Port Chalmers is a deep water fishing and cargo port for Dunedin, one of the main ports for the South Island of New Zealand, located in the Otago region. It is visited by several cruise ships each summer.
Port Chalmers, called "Port" for short by locals, is about 20 minutes by road from Dunedin and shares the same long, narrow, Otago Harbour. Only smaller ships can proceed past Port Chalmers to the wharves in the city centre.
The main streets of Port Chalmers and Dunedin are both called George St. The Port Chalmers one is numbered in the 5000s to avoid confusion, and all shops, cafes and services can be found along or near this street.
The original Māori name for Port Chalmers was “Potakere” or “Pou-takere” which may have indicated the hill where the tuahu, or altar, was sited. 'Kōpūtai' is a later name meaning ‘full tide’ and refers to an incident in which the tide rose and beached canoes were set adrift. At first the European settlers intended to christen the town ‘New Leith’ or ‘New Musselburgh’, as they disliked retaining the Māori name of Kōpūtai; but eventually it was named after Dr. Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church movement in Scotland. The first organized European settlers arrived in Otago Harbour on the John Wickliffe, which moored off what was now Port Chalmers on 23 March 1848.
The arrival of organized European settlement led to the town superseding the earlier Ōtākou as the harbour's international port. By January 1854 the population had reached 80.
As Otago harbour was too shallow for large ships to reach Dunedin they were forced to dock at Port Chalmers, and goods were transported to and from Dunedin by road. A small community of workers sprang up on the hill overlooking the docks, and by the time the Otago Gold Rush hit in the early 1860’s, Port Chalmers was the third largest port in Australasia. The dredging of the Victoria Ship Channel along the north-western side of the harbor lead to a large number of ships bypassing Port Chalmers in favour of Dunedin. Compensating to some degree ship servicing and building industries developed in Port Chalmers while the adjacent Carey's Bay became a fishing port.
The year 1882 saw the inauguration of New Zealand's refrigerated meat trade when the ship Dunedin left Port Chalmers with the first such cargo.
The selection of Port Chalmers as the South Island's first container terminal in 1971 re-established Port Chalmers as the South Island’s major commercial port.
From the 1970s an artists' colony grew up in Port Chalmers and Carey's Bay.
In 1989 the borough of Port Chalmers and the whole surrounding district were absorbed into an enlarged City of Dunedin.
From the 1990s onwards cruise ships began calling, a trend that continues to expand with 153,000 disembarking of the 229,000 passengers bought on 115 vessels during 2019. As modern cruise ships are so big that they must be nursed by tugs along the dredged channel up the harbor to Dunedin or often draw in excess of the depth of the channel Port Chalmers is their preferred port of call.
Much of Port Chalmers is located on a small hilly peninsula, at the northern end of which is a large reclaimed area which is now the site of the container port. Close to the southeastern shore of this peninsula are Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua and Goat Island/ Rakiri which lie across the harbor between Port Chalmers and the Otago Peninsula.
When to visit
Be aware that when a cruise ship is in port the attractions will be crowded. Also to save money many passengers use the public bus to access Dunedin, so the buses will also be crowded. For the cruise ship schedule consult portotago.co.nz.
Tourism information office
i-SITE Dunedin Visitor Centre, based at 26 Princess St in Dunedin, ☏ . maintains a temporary office in the wharf when cruise ships are in port.
Port Chalmers is most easily reached from Dunedin, unless you arrive by sea.
The closest airport is Dunedin Airport.
State Highway 88 connects Port Chalmers to Dunedin; the turnoff is near the Dunedin Railway Station. Allow twenty minutes to follow a narrow, very busy trucking route past the huge indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium, through the factory suburb of Ravensbourne and around curved causeways to the Port. There is also a narrow, winding but scenic and enjoyable route from Blueskin Bay.
Port Chalmers is connected to Dunedin by the Harbour Cycleway, but this stops about halfway, at St Leonards. From here cyclists can either share the highway with heavy trucks or take the former highway which winds along terraces higher up the shoreline. You can also use the Port to Port ferry service to ride along Otago Peninsula from Dunedin, cross the harbour and return via Port Chalmers.
Orbus buses organized by the Otago Regional Council (Ph. 0800 672-8736, orc.govt.nz) depart in Dunedin from the Central City Bus Hub (on Great King Street between Moray Place and St Andrew St). In Port Chalmers the bus service starts from the corner of Harrington and Fox Streets. The journey takes 31 minutes. It operates on weekdays every 20 to 30 minutes between 6:10 and 20:10am with the final service at 21:10. On Fridays there are late services at 20:10 and 23:10. On Saturdays the service operates every 60 minutes from 8:10 to 23:10. On Sunday it operates every 60 minutes from 9:10 to 18:10.
The bus fare in cash is $6 (adult) and $3.60 (child) and on the bus network electronic GoCard it is $4.44 (adults) and $2.66 (child). The bus is free for New Zealand Gold Card holders.
There is also the option of taking the bus to Port Chalmers and after exploring the town taking the ferry across to Portobello and from there take a bus back to Dunedin.
By cruise ship
Cruise ships are an increasingly popular way to visit Dunedin. There are now over 100 visits each year (mostly between October to March). The Dunedin City Council provides free Wi-Fi at the port and runs a web page for cruise visitors . The two major cruise companies Carnival (P&O, Princess) and Royal Caribbean both serve Dunedin.
Seasoned cruise ship travellers will be aware that tourism products marketed directly to cruise ship passengers are often more expensive, so arranging visits to Dunedin attractions and tours independently can save money.
Cruise ship transfers to and from Dunedin
- Cruise ship shuttle bus: These travel direct (20 minutes) and drop off and pick up in the Octagon in the centre of Dunedin for $10 one-way/$15 return. They may depart from the ship gangway or up to five minutes walk away, depending on the day's arrangements.
- Public bus: There is a public bus stop on George St about five minutes walk from ship side.
- Taxis: Taxis depart ship-side and for the return to Port they are easily found on the side streets of most corners of George St, Dunedin's main shopping street.
During the season there is ferry and water taxi services operated by Port to Port which can take you between Portobello, Port Chalmers, Carey's Bay and Quarantine Island.
- Port to Port, ☏ . Daily 8:00 to 16:30 (including public holidays). The ferry can take up to 20 passengers or 10 riders and their bicycles. The crossing between Port Chalmers and Portobello typically takes 10 to 15 minutes. One-way tickets cost $12 per adult and $6 per child. Bicycles cost mountain/road $5, electric $10 each way.
Subject to minimum numbers departures from Back Beach in Port Chalmers at 09:30, 12:55 and 15:30. Departures from Portobello at 12:35, 15:15 and 14:10. Stops at Carey's Bay or Quarantine Island by prior arrangement.
Taxis cost about $45 one-way between Dunedin and Port Chalmers.
The Port Chalmers railway station is a trackside grassy patch in Ajax St above the centre of the town. The local scenic train 'The Seasider' operated by the Taieri Gorge Railway , ph +64 3 477-4449, can be booked to stop here.
The bus service that connects with Dunedin is the only bus service in town. Otherwise the town is so small that walking is the best option. You can hire a bike from Union Co in George St and cycle around the bays. It’s a flat 11 km to Aramoana.
Churches and historical sites
- 1 Chick’s Hotel, 2 Mount St. Not open to the general public.. Originally called the Jerusalem Hotel, it was built in 1876 After the original owner had financial problems it was purchased in 1879 by George Chick and from then on it was known as Chick's. In 1903 the Port Chalmers electorate went ‘dry’ and Chick's lost its licence. Hotels at the port banded together, taking their case as far as the Privy Council, in London, before winning back their licences in May, 1905.
From 2008 until 2016 when it closed for good it was a popular music venue, which attracted national and international acts such as Steve Albini, Sharon van Etten and Kurt Vile. The building is now used as a recording studio.
The basement was once used as an overflow jail, with meals being served with the assistance of the Chick family. Now bricked up, a smuggling tunnel lead out from the basement to the dock area. Legend has it that drunk pub patrons would be taken down and ‘shanghaied’ to wake up the next day halfway out to sea.
- 2 Iona Church, 24 Mount St, ☏ (Parish clerk). From 13:30 to 16:00 on the days when cruise ships visit.. Stone church, built between 1871 and 1883. The church is built from Port Chalmers bluestone (breccia stone), with Oamaru stone piles and kauri interiors and a roof clad in slate scales. The church has a number of memorial windows including the Watkin-Creed memorial windows, placed in the Iona Union Church vestibule in 1974 when the Port Chalmers Methodist Church was demolished. They have not been permanently installed as a result of their different shape but rest in front of the existing stained-glass windows. Above the altar is a rose window. Free entry.
- 3 Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 1 Scotia St, at its junction with Grey St, ☏ . This church was built from Port Chalmers bluestone (breccia stone) between 1871 and 1874 to the designs of prominent Dunedin architect R. A. Lawson. It is one of only a handful of New Zealand churches built in an Early English Gothic style according to the principles of the Academic Gothic Revival. The church building is constructed from and has several fine memorial stained-glass windows. Free entry.
- 4 Municipal Building (Town Hall), 1 Grey St. This building dates from 1889 and originally housed the Port Chalmers Town Hall, as well as the Town Clerk’s office, the Fire Brigade, the Police Station (including the Sergeant’s residence and cells), Court Rooms, Customs Office and Government Shipping Office. There was also a morgue that occupied a backroom downstairs.
Today the library and service centre are housed in the area previously occupied by the fire brigade. Upstairs are various function rooms.
- 5 St Mary, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church, 38 Magnetic St. This church opened in 1878. Due to a shortage of funds the planned spire was not built. In 1898 Mother Mary MacKillop, and two Josephite Sisters, arrived into Dunedin on the request of the local parish priest to assist with teaching. Australia's first saint, Saint Mary MacKillop is also known as Saint Mary of the Cross. When they arrived they found the existing school then called St Mary’s School, to be in an old shed-like house and in a sad state of disrepair. A new school, St Joseph’s Primary School, was subsequently opened at the end of January 1898. MacKillop lived in Port Chalmers for two months and was the first Head of St Joseph’s in Port Chalmers.
- 6 Scott Memorial, 6 Brailleys Track, off Blueskin Rd. Paid for largely by public subscriptions this memorial cairn commemorates Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition was formally unveiled in 1914.
The structure consists of a tall and gently tapering column of Port Chalmers bluestone, surmounted by an anchor. A viewing platform gives an impressive vantage point over the port and harbour.
Museums and galleries
- 7 Port Chalmers' Regional Maritime Museum, 19 Beach St, ☏ . Mon-Fri 10:00 to 15:00, Sat, Sun & Public Holidays 13:00 to 16:00. Cruise ships season visiting hours: 10:00 to 17:00. This small museum is located in the former Post Office building (built in 1877). The building’s location prior to the 19th century land reclamation, was the beach in Kōpūtai Bay where the first settlers from the sailing ship ‘John Wickliffe’ landed in 1848 to establish the Province of Otago.
The museum has a maritime collection and a settlers' collection, telling the stories of early pioneers and many port characters who have lived here over the years. Entry by donation.
- 8 Goat Island – Rakiri, Otago Harbour. There is no public access.. Located between Port Chalmers and Portobello to the northwest of the larger Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua, this island has an area of 4.5 hectares (11 acres). When the quarantine station was running, single men were quartered in a two storied barrack similar to those on Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua. Unlike its neighbour, Goat Island/Rakiriri today is uninhabited, and is designated as a scenic reserve and Historic Area. It is an important bird area due to its breeding colony of bronze shags.
- 9 Hotere Garden Oputare, Constitution St. Dawn to dusk all year round.. The former studio of noted artist Ralph Hotere (1931-2013) was on land at the tip of Observation Point, the large bluff overlooking the container terminal. When the port's facilities were expanded in 1993, part of the bluff was removed, including the area containing Hotere's studio (after strenuous objection from many of the town's residents). Part of the bluff close to the removed portion are converted by the Hotere Foundation Trust with the assistance of the Otago harbor Board into an award-winning sculpture garden in 2005 containing featuring fours works by both Hotere and other noted New Zealand modern sculptors. Free entry..
- 10 Lady Thorn Rhododendron Dell, 15 Church Street. Up the hill past the Iona Church (Access up the hill past the Iona Church.). Dawn to dusk. Many buildings in Port Chalmers and Dunedin are built of Port Chalmers bluestone (brecia), which was cut from a quarry just behind the town. The quarry, which was known as the ‘Big Quarry’ opened in March 1866 and operated until it closed in the 1920. After being used or many years as overgrown rubbish dump. Lady Constance Thorn ( -1997), a former long- time mayoress of the town, came up with the idea of turning the area into a dell of rhododendrons. The Port Chalmers and District Lions Club came on board in 1998 to develop and now maintain the garden. The sheltered dell features numerous rhododendrons, along with magnolias, prunus, maples and spring flowering bulbs viewed by strolling the woodland paths.
A lookout accessed by stairs features a selection of old historic photographs of Port Chalmers over the years and also offers a superb panoramic view of the town and Otago Harbour. Free, but donations welcome.
- 11 Orokonui EcoSanctuary, 600 Blueskin Rd (on the scenic route between Port Chalmers and Blueskin Bay), ☏ . Daily 09:30 to 16:30. Home to some of New Zealand's most fascinating and rare wildlife and providing visitors with exceptional experiences while allowing native flora and fauna to live naturally in a safe haven. A 307 ha enclosure inside an 9 km pest proof fence, it provides a chance to see Kaka, Tui, Bellbirds, Tuatara, Kiwi and more in a native setting. Offers daily guided tours. The visitor centre has free entry, but passengers on identified cruise ship tours are charged for a mandatory tour. Permit for all day entry and self-guided walking - adult $20, child (aged 5-18) $10, family (2 adults/3 children) $48. One hour guided tour departing daily at 11:00 and 13:30 - adult $35, children (aged 5-18) $17.50, family $85. Two hour guided tour departing daily at 11:00 - adult $50, children (aged 5-18) $25, family $125..
- 12 Quarantine Island – Kamau Taurua, Otago Harbour, ☏ . Covering an area of 15 hectares (37 acres) this is the largest island in Otago Harbour. Local Māori know Quarantine Island as Kamau Taurua. The island served as the quarantine station for Otago from 1863 until 1924. Now the area around the remaining buildings is leased by the Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua Community (QIKTC), while the remainder is jointly managed by the QIKTC and the Department of Conservation.
The QIKT Community host a monthly ‘Open Day’, usually on a Saturday on the last weekend of the month. They charter a boat which usually leaves Back Beach in Port Chalmers, at 09:30 on Saturday morning, and returns about 13:30 to 16:00. It may be possible to come over on the afternoon boat too, if you are staying overnight. Bookings in advance are essential as boat places are limited. A pick up on the Portobello side for Peninsula dwellers is usually possible by prior arrangement.
Visitors are welcome to stay overnight in the lodge on the island, returning Sunday afternoon.
Traditional rock climbing (non-bolted) is popular at Long Beach and the cliffs at Mihiwaka, both of which can be accessed via Blueskin Rd to the north of Port Chalmers.
The biannual Seafood Festival which takes place in September is fun, marrying seafood, beer and musical entertainment.
The Dunedin Marathon which takes place in September finishes in Port Chalmers.
The monthly Community Market is held on the Village Green at 62 George St between 10:00 and 14:00 on the third Sunday of each month. For sale from the various stalls are locally grown produce, arts, crafts, plants and coffee. Buskers also perform.
- Taieri Gorge Railway, ☏ . A sightseeing train trip travelling through spectacular scenery. It departs from the cruise ship wharf and takes you on a journey through the rugged and spectacular Taieri River Gorge, across wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels carved by hand more than 100 years ago. Take your camera and lots of memory. The same company runs trips on the old Christchurch line as far as Palmerston, about 2 hours away; these can be booked to pick up at Port Chalmers Upper railway station (really a patch of lawn above the town in Ajax St). Cruise ship passengers may be charged a premium to travel by train from shipside; it can be cheaper to travel by bus to Dunedin and take the train from there.
- Port to Port, ☏ . This company operates a boat tour to Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve and the albatross colony. Minimum numbers apply.
Subject to minimum numbers departures from Portobello at 10:00, 13:15 and 16:00 from 1 October to 31 March. Outside of these dates by arrangement. Departures from Back Beach, Port Chalmers upon request 10 minutes later. $90 per adult and $46 per child..
There are excellent view from the following locations:
- Flagstaff Lookout at the end of Constitution St on top of Observatory Hill. This provides a close, birds-eye view of the port operations, with stored logs and woodchips directly below and stacks of containers on the far side. The flagstaff itself is the successor to the original mast from which the entry of ships into the harbour was signaled and a black time-ball was lowered at noon so that ships’ masters could set their chronometers.
- Island Terrace. This suburban street on the southern side of Observatory Hill provides a view towards Portobello.
- Lookout at the Lady Thorn Rhododendron Dell on Church Street.
- The Scott Memorial.
- 2Gypsies, 34 George St, ☏ . 11:00 to 15:00. Gifts, furniture, global art and homewares with a distinct Eastern style. The store also stocks a wide range of furniture built from recycled teak wood.
- Arcadia Book Shop, 27 George St, ☏ . Usually open Wed-Sun, 13:00 to 17:00. Sells second hand books, with collections from children’s books, comics, poetry, thrillers and many others.
- Aurora Designs, 3 George St. Specialises in handmade felt cloches and crocheted cloches.
- The Barking Fish, 17 George St, ☏ . This manufacturing jewellery shop is crammed full of unique and quirky pieces of jewellery. They sell a wide range of locally made bone pendants as well as jewellery made from semi-precious stones, and unique collectible pieces.
- Box of Birds, 2 George St, ☏ . Mon-Tue 10:30 to 16:30, Wed-Sun 11:30 to 16:30. Specialises in retro and vintage clothing, magazines, collectables as well as kiwiana. Among the clothing is a range of up-cycled and vintage inspired labels including: Maiden Hair, Men Swear and Zipster.
- Christianne’s Beautiful & Affordable Pre-loved Clothes and Accessories, 52 George St, ☏ . Wed-Thu noon to 16:00, Fri-Sun noon to 17:00. :. Quality label clothing, stylish bags, hats, boots, coats, knitwear and accessories, vintage and handcrafted jewellery, fabrics, buttons, belts, buckles and sewing accessories. The shop buys your clothing, jewellery and accessories.
- The Changing Room, 23 George St. Sat noon to 16:00. Second-hand designer clothing, collectables and artworks.
- The Crafty Banker, 16 George St, ☏ . Located in the old ‘First National Bank of Otago’ building this shop offers ceramics, fine art, craftwork and collectibles. The studio ceramics are made on the premises by Toni Walker.
- The Flying Whale, 13 George St, ☏ . Thu-Sun 11:00 to 17:00. This shop sells the whimsical artwork of children’s writer, illustrator and local resident, David Elliot.
- Georgie Girl, 5 George St, ☏ . Wed-Fri noon to 17:00, weekends 10:00 to 17:00. New and pre-loved label clothing and giftware for sale. They will also buy your label clothes and accessories on a commission basis where you receive 50% of the sale price of any item sold.
- New World Supermarket, 63 George St. Mon-Sun 8:00 to 20:00. This supermarket on the main street, about ten minutes walk from shipside, has plenty of grocery lines to choose from.
- Precious, 26A George St, ☏ . Sells the bold and distinctive works of contemporary Debra Fallowfield. Each item is handcrafted, ensuring no two pieces are the same. She is particularly sought-after for her unique custom-made wedding and engagement rings. Shop hours are limited, tending to only open on Sat 12 to 4pm and the occasional Sunday, or via appointment. Debra travels for work often it is suggested that contact her first on +64 27 201-4835.
Being NZ, fish and chips are the classic cheap eats. The chippy Port Fish Supply (Ph. +64 3 472-7444) is on the corner of Beach & Mount Sts opposite the main gate of the container terminal.
- 1 Carey's Bay Hotel, 17 Macandrew Rd, Carey's Bay, ☏ . 10:00 to late. About 15 minutes walk in the next bay towards the harbour mouth is this historic pub, popular with locals for its hearty meals and unbeatable location where on sunny days you can grab a outside table out the front for first-class views over the sparkling water. The hotel was built in 1847 and for the next 100 years it was known as The Crescent Hotel. The business has more or less continuously operated since then, narrowly escaping Port Chalmers prohibition in the 1920s as it was just outside the legal boundary of the borough. After years of unsympathetic makeovers, it was restored from 2001 onwards by a new enthusiastic owner. Mains $19-30.
- 2 The Galley Cafe & Bar, 36 George St, ☏ . Mon-Wed 8:30 to 15:00, Thu 8:30 to 15:00, 17:00 to 20:00, Fri 8:30 to late, Sat 9:00 to late and Sun 9:00 to 15:30, 17:00 to 20:00. Homemade baked goods as well as pizza, whitebait fritters and coffee in a rustic setting. In the back bar you'll find a range of local craft beers and cider on tap. They serve pizza and tapas on Thursday and Sunday nights. There is also regular live music in the courtyard.
- Port Royale Café, 10 George Street, ☏ . Mon-Fri 8:00 to 16:30 and weekends 8:30 to 16:30. It has large windows looking out onto the main street and a sheltered courtyard, in which to relax and enjoy a cooked breakfast, fresh baking, salads, cheese rolls, bagels and locally roasted coffee. They have a number of gluten and dairy free options. Works of art by local artists are displayed for sale.
- Portsider, 31 George St, ☏ . Mon-Fri 15:00 to late, Sat-Sun 11:00 to late. The Tap Room closes at 22:00.. This cozy pub serves up a full menu and offers a large selection of New Zealand craft beer. On some Fridays there is a six-course degustation with craft beers. They make their own breads, sauces, condiments and hand cut chips. All of their tap beers are available on flagon fill.
- Union Co Café, 2 George St, ☏ . 8:00 to 15:00. Excellent baking, both of the savoury and sweet kind.
Sadly the number of drinking establishments has declined since the days when Port Chalmers had nine hotels in the late 19th century. Live music occurs at the Tunnel Hotel and The Galley Cafe & Bar.
- Mackie's Pub, 14 George St, ☏ . Also known as “Black Dog” this flat-frontage, three-story hotel in the main street has been a local favourite watering hole for over 150 years. On a board at the end of the bar hangs rows of beer handles with the name of their users printed beneath each one. Those on the top two rows are all dead.
- Tunnel Hotel, 22 Beach St, ☏ . This establishment opened in 1846, claims to be the oldest hotel south of Nelson, and the oldest continually operated business, in New Zealand. It is older than the founding of the province of Otago itself by two years thanks to a magistrate on the first surveyor ship and a licence to sell alcohol thought more pressing by the sealers and whalers than democracy. The current building dates from 1875. The hotel is apparently haunted by the ghost of a former publican..
Most visitors stay in Dunedin itself, where there's a much better range of accommodation.
- 1 Mackies Hotel, 14 George St, ☏ . Has an old school Kiwi pub.
Due to the layout of the port, logging trucks regularly pass along the main street, so check before crossing the street. Don't kayak in the commercial port when ships are present.
- Police station, 35 George St, ☏ .
- Port Chalmers Pharmacy, 24 George Street, ☏ . Mon-Fri 9:00 to 17:30, Sat 10:00 to 13:00. Closed on Sunday.. Offers standard pharmacy services.
- . There is free Wi-Fi available in the port terminal building. Chairs and tables are limited. Free Wi-Fi is also available on George Street.
- Port Chalmers Pharmacy, 24 George Street, ☏ . Mon-Fri 9:00 to 17:30, Sat 10:00 to 13:00. Closed on Sunday.. They are the local postal agent.
The area code for Port Chalmers is 03.
- Christchurch or Akaroa, overnight sail to the north via a cruise ship.
- Invercargill, Stewart Island or Milford Sound, overnight sail to the south via a cruise ship.