THE words "eco tourism" can be applied to many experiences, and Dunedin also promises a unique eco-experience.
The first hint the region will deliver on its vow comes just 15 minutes out of town, on the way to Orokonui Ecosanctuary. Climbing the short hills and looking back towards the city's harbour, and a rural scene of stone fences and sheep on lush green grass gives visitors their first postcard moment of the morning.
On to the Ecosanctuary, where a fence keeps introduced predators away from a 307ha area where indigenous plants and animals have been reintroduced. The plants thrive in their once native environment.
With plenty of walks ranging from a few minutes to a few hours to explore the area, visitors can wander all day, but organise a guide to receive a proper experience.
The guides, often volunteers within the park, led us through a treasure trove of local wildlife, and found all the spots where sometimes shy creatures hide. The native flightless takahe birds skitted in and out of the grasses and were a unique sight early in the journey.
Deeper in the forest, a variety of birds meet at feeding points, including the colourful kaka, which were out in droves on the day I visited with my family. I could not help but be caught up in the locals' enthusiasm for the area, and I walked away with a greater understanding of what is native to the area.
Back in town, we took a more passive ride in nature on the Taieri Gorge train trip. Hop on the historic train, and be whisked out of town on a four-hour round trip. We left the city through a tunnel, and on the other side scenes of rugged beauty and grace awaited.
The river wound its way through the gorge that appeared below us. Tune out for a while and enjoy the on-board refreshments, or listen to the local drivers' commentary. Turning each corner brought a different story of the natural environment, and how the railway line was integrated through it.
The ocean also calls, and a trip to the coastal villages on Dunedin's outskirts meant we experienced what Dunedin offered at its harbour entrance. Hop on a charter boat, like the Monarch Cruises tour.
With room for plenty on board, the spacious and quiet craft took us close to the rocky cliffs of the Otago Peninsula. Each animal sighting prompted a different story from the knowledgeable captain.
Heading around the point and out to sea, we spotted many birds that call the area home, plus a few fur seals. And just when we thought we were done with animal spotting for the day, a dolphin family appeared near the boat to play.
The captain had waited in the exact spot he had seen them in previous days. As the boat re-entered the harbour, a glimpse of the peninsula hill showed the last stop on the local nature experience. Perched high on the Otago Harbour clifftops, the Royal Albatross Centre is dedicated to showing off and preserving the magnificent albatross that have made the area their home. Again, take a tour with local staff who show visitors to purpose-built viewing areas that allow them to see the birds' giant wingspan in full flight, but also their land-based interaction - a privilege when they only land after many years spent in the air searching for food.
Pictures don't do the experience justice, as their small bodies bely the beauty as the soar effortlessly above you. Back down the hill, and when the sun goes down, one of Dunedin's most popular natural attractions awaits when the local penguin colony returns from a day at sea.
Viewed from a purpose-built platform that preserves the penguins' natural homes built into the coastline, the cute little creatures swarm into the shore in large groups before waddling up the beach to find their homes.
And if that doesn't send the cuteness meter into overdrive, many will bring their young out from their hides for a quick feed, providing plenty of photo opportunities and an experience that even the tiredest child won't forget in a hurry.
There are many more hidden gems in the country around Dunedin, and I was left with an impression of an area that is blessed with wildlife and animal attractions, but one that has been developed with a respect for their presence, and an ability to show them off to any audience.
The writer was a guest of Enterprise Dunedin.
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