Oamaru - for impressive history, famous cheese and even a castle nearby

There's a town of renowned Victorian architecture, penguin colonies and a whole lot of delicious food...

North from Dunedin, past Moeraki boulders, the beautiful sweeping coast at Shag Point, and then into an historical town. On the Pacific coast, you’ll find the largest town in North Otago’s Waitaki district, in the South Island of New Zealand. Here’s Oamaru.

It’s a town of renowned limestone Victorian architecture, penguin colonies, cycling trails and a whole lot of delicious food.  Think famous cheese, referencing that white stone, and a castle to boot.  Who knew….

Stories from the past

Māori tradition tells of a canoe, Arai Te Uru, which sailed from near here to the ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki to obtain kūmara. On its return, the story goes, it became waterlogged off the Waitaki River mouth, lost food baskets at Moeraki beach and ended up wrecked at Matakaea (Shag Point). Some say this explains why kūmara might not grow south of Banks Peninsula. Perhaps….

And European settlers arrived in the Oamaru area in the 1850s. The town grew as a service centre for the agricultural surrounds, and rapidly became a major port, with a commercial and fishing harbour. Oamaru flourished, thanks to the farming industry and its associated export frozen meat industry, that began just south of the town at Totara. And it flourished with beautiful stone buildings. 

Such beautiful stone

The local limestone, called Oamaru stone, attracted designers and craftsmen.  It’s a town where its built heritage is a true asset. A civic trust began in 1987 to redevelop the original business district, and work began on restoring the historic precinct beside the port. 

It’s a really atmospheric urban area, and "heritage" now is a prominent industry. We’ve read that Oamaru contains over 70 buildings registered as category 1 or 2 historic places in the Heritage New Zealand register. You can believe it….

Penguins, cycles and famous kiwis…

You’ll find that a colony of little blue penguins lives in a disused quarry on the harbour. There’s a visitors' centre, and grandstands, and apparently the colony is now the town’s largest tourist attraction. How tremendous to sit looking out to the Pacific Ocean, and see these gorgeous little birds do their thing so close to town. 

So it’s a place of penguins, and you’ll see cycles through the town too. Spot Victorian penny farthings around town, and you can’t miss modern day cycle shops too. Oamaru is the end point of the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail, from Aoraki Mount Cook. The four (or five) day cycle trail ends at Friendly Bay, at Oamaru's Victorian historic precinct.  What a nice ending that would be.

And there’s a bunch of famous New Zealanders from here, over the years. Many of the early works of author Nene Janet Paterson Clutha - Janet Frame - who grew up in the town reflect Oamaruvians (yes, that’s a word) and Oamaru (recognisable as the "Waimaru" of her first novel). There’s rugby, as well as literature…. Richie McCaw was born here, and grew up on a nearby farm. He’s the most capped test rugby player of all time, and quite well known around here.

And the food, the food

Of course we’re here for food treasures too, and find them you will. Bakeries, cafes, larders, lolly shops, gelato and delicious cheese. What a treat to visit a cheese factory, to meet the cheesemakers and to sample in an on-site cafe, with local food and wine….

Continuing north from Oamaru, make sure you don’t miss a famous restaurant on your left, with an impressive veggie garden, a tremendous seasonal menu, and a castle, even. Thanks Oamaru, for your stories and your food….we’ll be back!

And for more…

To find more on The FoodPath NZ’s handpicked eateries and artisans, for our collection of spot on New Zealand food moments, including in Oamaru and more through Dunedin, Waitaki & Clutha, download our New Zealand Food Trail Guides app for iPhone or Android.

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