Charm of the south

Oamaru has inherited a wonderful architectural legacy from the Victorian era when the town's wealth was derived from meat and wool. Nearby quarries provided the white stone to create the imposing buildings which have endured to give Oamaru its historic heart.

Over the past decade, these buildings have been nurtured by the Historic Places Trust, the Waitaki District Council and the Oamaru Whitestone Trust.

The historic precinct lures visitors down a nostalgic street of specialty shops housing an authentic bakery, , traditional crafts, various artisans and wonderful stores of delectable collectibles. A carriage ride or steam train journey are all part of the experience. Immensely proud of their heritage and its preservation, locals can often be seen in Victorian dress or riding Penny Farthing bicycles.

For more than a decade, the highlight of Oamaru's calendar is its Annual Victorian Heritage Celebration, in November. This includes a country fair, a street parade, the National Penny Farthing Race, moonlight promenades, concerts and Victorian melodrama. Half the town hires Victorian costume for the festival, which culminates in a magnificent and elegant ball - an absolute winner.

Just south of Oamaru is Totara Estate, which pioneered the first frozen shipment of meat to England in 1882, and now provides an insight into farming life in the 1880s.

At Parkside Quarry, visitors can enjoy one-hour guided tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays or combine the tour with a visit to Parkside Garden, created in 1992 to showcase the uses for ornate Oamaru limestone. Limestone quarries operated as early as 1862 in Oamaru, and Parkside has been cutting the stone continuously since 1906.

Gastronomically, Oamaru offers a rich variety of eateries, ranging from a hearty ale and delicious pork pie at the historic Criterion Hotel, gracious a la carte dining at the Brydone Hotel and contemporary cafe fare in the CBD. The region's award-winning Whitestone Cheese Factory also has a licensed cafe, along with a superb range of cheeses.

North of Oamaru is the Waitaki River, renowned for whitebait, trout and salmon fishing. Views of the Waitaki Valley against a backdrop of high country and rural landscapes have inspired many painters, including Colin McCahon, whose work is represented in collections in Oamaru's Forrester Gallery. On long-term display is Alpha to Beata, a collection of McCahon's works from the 1930s to the 1960s and given to his sister Beatrice.

Janet Frame also lived in Oamaru for 14 years. The 90-minute Janet Frame Walkway traces various places associated with the author, including her school and the site of her home.

A 20-minute drive south, at Moeraki, dolphins and seals are often spotted and the fishing is superb. A coastal walk winds past an island of white herons and a protected yellow-eyed penguin colony. Moeraki itself is a charming fishing village once established as a whaling station and is just along the beach from the geologically fascinating Moeraki Boulders.

A few kilometres further on is Palmerston, the once bustling gateway to the goldfields of Central Otago. New investment in gold mining at nearby McCraes has re-kindled interest in Palmerston, and tours of McCraes Mine, the largest in New Zealand, can be arranged.

The inland route towards the Southern Alps is one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand and follows the Waitaki River Valley to the hydro-lakes of Benmore and Aviemore. Guided tours of the dams can be arranged at the visitor information centre, as can fishing guides, charters and lake tours. Trout and salmon can be fished between October and April on Lake Waitaki and all year except September at Benmore and Aviemore.

As a place to stay and to sample southern hospitality, Oamaru gets top marks for comfort, cuisine and heritage. While visitors can enjoy good quality mainstream accommodation, historic properties provide a distinctly special flavour. The Criterion Hotel in the historic precinct was built in the 1870s and has been exquisitely restored to recapture its Victorian ambience and working style pub atmosphere.

The Kingsgate Brydone has been a hotel since it was designed by architects Forrester and Lemon and built in 1881. Named after Thomas Brydone, a pioneer in the frozen meat industry, the hotel has weathered many changes over the years, including prohibition in 1906. Recent refurbishment offers modern guest rooms or mini-suites in the historic wing.

Pen-y-Bryn has a Historic Places Trust Category 1 listing and was also designed by Forrester and Lemon for owner John Bulleid in 1889. Today, the elegant house is a luxurious retreat of five individually decorated guest rooms with private facilities, a stunning drawing room, billiards room and a magnificent formal dining room matched by superb cuisine.

Regular scheduled flights from Christchurch to Oamaru started in August and provide even more opportunity to discover one of the South Island's best kept secrets.

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