The light down the south coast of New Zealand is glorious in May. It is the best time to go for Autumn’s deep colours, nature’s majesty and that hypnotic chiaroscuro that precedes the depths of winter. The nights are chilly and the mornings frosty, then the days open up splendidly. A leisurely walk through Oamaru’s public gardens is one of the highlights of this wonderful town. It’s a place of reflection for some: for the energetic, it’s a place to run: for children and the young at heart, it’s a fairyland, with sculpted mushroom tables and chairs, hidden stone grottos, and mysterious dark places to explore. It is also a place to consider the foresight of Victorian planners, who, in 1858, set aside 34 acres as a public reserve. Oamaru Gardens opened on this site in 1876, making it one of the oldest in the country.
Some highlights of the gardens include the Japanese Red Bridge, the Oriental Garden, the Fragrant Garden and the large trees around the band rotunda. Details from the Victorian era can be seen everywhere – a sundial, croquet lawns, a wishing well, an aviary and a peacock house.
Not all the buildings in the Victorian precinct of Oamaru, New Zealand, are covered with ornate detail. Many are delightfully dilapidated and spare, adding more character to the streetscape with their simple austerity. This preserved corrugated iron shed caught my attention. Was that window strategically placed to catch the reflection of the roof mouldings on a nearby building? I would love to go back and see what the window sees from other angles in different light.
The Steampunk gallery and sculptures around the town of Oamaru, New Zealand make one feel jubilant. Set amidst Victorian streetscapes and along parks and playgrounds facing the old harbour, these joyful sculptures are another reason for visiting this amazing town.
What is steampunk you may ask?
“Steampunk is a quirky and fun genre of science fiction that features steam-powered technology. It is often set in an alternate, futuristic version of 19th century Victorian England.
The Steampunk future is driven by unusual steam-powered devices – the ‘world gone mad’ as Victorian people may have imagined it. Examples are machines like those in the writing of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, and in TV shows such as Dr. Who.
Oamaru is an ideal setting for Steampunk art and activities, given the wonderfully preserved and thriving Victorian buildings.”¹
Jubilant is this week’s prompt on the Daily Post, WordPress.
I was so captivated by the quaint town of Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand that I plan to return there one day to ‘loiter with intent’. This town deserves a week of strolls, dining and waiting for the light to fall on those historic and evocative limestone buildings. I’ve found a nice pub to stay in; I’ve done my homework. The Criterion Hotel, built in 1877, ticks all the right boxes for me. It is well situated in the Victorian precinct, with rooms at a sensible price and a toasty fire to sit by. The decor is just lovely and the food is very good too.
We began our two-week road trip of the Eastern, Southern and Central half of New Zealand’s South Island in this extraordinary town. Our first day was memorable, deserving a fine beer and a lunch in this old and quiet establishment of note.
View from the window of the Criterion, Oamaru
The Criterion, just for the colour.
Hapuka, baby potatoes, salad, capers,
Wall decor, the Criterion, Oamaru.
The beginning of our wine tour
Inside lies a gem of a pub.
Following the lunch at the Criterion with a long walk through the town and its extensive park, we returned to the Victorian precinct in the evening to feast at Oamaru’s fine dining establishment, Cucina 1871. As the name suggests, this restaurant is Italian, but with a modern New Zealand twist, while the dessert menu is classic French. I ordered an entrée of scallops on a bed of polenta. This was a sensational small dish of creamy white polenta, a hard to source ingredient, topped with four lightly cooked fat scallops, and a puddle of brown butter sauce which included deep-fried capers. It was not a dish I was happy to share! For mains, we both ordered the squid ink pasta with local littleneck clams, or vongole, in a gentle garlic sauce. The charming woman who worked and most likely owned this restaurant mentioned that the desserts were made by a chef trained in patisserie. This is code for no sharing. They were sensational. A perfect little apple Tarte Tatin for me, and a Creme Brulee for him, along with a small pot of something chocolaty on the side. We shared a bottle of Chard Farm Pinot Gris, a delightful wine from Central Otago. It was a fitting start to a memorable New Zealand voyage.
Taken with my smartphone, just for the memory.
Chard Farm wine
Classic Creme Brulee.
A tangle of squid ink pasta and a generous serving of little neck clams.
Apple Tarte Tartin, in a puddle of caramel sauce
This meal was independently paid for. I rarely post restaurant reviews but both these establishments in Oamaru deserve high praise.
The Criterion Hotel, 3 Tyne St, Oamaru. http://www.criterionhotel.co.nz/
Cucina 1871, 1 Tees St Oamaru. http://www.cucina1871.co.nz/
Some towns have a profound effect on the psyche. The moment you wander through their streets, or enter their buildings, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu confounds you. Oamaru, in North Otago, New Zealand, is one of these special places. Did my ancestors spend some time in this town before heading down south to settle in Invercargill all those years ago? Or is it the multitude of well-preserved Victorian architecture and streetscapes that enables a visitor to re-enter an imagined past?
Open the following photos individually to get a more intense view of this exceptional town.
Our favourite pub Oamaru
Historic quarter, Oamaru
walking through a Dickensian novel. Oamaru
Once a bank, now a book shop.
More glorious architecture
The streets get narrow and Victorian
Some streets are beautifully restored and are occupied by craftspeople, galleries, cafes, bakeries, and brewers. Further south, towards the sea, the dark grey stoned industrial area bordered by an old railway, is more mysterious, in a ‘dark satanic mills’ kind of way.
omaru, dark satanic mills
Old steam engines
The Oamaru Historical precinct was built of local limestone from the 1860s onwards. This is New Zealand’s most complete Victorian streetscape. You could spend days wandering around this town. It is an evocative place and not to be missed if travelling through the South Island of New Zealand.
Next time: Oamaru’s other attractions- food, parks and steampunk.