Today marked the first day where we would set foot on land after 3 days on board the Golden Princess.

After leaving the south western coast of Fiordland National Park, the Golden Princess had turned around the southern-most tip of the South Island and made its way to the south eastern coast of New Zealand where Port Chalmers was.   All this done while we dine, make merry and had a most relaxing sleep on the ship.

Tommy was the first to wake up and while I continued to sleep on, he observed from our balcony, the pilot craft guiding the Golden Princess into Port Chalmers, our very first port of call.

Port Chalmers is the gateway to the city of Dunedin, located eight miles from the city center.  Dunedin is known as the “Edinburgh of New Zealand” because of its rich Scottish heritage.  It is also the second largest city of the South Island of New Zealand.

Our plans for the day, however did not include visiting the New Zealand version of Edinburgh, because we had so much for else to do at the Taieri Gorge Railway and Otago Peninsula, all in the space of a short day!

Mornings in New Zealand looked to be misty and gloomy, but rest assured it did not continue on like this for the rest of the day.  The afternoon turned out to be incredibly hot and sunny, because it was already approaching summer!

The coast line of New Zealand as seen from the Golden Princess.  I have located New Zealand on the world map so many times, but looking at the outline that appeared in maps and looking at the contour in the real world was just so amazing.

At 8am sharp, passengers were allowed to disembark.  The first thing we noticed upon disembarkation was the large shipment of timber at the port where the Golden Princess was docked.

The woody smell of the timber permeated the air, and as environmentally-unfriendly as it sounds, I actually liked the smell of fresh wood.   The phenomena of meeting with the timbers was repeated in most of the next few ports of call that were to come – apparently, forestry is a thriving industry in New Zealand, accounting for 7 percent of their annual revenue.

It was nice to finally set foot on land after so many days at sea.  While many of the passengers headed for the shore excursions organized by Princess Cruises, we headed slightly further to the cruise terminal where our privately-operated excursion to the Taieri Gorge Railway and Otago Peninsula was to depart from.

Tip: There’s an independently operated shuttle service that will run from the pier and the Octagon in Dunedin. It is an approximately 30 min ride. Tickets for this independent shuttle service are available for sale at the pier with the local shuttle coordinator and cost NZD$10 for a one-way ticket, or NZD$15 for a round trip ticket. Be sure to check out the timing of the last service departing from Dunedin. You won’t want to miss your ship!

This was the third time we were cruising with Princess, but the first that we decided to cut back on the budget and engage the services of private tour operators for all our land tours.  It did save us a whole lot of money, but we lived with the constant worry of not getting back to the ship on time.

Tip: Many private tour operators operate land tours during port days. These tour operators regularly check out the port dates of the various cruise lines and update themselves on changes to the port schedules, i.e. if a cruise ship is scheduled to arrive earlier, they would mostly be in the know in order to pick up their customers at the correct time.

If you are on a budget, you can consider taking the tour packages offered by these private tour operators. They can be cheaper than those offered by the cruise lines by up to 50%, and sometimes, the variety and combination of attractions they bring you to surpasses those offered by the cruise lines. For instance, Princess Cruises did not offer a package to go to the Taieri Gorge Railway and Otago Peninsula – what they offered was a combination of the Taieri Gorge Railway and Larnach Castle instead. Therefore, picking up a private tour was the best for us. Our tour to both the Taieri Gorge Railway and Otago Peninsula cost less than the Princess operated tour on the Taieri Gorge Railway alone.

A word of caution though – do check out the reviews of these tour operators before placing your reservation with them. While cruise lines have a service guarantee that you will get back to your ship before the ship departs, these private tour operators do not have the same communication channels with your cruise line. So if they are not committed to bringing you back way before the scheduled departure time, you can wave your ship goodbye and watch it sail off.

One of the most popular and highly recommended shore excursions was to the Taieri Gorge.  Those on Princess Cruises’ shore excursion boarded their own private train to the Taieri Gorge which departs right from the port itself.  These passengers will be enjoying their morning tea and a picnic lunch on board.   For us, we will be taking the public train that departs from the town of Dunedin.

The port authorities had made it very easy for cruise passengers and private tour operators to locate each other.

Today, our tour operator was Back to Nature Tours.

Very soon, we were on a small minivan, zipping along the coast towards the town of Dunedin where our destination was the Dunedin Railway Station.  This would be where we were to board the train to the Taieri Gorge.

The Forsyth Barr Stadium is one of the icons of Dunedin.  It is a multi-purpose stadium that has once hosted the 2011 Rugby World Cup.  Yes, in case you do not know yet, rugby is big in New Zealand.

If you like shopping, George Street is the place for you.  It is the major shopping precinct in Dunedin and one which has many historical buildings to look at.  Head to the Meridian Mall and the Wall Street Mall for some retail therapy if you like or bask in the numerous boutique shops along the street.

The Dunedin Railway station is massive, and yet another piece of beautiful historical building.

Captain Cook, anyone?

The train ride to the Taieri Gorge is known to be one of the world’s most scenic. There are two journeys for the scenic ride through the Taieri Gorge.

The one that operates daily will reach Pukerangi where the train will turn back to Dunedin, with a total journey time of 4 hours.  The extended version of the scenic train ride will go all the way to Middlemarch, but this is expected to take a total journey time of 6 hours, and operates only on Fridays and Sundays.  However, if there is a cruise ship in town on a Friday or Sunday the train will run only to Pukerangi.

Well, it was a Sunday when we were in town, so the poor folks who would have wanted to travel to Middlemarch will have to take our 4 hour train ride to Pukerangi instead.

In our carriage, the 4 seaters were all on the right side of the train, while the 2 seaters were on the left.  We actually do not have a choice of seats, because they were pre-allocated to us by the tour operator (Back to Nature Tours).

Tip: If you will like to book tickets directly with Dunedin Railways which runs the train to the Taieri Gorge amongst other train routes, the cost is NZD$91 per person at the time of writing. However, you will need to find your own way to the railway station before the train departs. In comparison, the one-day Taieri Gorge Railway and Otago Peninsula tour with Back to Nature cost NZD$199 per person, including to and fro transportation from the port.

The train travels through the southern parts of Dunedin city before it turns into the Taieri Gorge.

Watching the hills roll by and the sheep grazing in the fields.   Based on our short time on land in New Zealand, it does look like there are more sheep than humans in New Zealand.

This marks the beginning of the scenic ride.

The best views are seen not from the carriage, but from the open air platforms between carriages.

The train crosses the Taieri Plains and climbs into the Taieri Gorge, a narrow and deep gorge carved out over millions of years by the Taieri River.

This point near to Pukerangi was the most beautiful point because it looked like the clouds, the sea, the hills and land have all merged to become one.

At Pukerangi, we stopped for a short 20 min break while the technicians reposition the train for the return journey.

There’s a bazaar at the terminal, but we were more interested in the scenery beyond.

The return route would show exactly the same scenery in reverse because we were going back on the same railway track, so essentially there’s nothing new to see.  Therefore, it was time to check out the café on board for some lunch, for unlike the folks on the Princess Cruises’ shore excursions, lunch is not included in the tour fare.

Hot food, sandwiches, scones, hot and cold beverages, beers and juices – there are quite a lot to choose from!

It’s the best time to read a book while the scenery rolls by.

The 4-hour scenic train ride ended in no time at all, and soon, we found ourselves back at Dunedin Railway Station.

Join us next as we continue our day to Otago Peninsular.

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