The big 'O' - Oamaru


What is there to do in Oamaru?

In short, plenty. The big 'O', is exactly that, a kaleidoscope of colour, character and surprises!


Steampunk Museum in Oamaru

My abiding memory of Oamaru began with a clear and sunny winter's afternoon in June of 1973. It'd been a good frost that morning and the rugby ground at St. Kevin's College at Redcastle, was still rock hard at lunchtime. It lay under the brow of a hill and by mid afternoon another chilly dew felt as if another frost was already settling.

I was the hooker in the St. Bede's College 1st Rugby XV from Christchurch, here to do battle with our southern neighbours. This annual event has been played for decades on a home and away basis and last year St. Kevins had smashed us and we were determined to make amends.

The young women of the now defunct Teschmakers High School, many of whom had boyfriends at St. Kevins and who'd graciously hosted us for morning tea, turned up, wrapped in scarves and gloves, to watch proceedings. We quickly realised they'd been part of the 'softening up process', as they quickly assumed a most hostile demeanour.

Point being the kicking we got that afternoon, despite somehow managing to win the game, albeit by a slim margin and thus avenging the previous year..still lives long in the memory.

'Oh, those sprawling, benign grounds beyond the glorious Red Castle', writes the esteemed and sometimes fabled, Canterbury High Country scribe, Claver Esmond, 'where blood and sweat lies to this very day'.
I think Esmond was onto something there..

The title Redcastle is for that part of the St. Kevins precinct that was a beautiful old Queen Anne style residence and the name comes from the colour of the stone from which it was built.

Oamaru itself, is well known for its Victorian buildings and architecture and landscaping..and apparently has one of the oldest public gardens in New Zealand.

Where is Oamaru?

The town is the largest in the South Island province of North Otago and is the key service center for the Waitaki area. It lies 80kms south of Timaru and 120kms north of Dunedin, on a near coastal part of State Highway 1, with a population of  about 14,000. 
The town which was laid out in 1858, lies between rolling limestone hills and a short plain of flat land to the Pacific Ocean. The limestone rock features in a lot of construction. Hence the term 'whitestone buildings' or 'Oamaru stone'.

What is there to do in Oamaru?

In short, plenty. The big 'O', is exactly that, a kaleidoscope of colour and surprise!

The Gardens

The public gardens, were established a year after the town, in 1876 and remain beautifully maintained to this day. 34 acres featuring an impressive marble fountain, walkways, glorious flower beds and enormous native plants and ferns, with themed areas, an aviary, a playground and all within a large, looped stroll over flat ground. The gardens are very easily accessible from the southern end of the town and carry a 5 star 'Garden of Significance' rating. They're open 7 days a week, dawn till dusk and admission is free.

The Oamaru Penguins are fun too..

The little blue penguin is a regular around this coast. You might see them darting about the rocky coastline though you're guaranteed to see them at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Although this attraction was shut for covid, it's normally open every night of the year with tours also available.
The 'little blue' is a native to New Zealand and South Australia and is known by its slate blue colouring. A fully grown adult may reach 35cms in height, though 25cms is common, with a weight of about 1 kilo. They're declining in population, though in areas where predator control is in place, the populations are generally stable, or even increasing.
Ironically, the major risks to these little birds are crossing coastal roads, cats, ferrets and stoats, as much as being hit by boats or caught in nets.
As they nest underground, hence an area like the Oamaru colony is perfect for them.

World's smallest Little Blue Penguin

Going back in time in the town's Victorian Precinct

The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust, owns a bunch of commercial buildings in what is known as the town's historic precinct, in Harbour and Tyne Streets. Looking like it'd easily fit a 'Peaky Blinders' TV set, the area is one of the many reasons that label Oamaru as quirky place to be.
Most of the buildings were built in a 20 year period from 1865 and are today New Zealand's most complete street scape of the Victorian age. It's little wonder this is a very popular backdrop for many on screen productions.
Most of the buildings have been constructed from locally quarried stone and faithfully restored to their former grandeur by local stone masons and appropriately, the sorts of businesses that occupy these buildings today are unique, with artisans, crafts and all sorts.
Stretch your legs and take your time roaming.

Getting kinky with Steam Punk

The Steam Punk interactive museum will cost you a ten (kiwi) buck entry fee and it's well worth it.
The whole experience is a hugely crazy sci – fi take on steam powered technology. It's alternate, with a Jules Verne come Dr. Who sort of influence. Being overtly interactive, you're encouraged to open your mind to discovery and exploration. You can click away on your phone and take all the pics you like, safe in the knowledge that should you visit again, there'll be fresh things to look at.
Look out fir the Fire and Steam Festival, which runs over a number of days in winter.  
That the museum is located in the Victorian Precinct is entirely appropriate. 

Oamaru famous stone Victorian buildings

All aboard the vintage train

Oamaru Steam and Rail are a voluntary group of railway enthusiasts who love to play with trains.
Their train runs every Sunday from the Harbourside Station at the corner of Humber Street and for twelve dollars rolls round the Victorian Precinct and nearby harbour. The round trip takes about half an hour and finishes at the famous Red Sheds, built in the 1800's and home to all sorts of arts and crafts.

Rest your weary legs..

Why ? Because Oamaru is the finish of the world renowned Alps to Ocean (A2O) cycle trail. Stretching over 300kms with epic views over its 9 sections, this is one major effort. The finish is on the Oamaru waterfront and a large wooden framed structure like a football goalpost bearing the A2O logo is a popular place for photographs of finishers.
Just as well the pub is nearby. We're funny like that in New Zealand. We love to encourage people here, only to throw them off things or force them to ride a bike for days on end. What's funnier though, is that people pay for it..

What else is nearby?


No trip to Oamaru is complete without a visit to the famous Moeraki boulders and Fleurs Restaurant. Moeraki is a small settlement about half an hour south of Oamaru itself.

The boulders on the sandy expanse of beach here are world famous. Large and spherical, there are all sorts of wonderful mythical stories as to what the boulders are and how they got there.
According to Maori, the boulders are leftovers of a shipwrecked canoe and that the flotsam that came ashore contributed to their formation. The canoe was supposedly one of the large canoes that came from Hawaiki hunting New Zealand greenstone.
Reality is the rocks are many millions of years old and thought to be of a sedimentary origin.
Moeraki remains a busy fishing settlement, though the famously sought after Fluers restaurant remains closed, yet there's hope it might again be resurrected one day.

Moeraki Boulders

Where are the best places to dine?

The Riverstone Kitchen north of the town and just outside Oamaru's town boundary, is stunning. 
Set in an eclectic mix of historic exhibits and vegetable gardens with an old castle in the distance, Riverstone is a class act with contemporary kiwi food as well as vegan options. The vibe's pretty cool too.
Fat Sally's, The Last Post, Restaurant 1861, the Critereon, Scotts Brewing Co and the Cod and Hogget Takeaways are just a few of a number of excellent places to dine, with the restaurant at the old Brydone Hotel being a special favourite.
The great thing about Oamaru is that it's not a 'crazy busy' place, so take your time and enjoy.

Where are the best places to stay ?

Oamaru has everything from hotel to back packer accommodation and all of it serves its purpose.
From motels and motor lodges to the long standing and iconic Brydone Hotel, the options are many and vast.
The Brydone is quintessential Oamaru. Old, elegant, with sweeping staircases, of another era and prominent on Thames Street.

As wild, wacky and cool the place is, Oamaru weather also follows a similar sort of pattern. There's generally cloud of some sort, it can be cold and frosty in winter though the summers are way more agreeable.
The last word about the place goes to a famous New Zealand sportsman, who when on a television game show many years ago, was asked for a word that best described a non related topic..
'O for awe(or)some' he said..and that ladies and gentleman sums up Oamaru nicely.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 28 Feb 2023 (Last updated: 28 Feb 2023)

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