Historically, Otago was one of the original six provinces of New Zealand, encompassing everything south of the Waitaki River, including present day Southland and the Queenstown-Lakes area. This article covers the coastal areas of Otago and the Central Otago region (but not the Queenstown-Lakes area).
Stretching from the Southern Alps in the centre of the island to the coast in the east, Otago can provide the full mountain-to-surf New Zealand experience. The Otago region is best thought of in two parts, coastal Otago in the east, with the main city of Dunedin at its centre, and Central Otago to the west (lying in the centre of the island — 'central' to the locals). In the west of Central Otago are the tourist centres of Queenstown and Wanaka. The two parts of the region differ in climate and geography, with Central Otago being at a higher altitude, and having a more continental climate with cooler winters and hotter summers.
Dunedin sits on the coast in the east of Otago, a historic city with many attractions for tourists and access to the Otago peninsula, with its range of unique wildlife attractions. Other towns in the eastern part of Otago include coastal Oamaru (made famous by Janet Frame) and rural Balclutha. To the east Alexandra sits at the heart of central Otago, with Cromwell to its east and Roxburgh to its west.
Central Otago is a known fruit and wine producing region. Central Otago produces award winning wines made from varieties such as the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Riesling grapes.
The name Otago is an anglicisation of the Māori place name Otakou as heard in the local dialect. Otakou means red earth.
Otago was settled by Europeans in 1848. Initial settlement in the region was concentrated in Dunedin. The 1860s saw rapid commercial expansion after Gabriel Read discovered gold at Gabriel's Gully near Lawrence, and the Central Otago goldrush ensued. Veterans of goldfields in California and Australia, plus many other fortune-seekers from Europe, North America and China, poured into the then Province of Otago. Further gold discoveries at Clyde and on the Arrow River round Arrowtown led to a boom, and Otago became for a period the cultural and economic centre of New Zealand. The gold rush came and went but left its touch on the region, including a 'frontier' feeling in many of the small towns.
Otago is a large region and sparsely populated outside the major centres. There is public transport which runs between the centres, but other than that you will need to rely on your own transport.
The main highway, State Highway 1, runs along the east of the Otago province through Dunedin (and then south and on to Invercargill). The main tourist route is via State Highway 1 south from Dunedin to Milton, and then inland along State Highway 8 across to Queenstown/Wanaka (via Roxburgh, Alexandra and Cromwell). There is an alternative option which is to take State Highway 85, which branches off from State Highway 1 north of Dunedin at Palmerston. That takes you to Alexandra (and on to Queenstown) via Ranfurly, and is an amazing scenic route (this way follows along some of the path taken by the Central Otago Rail Trail).
Like many New Zealand provinces, the landscapes and the playground they provide are the main attraction - not settlements. Coastal attractions are common along the populated east coast, including unique wildlife attractions at the Otago peninsula. Central Otago has a different climate and landscape, with the area around Ranfurly (part of the rail trail) being particularly famous for its scenery.
- The lakes.
- The mountains.
- The rivers.
- The tiny towns and villages, some now abandoned.
- The stone architecture of many of the pioneers' structures.
- Abandoned goldfields
- Moeraki Boulders - a popular attraction, large spherical rocks on the beach near the fishing settlement of Moeraki, about halfway between Oamaru and Dunedin, about 20 km north of Palmerston.
- Central Otago Rail Trail. Is a 150 km walking, cycling and horse riding track which runs in an arc between Middlemarch and Clyde, along the route of the former Otago Central Railway. Its a great way to take in the regions stunning scenery at a leisurely pace, as well as catch a close up view of the historic townships. The trail is a great success story for the region, it is a nationally recognised tourist attraction and second biggest economic earner for the region (after farming). It attracts 10,000-12,000 users per year and supports at network of bed and breakfasts and cafe/pubs along its route. It has been used as a template for a network of similar trails throughout New Zealand.
- Camping Central Otago is a popular holiday destination for Kiwis, with a number of lakes and camping locations in the region.
- Adventure tourism
Central Otago is a well known stone fruit growing region. There are a large number of orchards located around Roxburgh and Cromwell. The region is particularly known for growing cherries, and apricots. Roadside food stalls in these places can be a great place to pick up fruit and vegetables (although the larger ones are often designed to capture and overcharge the 'coach' tourists; you will find a better deal at the smaller ones).
Coastal Otago provides some great opportunities to try local sea food, from the small fish and chip shops, to the famous Fleurs Place.
- Evansdale Cheese Factory (Waikouaiti), Hawksbury Village State Highway 1 (Watch for the signs.), ☎ . Daily 10:00–16:00. A small cheese factory with a shop where you can sample and buy cheese
- Fleur's Place, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Famous fresh seafood restaurant located beside the sea in the Moeraki village away from SH1. When British television chef and restaurateur Rick Stein was told he could choose to go anywhere in the world to write a travel article for English newspaper the Daily Mail, he chose here. For a food enthusiast this is a must visit. Book ahead.
- Riverstone Kitchen, 1431 State Highway 1 Rd 5h (About 10 km north of Oamaru), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Another Otago gem, 2010 New Zealand Restaurant of the year.
- Moeraki Restaurant & Bar - touristy cafe at the stairs to the beach to the Moeraki Boulders. Good view of sea.
- Fish Inn, in Waikouaiti - fish & chips shop on SH1. Good fish in light fluffy batter.
At latitude 45° south, the Central Otago Wine Region is the most southerly wine producing region in the world. The vineyards are also the highest in New Zealand at 200–400 m above sea level, on the floor of glacial valleys. Central Otago is a sheltered inland area with a continental micro-climate characterised by hot, dry summers, cool autumns and crisp, cold winters.
Pinot noir is the leading grape variety in Central Otago, and is estimated to account for some 70% of plantings. The Pinot Noir is notoriously fickle and difficult to grow. Central Otago, however, with its combination of climate, terroir and determined winemaking appears to have the capacity to produce a world-class Pinot Noir that is increasingly sought-after. The grape there is producing elegant wines with great ageing potential that some experts believe will ultimately equal the best in the world.
The other 30% of production comes from Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Pinot gris, and Gewürztraminer. The latter three in particular, amenable to Central Otago's climatic conditions and soil type, are showing great promise, and may develop a reputation to match the Pinot Noirs. Limited production of sparkling wine, made in the traditional style from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, has been of good quality, and has received some accolades at wine tastings around the world.
Unlike the more northerly parts of New Zealand, parts of Otago often gets snow in winter. Some of the roads, especially the alpine passes become icy in winter, so chains should be carried and used when called for.
Many of the main roads can also be very windy and narrow, with many blind corners. Care should be taken when driving in the region, especially when passing.