The small town of Oamaru gently reveals itself three hours south of Christchurch along SH1. Home to a unique historical centre, its charm has attracted a delightful mix of friendly characters. Gentlemen riding penny farthings will go about their business amongst tourists and technophiles, whilst artists and blacksmiths work away oblivious to the progressive world outside their walls.
The Historical Precinct is the best place to begin your exploration. Built from Oamaru stone, it now houses an assortment of businesses from antique shops and art galleries to restaurants and cafes. On Sunday’s there’s a market filled with interesting wares. At the end of the precinct is the Whisky Barrel House (www.nzmaltwhisky.co.nz), offering a selection of New Zealand produced single malts and blends to sample and buy. For a true historic experience, rent a penny farthing or take a ride aboard a horse drawn carriage, all booked within the I-Site at the beginning of Thames St.
Once out of the historical precinct, within easy reach is the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony Visitor Centre www.penguins.co.nz (03 433 1195), located by the harbour on Waterfront Rd underneath the cliff faces. It’s one of the best places to view the world’s smallest penguin. Here you’ll find the research centre, gift shop and tiered seating for 350 people. The penguins come ashore at dusk so contact the centre for specific times. No camera or filming equipment allowed and remember to take warm clothing as Oamaru can get quite chilly. There’s a $20 entrance fee for adults and $10 for children. Kids under 5 are free.
Around the corner of the headland are the Yellow Eyes Penguins on Bushy Beach. This can be reached a short drive from the Historic Precinct along Tyne St, which turns into Bushy Beach Rd; or alternatively, walking along the Graves Track from the Blue Penguin Colony. If taking the car, stop at the Lookout Point for the best place to get snaps of the seaside town. The walk takes half an hour and there are hides available for surreptitious viewing of the shy creatures once there. These are the worlds rarest penguins so worth the effort. Take binoculars if you’ve got some and go late for best viewing.
After much sightseeing, something of a different flavour seems the way. The Whitestone Cheese Factory 03 434 8098 (www.whitestonecheese.co.nz) on the corner of Humber and Torridge Streets makes some of New Zealand’s most celebrated cheeses. Tasting and sales are handled within the café, which sells a selection of fine kiwi wine to compliment the cheeses. Self guided tours of the Make Room are available through the exterior viewing gallery. Fanatics might enjoy a talk with the cheese maker, so call ahead to make arrangements.
With cheese and wine in hand, head to the Botanical Gardens for a picnic. On the right hand side of Severn St heading south out of town, the luscious lawns and explosion of colour make a perfect spot for a slothful summer’s day. There a large play area for the kids, aviary and ponds for bird and duck feeding and rolls of soft lawn for general lazing.
Some summer swimming can be enjoyed in the swimming holes of the countryside rivers. Continue out of Oamaru south along SH1, turning right into Woolshed Rd some 10 min out of town. From here take another right into Round Hill Rd and a left in Gemmels Crossing Rd. Gemmels Crossing has lawns and picnic tables for those keeping dry and a deep swimming area underneath the bridge. Further along Gemmels Crossing Rd, take a right into Kakanui Valley Rd, following this until taking a right into Fuscia Creek Rd. Lookout for a closed gate on your right hand side which will indicate your arrival at Clifton Falls, another popular and larger swimming hole. The cliffs behind provide a solid platform for some diving but be careful as the climb up can be very slippery when wet.
For those desiring the moods of the sea, head out to Campbell Bay in the small artistic settlement of Kakanui for some sea and surf. Take the coastal road from Oamaru for great scenic drive. Not far away are the enigmatic Moeraki Boulders (www.moerakiboulders.com), huge spherical stones strewn along Koekohe Beach. Low tide is the best time to view them. Take SH1 south from Kakanui.
Switching to the north of the town is the big and boisterous Waitaki River, renowned for having some of New Zealand heaviest Salmon. March and April late in the season offer your best chance of fishing glory with the most popular water being between the SH1 bridge and river mouth. Speak to locals in the pub at the Glenavy Hotel (03 689 3879), within the small community of Glenavy seconds north of the river, for some insider know how.
Travelling south back towards Oamaru from the Waitaki River, take Seven Mile Rd out into the Waitaki Valley, switching onto SH83 at the roads end. Just past Duntroon you’ll find two well preserved sites of Maori Rock Art, Maerewhenua and Takiroa.
For something quiet and captivating to due this summer, head to Oamaru for some pure wholesome countryside living.