Oamaru is a town in North Otago, New Zealand, with beautiful Victorian buildings crafted from the fine, white local limestone, and colonies of penguins. Oamaru is also the gateway to the Waitaki Valley, a stunning natural area bisected by the braided Waitaki River, whose hydroelectric dams have created numerous lakes for water sports and recreation.
Oamaru does two things better than anywhere else in New Zealand – beautiful Victorian architecture and little blue penguin viewing. A strange mix in a strange, interesting town.
Oamaru started its existence in the mid-1800s as one of a few large sheep farms in North Otago. The natural harbour was recognised and a breakwater built to facilitate trade. Buildings sprung up – banks, grain stores, post offices and a court house – built with a type of limestone called Oamaru stone because it is sourced locally and used all over the country. Oamaru fell on hard times and lacked resources to pull down the older buildings while other towns were replacing older buildings with new ones. As a result Oamaru has a fantastic collection of older buildings in an unspoilt precinct by the harbour. Better times have returned with the district becoming wealthy through the meat, dairy and education industries and this has allowed the locals to restore and strengthen the old buildings.
Today Oamaru is a little known tourism spot where prices tend to be reasonable for accommodation (of which there is a glut) and there are some exceptional restaurants, which you would not generally expect in a town of 13,000 people (2019).
Visitors come to view the nightly return to shore of little blue penguins. The town has several colonies of these birds, the smallest and only blue variety of penguin in the world. The largest colony is now run as a commercial activity by the town council, offering an opportunity to view the penguins in their natural habitat. There is also a small colony of yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho), one of the world's rarest penguins, just outside the town.
The Waitaki Valley is home to New Zealand's newest wine appellation, where a number of vineyards are producing Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and other varietals that are winning international awards.
Partly because of its impressive architecture, and partly because of its artsy nature, Oamaru has become New Zealand's self-proclaimed capital of Steampunk. A festival of steampunk is held annually in Oamaru, usually during June. The town's Victorian heritage is also celebrated in a festival, held annually in November.
Oamaru is located on State Highway 1, 250 km south of Christchurch (approx 3hr 15min) and 115 km north of Dunedin (approx 1hr 30min). State Highway 83 meets SH 1 at Pukeuri, 9 km north of the town centre, providing access from Omarama and the Mackenzie Country via the Waitaki Valley.
Daily bus services operate between Christchurch and Dunedin and between Christchurch and Te Anau via Oamaru. The main bus stop is in Eden Street, just east of the Thames Street (SH 1) intersection.
Oamaru town is small enough to cycle around. Taxis are available.
- 1 North Otago Museum, 60 Thames St. M–F 1–4:30PM, closed weekends and holidays. Cultural, industrial and agricultural history and an exhibition on the author Janet Frame. Rebuilding work is under-way and is expected to reopen later in 2020 - until this is complete only a single room is open. Free.
- 2 Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, 2 Waterfront Rd (near the harbour and not far from the Victorian Precinct). See little blue penguins (kororā in Māori and Eudyptula minor in Latin) in their nests or coming ashore at night. Evening viewing from $36.
- 3 Steampunk HQ, 1 Itchen St (in Victorian Precinct). 10AM-5PM, daily in summer, Th-Su in winter. Steampunk is a sort of science fiction inspired by Victorian steam powered machinery. The HQ contains a selection of exhibits constructed from twentieth century junk, some of which are animated. you can play "tunes" on a weird version of an organ. Some exhibits in front of (and a couple inside) require $2 coins to come to life. $10.
- 4 Town lookout (east end of Tamar St).
- Victorian Precinct (Harbour & Tyne Historic Precinct). This is the town's original commercial area, largely built in the 1870s to 1890s. It is the most complete Victorian streetscape in the country. The buildings were constructed of a hard, compact limestone that was quarried locally and known as Oamaru stone. Many buildings have been restored and they house shops, galleries and eateries.
- 5 Whitestone City, 12 Harbour St. Daily 9:30AM–5PM. Museum about Oamaru. $25.
- 6 Whitestone Cheese Factory, cnr Torridge and Humber Sts. M-F 9AM-5:30PM summer (9AM-5PM winter), Sa Su 10AM-4PM. Factory viewing gallery and shop.
- 7 56 Eden Street. Nov-Apr, daily 2-4PM. The childhood home, from 1931 to 1943, of the author Janet Frame. $5.
Out of town
- 8 Bushy Beach (not far from town; follow Tyne St south up to South Hill; near the top of the hill turn right onto Bushy Beach Rd and follow to the end). Take a 5– to 10–minute walk through coastal vegetation to a viewing hide from where you may see yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho in Māori) and other marine species.
- 9 Moeraki Boulders (40km south). Large round boulders on the beach.
- Totara Estate, Alma-Maheno Rd (State Highway 1) (10 km south of Oamaru), ✉ email@example.com. M-Su 10:00-4:00 (September-May). Established in the 1850s, Totara Estate exported New Zealand’s first shipment of frozen meat in 1882. A number of limestone farm buildings have been restored by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Adults $10, Children $5.
- 10 Vanished World Centre, 7 Campbell Street, Duntroon (corner of Middleton St), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily 9:30AM-5:30PM. A museum on the geology and fossils of the Waitaki district. It exhibits fossilised whales, dolphins, giant penguins, giant sharks and other invertebrates from the marine ecosystems of the Oligocene, 20–30 million years ago. Duntroon is 43 km (31 minutes drive) from the centre of Oamaru. There is also a free self-drive Vanished World Trail you can follow to view geology, fossils and Maori rock art in situ. Adult $10, family $20, under 12 child free.
- Waitaki Valley
- Waitaki vineyards
- Steampunk NZ Festival. 3 June - 7 June 2021. The weekend of Queen's Birthday (first Monday in June).
- Victorian Heritage Celebrations. Held in November.
- 1 Victorian Sweets and Toys, 2 Itchen St. Traditional sweets, sold by the once from glass jars. Also has a selection of British and US imports.
- Riverstone Kitchen, 1431 State Highway 1, RD 5H (12 km north of Oamaru), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Th-M 9AM-5PM, Th-Su 6PM-late. A gem, 2010 New Zealand Restaurant of the year.
- Fleurs Place, Moeraki.
- Fat Sally's Pub and Restaurant.
- North Star Restaurant and Bar.
- 1 Kakanui Camping Ground, Kakanui-Waianakarua Rd, Kakanui South (10–15 min drive south from Oamaru). Caravan/tent sites, some with power, and one cabin. From $13 (one adult), additional adults $10.
- 2 YHA Oamaru, 2 Reed Street, ☏ . Pleasant small hostel with dorms and individual rooms in a 1950s wooden bungalow. beds $27, rooms $66.
- 3 Pen-y-bryn Lodge, 41 Towey St. 5 room luxury lodge rooms $525-1050.
- Free Wi-Fi is available at the library, next the North Otago museum.
- 1 Oamaru i-SITE.
|Routes through Oamaru|
|Christchurch ← Timaru ←||N S||→ Blueskin Bay → Dunedin|