I Visited New Zealand’s Only Castle

larnach castle

New Zealand’s only castle can be found in the South Island, lording it over the Otago Peninsula. But wait, you think: New Zealand doesn’t have any castles! Well you’re right. Larnach Castle is merely a nineteenth century mansion with delusions of grandeur. I still enjoyed visiting it, though.

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This so-called castle is impressive enough upon approach. There are crenellations. Stone lions flank an imposing staircase. It’s small, even for a mere mansion, but it has an undeniably distinctive character.

What makes Larnach Castle different from all of the similar buildings I’ve seen, (mostly around England and Scotland,) is that it’s ringed by a glass-encased veranda. It’s like a laird’s estate spliced together with a colonial villa.

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The first thing we – my fiancé, my little sister and I – did was seek out the café. It’s located in the ballroom, which has a cosy, yet grand hunting lodge feel to it. To our delight, we found it serving proper tea and scones with jam and clotted cream!

Next, we explored the garden, finding not only the White Rabbit, but a statue of Alice trying to play croquet with a flamingo, amongst the expected fountains and topiary. Finally, it was time to have a nosy around the house itself.

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The child in me delighted in the labyrinthine staircases. The adult in me delighted at the antique furniture. The crazy cat lady in me delighted at the stained-glass window showing the Larnach family’s feline sigil, complete with the motto SANS PEVR – without fear.

At first, I didn’t get why the Larnach ancestors would have chosen a cat to represent the concept of fearlessness. I mean ‘scaredy cat’ is a common insult for a reason! Then I read that it’s meant to be a Scottish wild cat, which makes a lot more sense.

Of course, you can’t visit Larnach Castle without climbing to the top of the tower. From it, you get commanding views of not only the garden, but the whole Otago Harbour. I didn’t stay up there very long, as it was quite cold.

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Standing, shivering, atop the tower, grey sky looming overhead, reminded me of my childhood. So many rainy, British weekends visiting castles. “Can we go inside now?” I’d moan. Not that I didn’t like visiting castles.

Another thing that reminded me of my childhood was the castle giftshop. Larnach Castle’s giftshop is pretty good. I bought a lovely notebook, which I’m writing in right now. They were even selling their own brand of whiskey. I was tempted, but wouldn’t buy it without tasting it first!

Our Day on the Otago Peninsula

If you ever find yourself in Dunedin, New Zealand, the absolute best thing you can do is hire a car and spend a day driving around the Otago Peninsula. This is what my boyfriend and I did a couple of weeks ago and we definitely want to go back, maybe stay a night in one of the many B&Bs – it would be so romantic. (As a point of interest, CNN named the Otago Peninsula as one of the ten most romantic places in the world to propose marriage.)

We picked the perfect day for it. There was barely a cloud in the sky, so the sea was a pristine, sparkling blue and the hills were a bright, luscious green. Spring was in the sunlight that removed the bite from the boisterous wind and, in Dunedin, spring means lambing season. All over the peninsula there were newborn lambs bouncing around, kicking up their tiny hooves, counterbalanced by the comical staggering of the still pregnant sheep about to burst. Everything felt fresh – revitalising – and we knew from that very first view across the Otago Harbour that not a thing could spoil it.

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Our first point of call of was Sandfly Bay, named not, as I had feared, for an abundance of sandflies, but because the sand flies over the picturesque dunes. It’s a very pretty beach – we were satisfied by the view alone – but its main attraction is its wildlife: sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. There are observation hides you can walk to from which, especially during the evening, you can see the penguins waddling up from the sea. There are a number of wildlife tours available on the Otago Peninsula, but they’re quite expensive. The wildlife viewing at Sandfly Bay is free.

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The Otago Peninsula’s main wildlife attraction is the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the very tip of the peninsula. This, you most definitely have to pay for, but it is worth it. My boyfriend and I didn’t go because we couldn’t afford it – but then, being poor students, we can barely afford protein – however, I was lucky enough to have been before, with my parents, on an NZ campervan hire tour of the South Island. The best part was seeing the fluffy, white albatross chicks.

Another attraction that we didn’t want to have to pay for was Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle, built towards the end of the nineteenth century by a Scot – well, actually, an Australian. I’m sure the garden is very pretty and the interior very nicely furnished. Similarly, though less spectacularly, you can take a tour of Fletcher House, a restored Edwardian villa, or Glenfalloch Woodland Garden. I suppose these would be good ways of glimpsing the life of the early European settlers, but we found our own window, somewhere not advertised, a little hidden, and free: a graveyard.

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It wasn’t just a graveyard; it was graveyard in a beautiful spot on the edge of a cliff. I spent perhaps a little too much time trying to get artsy pictures of the headstones, some modern and some from the first European families on the peninsula. In the process I found – rather funnily – a grave that had absolutely nothing written on it but ‘RAPER’. No explanation. No dates. Yes, it was obviously someone’s surname, but what an unfortunate surname! And to have a tombstone that doesn’t even bear your first name or the year you died… ‘RAPER’ isn’t even engraved in a particularly interesting font.

After our accidental discovery of the graveyard, we went to find a shop where we could get a bottle of water. We were in Portobello, a charming settlement halfway up the peninsula. To my disappointment, there weren’t any mushrooms, but there were nice-looking restaurants, craft shops, antique shops and second-hand bookshops. The campground looked good too. There was an air of innocence about the place. It was almost twee, but in a good way.

In the shop where we bought the bottle of water, there was a section of what seemed to be local produce – tea or something, I can’t remember – that was ‘organically harvested’. Whatever this ‘organically harvested’ stuff was, it was being sold in brown paper bags that had written on them the following: ‘organ harvest’. I wonder if the person who settled on that unfortunate abbreviation realises why we sniggered so greatly. I’m inclined to think not.

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So we had our water and now we needed somewhere to consume our picnic. (For anyone who remembers our picnic from the previous article, this time we had more with us than a cooking pot filled with peanuts.) It took us ages to find somewhere, simply because we were spoilt for choice, and we are both very indecisive people. We eventually settled on a point that overlooked Mt Charles. The view, naturally, was amazing, but the wind was fierce, and the sun was falling. Yes, it had taken us this long to find a picnic spot. We kept getting sidetracked by various awesome things, including a cup of tea at the Natures Wonders café, which had huge windows and a very friendly owner, proudly proclaiming they had the best view on the peninsula. Seeing as it was at the end of the peninsula, next-door to Taiaroa Head, the view was mostly sea, so I wouldn’t say it was quite the best on the peninsula, but – my goodness – it was still breathtaking.

To be honest, I was at my happiest when we were just driving. Driving over the hills in the centre of the peninsula and driving around the winding bays at the edge. View after view drifted lazily by, each one soul-renewingly stunning. We covered the same ground a few times in our quest to cover as much of the peninsula as possible, but it never got boring. This is why I recommend NZ car hire if you don’t already have your own vehicle. Driving leisurely over the Otago Peninsula was the best day out I’ve had in a long time.

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