DUNEDIN is cold and there's nothing much to do there. Yeah right, as the folks at Tui would say (with apologies to Speights). Rather, Dunedin boasts gourmet kai, fabulous fashion, world-class festivals, stunning scenery fit for the big screen and a deliciously scandalous castle with secret gardens.
The country's oldest city can also be a little bit old-fashioned, in the best possible way. For a start, parking is cheap and there's an absence of aeroplane hangar-style malls. The city's centre has heart and history, and is easy to explore on foot. And in spring the drive in is all green pastures dotted with lambs, daffodils and rhododendrons.
If you're a garden geek, plan now to visit next October for the famous annual Rhododendron Festival, which is, in fact, more of a celebration of all things spring and all things gardening. Some 40-odd events are scattered around the city, from workshops and exhibitions to garden tours.
Once the garden is taken care of, it's time to address the tastebuds and the fashion addiction with a Zest Dunedin Gourmet Walk with Betty Mason-Parker, who knows all the city's hidden food and fashion treasures.
While I eye a sparkly Deborah Sweeney dress at the ultra-cool Plume boutique, Mason-Parker regales us with tales of the city. She says Dunedin is home to 125,000 people and often floods with foreign visitors, particularly when cruise ships are in port, which gives the place "a buzz".
And while she knows all the best shops, Mason-Parker's speciality is showcasing the Otago Farmers' Market.
The vast market located near the beautiful, historic Dunedin Railway Station is filled with locals selling fresh produce, plants, meat, fish, coffee and other mouth-watering delights.
You can get everything here, from Limousine Healthy Beef, to Havoc hog, to freshly cooked whitebait fritters and even bacon butties or Chinese chilli buns. Don't miss Alison Lambert's oriental lime tea panna cotta (for more details, check out alisonmarketchef.blogspot.com). It is simply heavenly.
The market is also full of entertainment, from the beautiful belly dancers, to the sandal-wearing bagpiper and some goofy guy clowning about on stilts who had the kids craning their necks.
On the day I visited, the whole place was abuzz with a visit by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, spotted by Mason-Parker at 8am.
"She had a ram-rod back, was wearing red and in full make-up," Betty delights.
"I just wanted to say 'oh my gawd!'"
She made do, instead, with just a peek at her idol "perusing the veges".
And she was not the only one abuzz over the famous visitor. Paul Jacobson from the Judge Rock Central Otago Wines stall says Te Kanawa chatted about buying his wine online.
He was so thrilled he thrust a freebie 2007 Judge Rock pinot noir at her - "it's not often you meet an icon".
Colin Dennison from the Evansdale Cheese stand says Te Kanawa nibbled a tiny piece of his caerphilly white cheese. I tasted it, too - it's a delicious milky cheese that squeaks on the teeth - the sound of freshness, I'm told.
Later than night during her concert at the Dunedin Town Hall, part of the biennial Otago Festival of the Arts (another good reason to book a spring getaway), Te Kanawa raved about the markets. She chatted, between a little Vivaldi, Strauss and Maori waiata, about the rare daisy and tomato plants she snapped up for her Bay of Islands garden.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Dunedin's St Clair Beach Resort is just 1 year old and boasts stunning views of the seaside it's named after. Singer Tom Jones has even rested his famous head here. Rates are from $195-$400 a night. Award-winning chef Michael Coughlin heads the on-site restaurant, Pier 24.
Where to eat:
* Plato, in Birch St on the city harbourfront. The restaurant serves up stunning fresh fish and seafood, while showing off the best Central Otago wines.
* Bacchus Wine Bar and Restaurant is located in an historic building and overlooks the Octagon. It has good food that's quick to arrive, and is a great place to dine if you are catching a show at the Regent Theatre.
* Catch a cooking demonstration with Judith Cullen at her home 100m up the hill from St Clair Beach. Watch Cullen pull in-season herbs, vegetables and fruits from her garden and add them to mouth-watering recipes.
What to do:
* Get a guided tour of Larnach Castle and hear its tragic and scandalous history. The highest point of the castle takes in 360-degree views of Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula, Harbour and Pacific Ocean.
* Spend hours fossicking around Broad Bay China. As well as a massive collection of china, Royal Dalton to Crown Lynn, there are also handbags, linen, silver, glass, jewellery and antiques.
* Take the short drive to Port Chalmers on the north shore of Otago Harbour. Have a beer at the iconic Carey's Bay Historic Hotel, take in the pretty scenery of fishing boats or check out some of the antique shops.
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