Catherine Smith falls for Oamaru's Victorian township and modern food.
Although I'd never been there, I'd always had a soft spot for the northern Otago town of Oamaru. It seems it is how a proper old-fashioned town should be, with a main street of grand old buildings and proper friendly people.
And this wee town also has a roll call of spectacular food (and wine) that cities twice its size should envy.
I won't make the obvious Aucklander jabs at Dunedin's "rush hour", but let's say that when planning the 1-hour drive to Oamaru you don't need to factor in time for congestion.
My hosts for the weekend were "the Jameses" - expat Americans by way of Beijing who run the 1889 Arts and Crafts lodge Pen-y-Bryn. Their beautifully restored mansion has only five suites, so service is up close and personal.
James Gluckman is the cook, showcasing local produce and pointing me in to the best local foodie destinations. James Boussy manages the gardens, refills the cookie jars and is famous for his stunning Christmas gingerbread constructions (castles, not mere houses). That the pair scoured the world to find a location that fit their dream for a high-end lodge, and ended up in Oamaru, says it all.
The Jameses had lined up for me the town's world-famous trio of food places: Bevan Smith's Riverstone Kitchen, Whitestone Cheese and, en route back to Dunedin airport, Fleur's Place at Moeraki. My first dinner at Riverstone was so good I went back for lunch the next day, so I could catch up with Bevan and explore the vegetable gardens.
His mother, Meg, is the super-gardener, seemingly ploughing up more paddocks every month to add more vege beds, fruit and berry orchards, as well as a super-sized playground and, as you do, a moat.
The food is just as you'd hoped - light, fresh and barely mucked about with. I'd just missed out on the new baby lamb, but the local sole was dreamy and creamy. Bevan, unlike the rest of Otago, is not mad about the famous-in-those-parts cod.
Simon Berry, the second generation of the Whitestone Cheese family, is a poster boy for locals coming home to roost. He came back from the United Kingdom in 2003, and has grown the business by employing 12 cheesemakers instead of four, winning a slew of awards for his batch-made cheeses and ensuring good sustainable farming practices.
He credits the sweet grass from the local limestone. Good to know that glorious Oamaru stone is more than just a pretty face on the superb Victorian town buildings, then.
In between actual meals, I managed a goodly tramp around the unspoiled Victorian township - the ideal setting for crafts, delightful second-hand books, a tea shop with actual maids in Downton Abbey-style outfits, the maddest Steam Punk museum (a sideline I'd not been expecting), eye-wateringly affordable antique shops and the Sunday farmer's market.
A drive through the Waitaki Valley had me screeching to a halt at more pretty towns, some up-and-coming vineyards and the weirdest museum of rocks and archaeology, The Vanished World.
Dare I say this is more interesting and varied country than Central Otago, certainly worth a detour through the Pass if you are Queenstown- or Wanaka-bound this summer.
The soft spot for this old-world town has turned into a love affair with its charm and modern food.
Best on show
What: Oamaru Wine and Food Festival - regional wine, beer and food, cooking demonstrations, music and more.
Where: Oamaru Public Gardens
When: Sunday February 17, 11am-6pm.
Catherine Smith was a guest of Pen-y-bryn Lodge.