You’d struggle to find a comparably sized city that serves up such a spoil of fabulously distinctive visitor experiences, quite like Dunedin. Richly blessed with flippered possibilities, the wildlife charms of Otago Peninsula are a must, although I also love heading to Port Chalmers and Carey’s Bay to embrace the elements, soaking up the panoramas on a brisk coastal walk, across the hilltops. It’s like a body exfoliation, when the ocean breeze kicks up. Extending from the city to the northeast, Otago Peninsula is a star-studded visitor magnet.
It’s no surprise that William Larnach chose to build his dream estate here. The peninsula bursts with natural wonders that beckon travellers from all over the world. The prize draw is the Royal Albatross Centre, with its brilliantly-designed observatory. The experience begins with an enlightening video show, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. This is the world’s only mainland breeding colony for these majestic seabirds. What will stun you is the sheer size of these graceful creatures, boasting a wingspan of over 3 metres.
The observatory will enable you to appreciate nature up close, whether they are roosting, soaring above the peninsula on a ride with the coastal breeze, or returning from the Southern Ocean to feed their chicks. There are a variety of tours available, including the exceptional Monarch Wildlife Cruises. Marine life is prolific on the peninsula and another top-draw is the chance to catch a glimpse of the yellow-eyed penguin, or “hoiho.’ Expansive colonies of New Zealand fur seals and Hooker’s sea lion add to the wildlife parade.
One other peninsula attraction that is frequently overlooked, but shouldn’t be, is the botanical retreat of Glenfalloch. Gaelic for “hidden valley”, and enjoying a season-extending microclimate, Glenfalloch is lauded as an historic garden of national significance. Encompassing 30 acres of woodland garden, criss-crossed with walking tracks, the property is a beacon of inspiration for plant-lovers and landscape design. Plus, you can top off your visit with a stylish Devonshire tea.
But there’s no overlooking the crown jewel, Larnach Castle, built in 1871 by the merchant baron and politician, William Larnach for his venerated first wife, Eliza. Exterior construction spanned three years, engaging 200 workers, while embellishing the sumptuous interior took over a decade. No expense was spared, with the finest materials deployed. Still privately owned, the Barker family purchased the home just over 50 years ago, dedicating decades to the castle’s restoration, furnishing the palatial landmark with a trove of original New Zealand period furniture and antiques.
You could not wish for better custodians of history and the Larnach legacy than the Barker family. When they took possession of the rundown castle, it was devoid of furniture and many of the glorious architectural features were missing. Studiously researching the original décor, artwork and furnishings, the castle’s impeccable restoration has been undertaken while keeping the faith with its original glory. I particularly adore the Music Room. Like the home, the expansive hillside grounds were also in a state of extreme neglect, when the Barkers took possession.
But today, just like the splendour of the castle, the 35 acres of grounds and gardens are a visual symphony, a wonderland of vistas, secret paths, radiant flower beds, hedge rows and trees. So much so, they’re feted as a “Garden of International Significance” by the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Since the late 1960s, the radiant redevelopment of the gardens has been a tour de force for Margaret Barker, alongside the restoration of the historic buildings. I always see something different or distinctive, whenever I visit the gardens – and they’re bursting with inspiration.
My latest visit spurred me to plant some blazing Waratahs, that thrive in the Larnach Castle gardens. I love how there are specialised collections within the grand botanical spread, like the Patterned Garden, the Lost Rock Garden, the Serpentine Walk, the Rain Forest, the South Seas Garden, the Alice Lawn, the Green room and the spectacular Laburnum Arch – Instagram heaven!
The Barker family have continued diversifying the business, with an array of accommodation options, including the Stables, Larnach Lodge and the five-star luxury trappings of Camp Estate. Located just 500 metres Situated 500 metres from the Larnach Castle gate, you’ll feel like Lord of the Manor at Camp Estate, a stately Country House, which is sited on Castle land. Luxuriously decorated, the five generously-sized bedrooms finished in neo-classic style, with in-room gas fires and comforts galore. For all of the exclusivity, nothing beats waking up to those sprawling hill-top views across the Otago Peninsula and the deep blue harbour.
A variety of accommodation packages are available including the option of dining at the Castle at night, preceded by canapes and drinks in front of the roaring fire at Camp Estate. I awoke to a delicious cooked-to-order breakfast, before continuing my explorations in this celestial pocket of the world. Camp Estate is an idyllic choice if you’re looking for an escape with that extra special touch. Scandalous and tragic stories pockmark the history of the Larnach family, but what a legacy they left behind. Larnach Castle’s renaissance under the Barker family, in addition to those stirring gardens all combine to create a multi-sensory feast of experiences. Linger in the Larnach glow longer, by staying overnight.
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.