also a night tour of the Northern Cemetery. Bookings are essential; $30 a head. hairraisertours.com.

Every year in March, Dunedin's iD Fashion Week attracts participation from around the world. idfashion.co.nz.

More information dunedinnz.com; newzealand.com.

Address book

Shopping

Elena Poletti, at Atelier Jeux d'esprit, sells sometimes dinky, often exquisite, remodelled vintage fabric pieces. Second floor, Queen's Building, 109 Princes Street. +6421 368 443, elenasstudio.me.

Modern Miss Vintage Fashion is a treasure trove of rare quality. 21 Moray Place. +64 3 479 0031.

Head to White Room for eclectic and inexpensive New Zealand designer wares. 25 Moray Place. +64 3 477 7875, whiteroomdesign.co.nz.

Beautifully curated china, silver, pottery, glass, and contemporary and antique jewellery at Sue Todd Antiques. 122 Lower Stuart Street. +64 3 477 7547.

Galleries

Anne Culy's Lure Gallery is where contemporary jewellers ply their trade. 130 Stuart Street. +64 3 477 5559.

Blue Oyster Gallery displays contemporary work from artists from all stages of their career. 24 Moray Place. +64 3 479 0197, blueoyster.org.nz.

Others include Milford Galleries, 18 Dowling Street. +64 3 477 7727, milfordgalleries.co.nz; and Brett McDowell Gallery, 5 Dowling Street. +64 3 477 5260.

Bars and dining

The cosy Doon Bar serves more than 300 whiskies and some great tap beers; downstairs Scotia offers bistro food and great NZ wines. 199 Upper Stuart Street. +64 3 477 7704, scotiadunedin.co.nz.

Pequeno, downstairs, the Savoy Building, 50 Princes Street. +64 3 477 7830, pequeno.co.nz.

For terrific breakfasts and excellent coffee, Nova Cafe, 29 The Octagon. +64 3 479 0808, novacafe.co.nz.

The Asian, cheap, brisk Chinese in a delightfully tacky decor. 43 Moray Place. +64 3 477 6673.

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