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Sometimes overlooked on the great southern road trip, Oamaru is a destination with wildlife, wine, history and future up its sleeve. Get your fill of penguins, art, natural rock formations and steampunk fantasies.
The most adorable residents of Oamaru are on its coastline, often spotted returning from a hard day’s fishing at sea to tuck into their burrows in the evening. Two of the best spotting spots are Bushy Beach and the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. At Bushy Beach, you can see yellow eyed penguins, the world’s rarest penguin, from a purpose-built viewing hide for free. An Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony tour buys you a seat in the grandstand with a perfect vantage point of the world’s smallest penguins heading for their nests.
This grand historic limestone building will blow you away – complete with Corinthian columns, it looks like it was dropped in place from the other side of the world. Originally built for the Bank of New South Wales in 1884, the building now houses a growing collection of art by local and regional artists. It also regularly hosts visiting exhibitions from around the country, educational experiences and talks.
Wine and cheese are on the menu at this gourmet factory tour. Take a look behind the scenes of Oamaru’s most delicious local success story, the Whitestone Cheese Factory. The guided tour of the factory includes an informative talk and look at the cheesemaking process through special viewing galleries, a cheese tasting, and a goodie bag to take home. The wine matching option includes three glasses of boutique wine to pair perfectly with your cheese samples.
Tap into the heart of Oamaru’s unique charm with a visit to the Victorian Precinct. It’s the most complete collection of Victorian-era buildings in the country, and a walk down the main Harbour Street demonstrates architectural marvels made from historic Oamaru stone. While you’re here, stop in at Grainstore Gallery, an eclectic shop selling antiques, books, furniture and the distinctive artwork of local artist Donna Demente. In November, the Victorian Precinct is the hub for Victorian Heritage Celebrations events, including penny farthing races, a barn dance, and the Victorian fête.
Get your goggles on and steam whistles at the ready – Oamaru is officially the steampunk capital of New Zealand (and maybe the world). Steampunk is a Victorian-influenced sci-fi future fantasy, celebrated in Oamaru with an annual festival over Queen’s Birthday weekend. Steampunk HQ is part museum, part gallery, part something entirely its own, with interactive displays and installations – this is a definite Oamaru must-do.
Dive right into the Victorian experience at this fully interactive heritage hub. Learn about Oamaru’s past through a detailed series of façades, imaginative displays, and unique attractions like the penny farthing carousel. You’ll get to dress up in Victorian costume, play traditional games, get a history lesson in the school room and explore of-the-time general stores, barbers, and dispensaries.
Take a ride on a real vintage steam train for an old-school sightseeing tour of the Victorian Precinct, clay cliffs and harbour. The ride is around half an hour return, stopping at the historic Red Sheds, built in the 1800s and now home to a variety of crafts and sometimes even a penguin or two. The train runs every Sunday from the Harbourside Railway Station, and more regularly during special events.
One of the best spots in Oamaru to get above it all and soak up views of the harbour and town, with the Southern Alps off to the west. There are good walking and biking tracks in this area too, such as the South Hill Walkway, Harbourside Walkway, or Cape Wanbrow track.
We’re actually not having a laugh – these rock formations are so unusual they’ve become popular tourist attractions. The striking and mysteriously spherical shape of these boulders makes for one hell of a photo opportunity. And a little over 30 minutes to the west you’ll find a smattering of large, unusually-shaped limestone rocks (whether they truly resemble elephants or not is open to interpretation) that was also the location for Aslan’s camp in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Established in 1876, the Oamaru Public Gardens hold as much historic charm as the rest of the town, with the Italian marble fountain, aviary and Wonderland Garden being a few of the attractions worth seeking out. The Japanese Red Bridge is ridiculously picturesque, and legend has it the century-old Elderslie Summer House is a popular spot for marriage proposals.
Get in a car and head inland for a beautiful drive with plenty of stopping points along the way. The various dams and bridges along the way are great photo spots, and the lakes formed by the hydrodams make for perfect swimming spots in summer (or waterskiing if you’ve got access to a boat). The town of Kurow is one of the best kept secrets in New Zealand winemaking, and Omarama at the top of the valley is one of the top locations in the country to fly gliders.