Off the beaten track in Otago

Always on the lookout for new places to add to our clients itineraries, we spent some time over the summer exploring places off the beaten track in Otago.

Always on the lookout for new places to add to our clients itineraries, we spent some time over the summer exploring places off the beaten track in Otago. One such place was the quaint and historic town of Ophir. One such off the beaten track place was the quaint and historic town of Ophir. Originally the township was known as Blacks, after the Black brothers on whose farm gold was discovered in 1863. The name was changed to Ophir in 1875, when Superintendent James Macandrew, declared the settlement to be Ophir, honouring the biblical land where the Queen of Sheba obtained gold for King Solomon. An apt name for a goldmining town. At its height Ophir’s population was well over a 1000 people. It is now home to just 53 permanent residents.

Don't be fooled into thinking that means that there's nothing to see though. The town of Ophir has many historic buildings, many of which are protected by the Historic Places Trust. The original goldminers cottages made of schist and adobe, the Courthouse, the policeman’s house, the cottage hospital, the bank, the Union Church and the Post Office all add to the charm of this idyllic little place.

The historic post office has operated continuously on this site since 1863. It was built in 1886 and in 1976 it was purchased by the Historic Places Trust and restored. It still has most of its original features, including interior furnishings and has not changed much since its original construction. The Post Office still operates today and is the oldest of all New Zealand post offices still running. The Postmistress was a jolly lady who took pleasure in giving us a tour and letting the kids choose postcards, a stamp and then frank them themselves before posting them 'behind the scenes'. On top of all that they have an amazing licensed cafe, with accommodation, and a beautiful pub called Blacks. Their accommodation will make you smile. They have 10 beautifully presented en-suite rooms. Each room has its own unique identity. Themed rooms with a twist, The Reverend's room, Sassy Wee Lassy, Hot Jock  to name but a few. Named after the Naked Scotsman’s gourmet sauce range (which i can say is absolutely delicious). We went there for dinner and thoroughly enjoyed our Haggis for entree and then a main of Pork Belly. It was absolutely divine. The new owners are a friendly bunch, and as well as only serving wines from the local area, they have an extensive New Zealand beer list.

Another of our favourite places in this area is St Bathans. The stunning blue colour of the lake is caused by the mineral content of the surrounding cliffs. The 120 metre high hill that was the lake site, is now a 69 metre deep hole, the deepest mining hole in the Southern Hemisphere. The town itself once boasted over 2000 miners and not less than 13 Hotels! Today the only remaining Hotel, the Vulcan Hotel dating back to 1882, is a major tourist attraction for the area. It still provides accommodation and meals for passers-by today. One of its claims to fame is that it is haunted, so beware you may yet see an old timer! We had a lovely meal here after a kayak around the lake, followed by a Devonshire cream tea.

There are many towns in Central Otago that you could drive straight on through on your way to Wanaka or Queenstown if you didn't know better. Two of our favourites are Cromwell and Clyde. Steeped in the culture and history of early New Zealand, Clyde was born when thousands of miners rushed to the area after discovery of gold in 1862. It is now one of the most in-tact towns from the early New Zealand Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s. With its beautifully preserved historic buildings in the Historic Precinct, two museums, pretty gardens, cafés, restaurants and a myriad of outdoor activities,
Clyde is a great place to base yourself for a few days and should not be missed.
Cromwell (named after Oliver Cromwell) is home to a host of award-winning wineries; a perfect place to enjoy the scenery while enjoying some the worlds finest Central Otago Pinot Noir. The area also has a rich heritage with remnants of goldfields that will take you on a journey to the past. Wander down to the historic Cromwell Heritage Precinct for a selection of boutique shops, art galleries and cosy cafes. Lake Dunstan is an idyllic location for swimming, fishing, boating and water sports in summer. In winter, there are five fantastic skifields all within comfortable driving distances. It is also home to the famous Highland's Motorsport Park, a popular visitor attraction with activities for the whole family.

Cromwell's central location makes it an excellent base for exploring the wider Central Otago area, allowing for easy day trips to nearby towns such as Queenstown, Arrowtown, Wanaka and Clyde. Not forgetting in the summer it is a mecca for stone-fruits. We had a lovely morning picking cherries on the last day of the season and I can honestly say that we have had our fill of cherry pie and cherry crumble for at least another year. On our way home we stopped in Naseby for lunch at the beautiful Royal Hotel. We've only been here during the winter months previously (to ice skate on the lake) but summer in Naseby didn't disappoint. In the winter, if you don't fancy the lake, you can visit the Maniototo Curling International ice rink on the town’s outskirts and have a go at the ancient ice sport. The rink is the largest, year round, indoor curling rink in the Southern Hemisphere. An outdoor ice rink alongside it is open only during winter for curling, ice skating and ice hockey. The downhill luge behind the rinks is a winter must. Naseby's population is 100, but swells during the holiday season. A variety of accommodation, quality dining, museums, tennis courts, bowling green, swimming dam, golf course, four wheel drive tours, mountain biking, hunting, fishing and forest walks are readily accessible.

While in Central, we also enjoyed a day trip to the ever-stunning Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea (two of our regular haunts) and a week of kayaking, walking, photography and relaxing in Lake Tekapo. Another weekend was spent at Kaka Point in the Catlins. A must if you enjoy great surf, impressive waterfalls, hiking through forests and sharing the white sandy beaches while dolphins and Sea Lions.

Closer to home in Dunedin, we went on a nature cruise where we were lucky enough to have a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins frolicking in the sea with us. We also saw the rare Royal Albatross leaving the world's only mainland colony and fighting for food alongside us. We watched the New Zealand Furseals breed, fight and play on the rocks around their breeding rookeries. The endangered and impressive New Zealand Sealions are returning to the sandy beaches around the area. We also spotted rarely seen ocean birds including other albatross species, lots of shags and petrels. Monach Cruises are well prepared for the Dunedin weather, you're provided with great quality jackets, blankets and some very good quality binoculars.

An easy day trip from Dunedin, or a place to stop between Christchurch and Dunedin, is Oamaru. Oamaru and the Waitaki have a rich history and heritage, evident throughout the district in many ways. From Victorian streetscapes and Maori history to Steampunk and gorgeous galleries, it is a place you'll wish you had more time in.

Last but not least we spent a day at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in Dunedin. It is the flagship biodiversity project for the South Island where multiple species of plants and animals are protected from predators. A predator fence surrounds 307 hectares of Coastal Otago forest, pests have been removed, habitat enhanced with weed control and planting, and many rare and endangered species re-introduced. Whilst we weren't lucky enough to see a kiwi in its natural habitat we did see lots of cheeky Kaka's (a South Island parrot), Tui, Bellbird's, Tuatara, Takahe and jewelled Ghekos. So the holidays are over, for the time being.

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