Otago Peninsula: high teas, wild seas and Larnach Castle's tragic history


29/03/2017

As I dine by candlelight in New Zealand's only castle, with a chill wind whistling and moonlit clouds scuttering across the sky outside, I learn of a tragic and scandalous history to rival any Gothic romance.

While star-crossed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff faced their own travails in Wuthering Heights, Larnach Castle's owner William Larnach was arguably even less fortunate, losing two consecutive wives to premature death – both at the age of 38 – before his favourite daughter died in her 20s.

Grief-stricken, Larnach took his own life in the New Zealand Parliament Buildings in 1898.

Life may have proved too much to bear for Larnach, but my own is feeling pretty good – thanks to the cosy conviviality and gastronomic generosity of his dining room, and after dinner I sleep like a baby in the historic Camp Estate country house next door.

Paradise on earth

Just 30 minutes' drive from central Dunedin, the peninsula is sprinkled with luxurious retreats and boutique hotels amid picturesque harbours and beaches, as well as delicious food made from local produce, extraordinary views and a rich array of wildlife.

Yep, it's basically paradise on earth.

The story goes that William Larnach rode his horse along the top of the Otago Peninsula to choose the best site for his home, which he built from 1871, and in the watery morning sunshine I can see it was worth the expedition.

I have panoramic vistas from my elegant Camp Estate digs of pine forests, soaring skies and seemingly endless plains, and that's before I even leave my Art Deco-themed room with wide windows and a gas fireplace.

When I do, it's for a home-cooked breakfast of eggs and toast, fruit and yoghurt, fresh juice and coffee before a day of exploring the peninsula.

I start with a stroll through nearby Glenfalloch Gardens, where I dawdle among the native ferns, exotic imports and indigenous trees.

With a conservation history spanning 120 years, the park has been classified a Garden of National Significance.

There are electric Green Bikes for rent if you prefer peddling to dawdling, but I opt to idle over a scone with cream and fruit in the gazebo-style cafe overlooking the surrounding flora.

Just down the road is Macandrew Bay, named for pioneer settler James Macandrew.

Although it's technically a suburb of Dunedin, it's more a charming seaside village, with a small beach, a community hall, an excellent fish and chips shop, a general store, a cafe and little more.

But what more do you need?

Local artists John and Pauline Bellamy decided Macandrew needed an exhibition space and opened Bellamys Gallery there, where I take in a show of watercolours and etchings by Pauline. The gallery also features works by brothers Max Bellamy and Manu Berry.

Around the corner in a former butcher's shop is Shanley Ceramics, where Amanda Shanley produces minimalist and colourful pottery and ceramic art.

As I soak up the atmosphere of this tiny settlement, it's easy to see why it lends itself to creative contemplation. Serenity abounds on the Otago Peninsula.

Basking on a beach

The winding Portobello Road that leads to Macandrew also takes you to Broad Bay, where the Michael Fassbender/Alicia Vikander movie The Light Between Oceans was filmed, and then to Portobello itself, which is situated further along the ridiculously scenic harbour coast.

Beyond these idyllic settlements is one of New Zealand's best beaches – Allan's Beach at Cape Saunders. Its windswept white shoreline is home to New Zealand sea lions and the rare yellow-eyed penguin, and on the day I visit the sea lions are basking on the sand in force.

Rather more active are the local surfers, Allan's Beach being known for its superior swell.

As I leave, a group of surfers cooking up lunch on a portable barbecue in the car park awakens my appetite, which is fortuitous as my next appointment is for Victorian high tea back at Larnach Castle.

I take a gently winding route through Hoopers Inlet, a shallow yet wide expanse of water just to the south of Portobello that is renowned for its diverse birdlife.

In the ballroom of Larnach Castle, tiny sandwiches, meringues and mini cakes are served on tiered cake stands, accompanied by fine vintage china, snowy linens and heavy silverware.

Once I've stuffed myself to elegant sufficiency, I attempt to walk off the decadence with a stroll through the 2.8-hectare castle gardens, a recipient of the Garden of International Significance rating.

My meander takes me through the Patterned Garden, the Lost Rock Garden, the Serpentine Walk and the Alice Garden, to name but a few of the herbaceous and floral plantings set amid a framework of gentle pathways, holly hedges and sheltering trees.

The late afternoon sunshine gives way to a brisk, chill breeze – perfect timing for a visit to the Northern Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, a half hour's drive away, to watch these endangered birds soar on the twilight winds.

It's not just albatross that reside at Taiaroa: orcas and dolphins can sometimes be found in the cold, crystal-clear waters that the yellow-eyed penguins call home.

But I'm here for albatross, whose eggs were first discovered at Taiaroa Head in 1920.

With a wingspan of three metres and weighing up to eight kilograms, one of the world's largest seabirds spends 80 per cent of its life on the ocean, touching down on land only to breed.

Albatross chose this spot for its stiff winds and isolation, and, standing at the the blustery tip of the peninsula, it really does feel like the edge of the world.

From the aptly named Royal Box observatory, I watch these giants of the sea soar and wheel above me as the guide explains their breeding cycle, habits and temperament.

It's incredibly soothing to watch albatross glide on the autumn winds from this eyrie high above the peninsula, but eventually it's time to return to my own nest, which tonight is Larnach Lodge on the seaward side of the castle.

With panoramic views of Dunedin, Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean, Larnach Lodge is the perfect spot to farewell the area that has thrilled me with its bounty of wildlife, beauty and serenity.

 
The writer travelled as a guest of Enterprise Dunedin. 


Read the original story here.


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