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Oamaru: A jaunt back in time

By Chloe Johnson5:30 AM Monday Jul 2, 2012

Historic buildings in Oamaru. Photo / Southern PR

Like a scene from a fairy tale, moustached men ride penny farthings and bonnet-clad women chit chat over high tea. But unlike the movies, this is not fiction. It’s the way of life for some Oamaru residents.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the South Island town was stuck in a time warp, a Victorian bubble which modern-day society is yet to puncture with techy gadgets and politically correct arguments.

“You need to meet David who is off riding around the country on a penny farthing,” says bookbinder Michael O’Brien.

O’Brien is also a local character, evidence that people here are holding on to elements of life as it was in the 1800s. Dressed in brown overalls and a plastic apron, he explains the steps of binding a book “the old-fashioned way”. His pioneer-style moustache wriggles on his top lip like a caterpillar and his bushy eyebrows dance as he cracks jokes inside his little store.

His shop is one of many inside the Victorian Precinct, a remarkable part of Oamaru town where cobblestone roads are lined with 120-year old buildings made from the area’s famous limestone. And there’s much more to this town, 90 minutes north of Dunedin.

Here are some highlights:

Steampunk museum

A scrap-metal train shoots fire from its chimney, enticing visitors to the Steampunk HQ museum. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternative history and speculative fiction which surfaced in the 1980s and early 1990s. The creations here are powered by steam and fit nicely into the town’s 1800s vibe.

Annie’s Tearooms

Near the Steampunk museum, this is the perfect place to taste life as a Victorian. Inside what was a drapery store in 1871, women dressed in bustled tea gowns and bonnets serve good leaf tea from fine porcelain and a selection of homemade cakes.

Whitestone Cheese

Tucked down a street backing on to the ocean is where some of New Zealand’s finest cheeses are crafted. Whitestone Cheese is a family-owned business founded in 1987 after Bob Berry moved on from his career in farming.

All cheeses, including the popular Windsor blue and Waitaki camembert, are made on site by several cheesemakers who, I’m told, never get sick of eating their own work. Take the tour and enjoy a tasting before moving on to Oamaru’s wineries.

Waitaki Valley

Driving through what will become the route for the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail is an experience in itself. The limestone landscapes are separated by small townships, including Kurow, the home of All Black captain Richie McCaw. Historic sights such as the elephant rocks, fossil trail and hydro dams are fine reasons to take the car out of cruise control into stop-start mode.

Oak Villa Spa

In a newly renovated spa room perched on a private hill suburb overlooking the town and ocean, it is easy to relax at Oak Villa Spa. Lathered in a honey and walnut paste, the only noise I hear are birds fluttering outside and the soothing sounds of a forest emanating from a sound system.

I’m woken gently to be wiped down with a warm towel before my full body massage. I’ve experienced traditional massages in Sweden, Thailand and China, so it’s fair to say I know what makes the skin tingle. The Oak Villa’s masseuse does just that.

Riverstone Kitchen

Award-winning chef Bevan Smith likes to give diners’ taste buds an experience at his restaurant on the Waitaki Plains about 12km north of Oamaru. Smith cooks local produce and can be seen picking fresh herbs and vegetables from a large garden behind the kitchen. Diners may explore this garden while their meal is prepared.

The menu is mouthwatering. A prawn entree followed by roast free-range chicken with new potatoes, peas, braised lettuce and tarragon is sensational.

Penguin colony

A blob of what looks like oil floats along the rough seas of the South Pacific. As it comes closer it breaks into pieces. These are hundreds of blue penguins coming home to Oamaru penguin colony after a day of finding fish for their young ones. Under the harbour’s cliffs, the colony attracts more than 75,000 visitors each year.

The little guys jump out of the water on to rocks where they fluff around to cool off from the swim they have just endured. Once cool, they scuttle into their burrows attracting “oohs” and “ahhhs” from the captivated tourists. It’s a unique attraction, adding another dimension to a unique town.

Chloe Johnson travelled to Oamaru courtesy of Tourism Waitaki and Pen-y-bryn Lodge.