Oamaru - Cool Town
"The NZMCA’s 49th Motorhome Friendly town, Oamaru, was named New Zealand’s Coolest Town back in 2014 by Lonely Planet."
That’s quite an achievement for a town with a population of under 15,000 people; but no wonder since just some of the attractions Oamaru has to offer include the historic Victorian precinct, Steampunk HQ and the Blue Penguin Colony, the biggest tourist drawcard in the area.
Sited some 80 kilometres south of Timaru and 120 kilometres north of Dunedin, Oamaru is the largest town in North Otago and is the main town in the Waitaki District. European settlement began there in 1853, with the harbour proving vital for Oamaru and its farming hinterland. Grain and wool were housed in often-ornate warehouses built and carved from locally quarried Oamaru limestone.
As the rural economy boomed, the harbour area became a hub for prosperous businesses, banks, hotels and new industries. Today, many of the majestic Oamaru whitestone buildings comprising the Harbour/Tyne Historic Precinct still stand. They are now home to a collection of curio shops, restaurants, gift stores, a motoring museum, a hotel, a fascinating book store, traditional craftsmen, the Oamaru Steam Train and Sunday markets. Oamaru is also home to the Blue Penguin Colony, the world’s smallest penguin. The colony began when a small number of blue penguins began nesting in a rock quarry area at the edge of Oamaru Harbour in the early 1990s. Today, it is Oamaru’s largest tourist attraction, with over 75,000 visitors per year.
Whitestone City is another popular tourist attraction in the town. Set in an original grain store that was built in 1882, and located within New Zealand’s most complete streetscape of Victorian commercial buildings, Whitestone City is a central heritage hub that facilitates interactive tours of the Victorian Heritage Precinct. Fitted-out in the style of a colonial town, activities, displays, merchants, and an array of people in costume provide a glimpse of what the street would have been like in the town’s early days. Live displays, video imaging, light shows and the ability to dress-up immerse visitors in a living, breathing past.
Most of the streets in Oamaru take their names from rivers in England, particularly rivers in the northwest and southeast of the country. The main modern retail and commercial areas line Thames Street State Highway 1 running south follows Severn Street, whereas historic commercial buildings dominate the area around lower Tyne Street. Another unique attraction is Steampunk HQ, which celebrates Steampunk, the quirky and fun genre of science fiction that features steampowered technology.
It is often set in an alternate, futuristic version of 19th century Victorian England and is New Zealand’s premiere Steampunk experience. It features retro-futuristic sci fi art, movies, sculpture, immersive light and sound experiences. In August 2016 Oamaru made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest gathering of steampunks in the world. Whitestone Cheese is one of New Zealand’s most well-loved cheese brands and visitors can enjoy guided factory tours and cheese tasting.
Totara Estate is a historic farm where visitors are welcome to wander through the men’s quarters, stables, granary, cookhouse and slaughterhouse, with displays recollecting farm and domestic life on the estate during Victorian times. Hear stories of swaggers, farm hands, the Chinese cook and a cartoonist. Clarks Mill is an historic flour mill once part of Totara Estate which has four storeys of fascinating working machinery. Oamaru marks the finish of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail which is truly one of New Zealand’s great rides. For over 300kms visitors can experience some of the most beautiful scenery New Zealand has to offer.
Suitable for all ages, the trail is an easy grade, and offers a pleasing mix of on and off-road trails which link the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean. Allow four to six days for the entire ride, or simply try out a day excursion on a section of the trail. Many of the early works of Janet Frame, who grew up in the town, reflect Oamaru conditions and Oamaruvians. Other literary associations include Owen Marshall and Greg McGee and Fiona Farrell Poole. Other prominent persons born and educated in Oamaru include former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Fred Allen, an All Black captain of the 1940s who went on to coach the All Blacks to 14 wins from his 14 tests in the 1960s, was born in Oamaru, though not educated there.
The artist Colin McCahon lived in Oamaru in from 1930–1931 and attended the Middle School. The place and the North Otago landscape made an impression on him and he revisited the area several times as an adult on painting trips. A strong community of living artists and many dealer galleries have premises in the historic precinct.
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