Elisabeth Easther finds a small South Island town that rocks and regularly dances.

Origin of name:

One popular rumour claims that Alice Humphries, wife of the local landowner and surveyor, was reading George Eliot's novel

Middlemarch

when her husband was carving up the land.

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Population: About 150 in town and 600 in the wider Strath Taieri region.

Claims to fame: The Middlemarch Singles Dance and the Otago Central Rail Trail — both have helped put this town on the map. Having parts of The Hobbit film around here didn't hurt either.

Selfie spot: Take a snap with the two merino sheep (made of Oamaru stone) who wait patiently outside the pub atop pillars of schist.

Town motto: Middlemarch Rocks! A reference to the moon-like landscape and those Rock and Pillar Ranges.

Famous locals: All Black Frank McAtamney, Richard Emerson from Emerson Breweries and silversmith Kobi Bosshard.

Famous short-term residents: The dwarfs from The Hobbit loved staying in Middlemarch, drinking at the pub like locals. As for Andy Serkis, who played Gollum, he said, "I can honestly say this is my favourite place in the whole of Middle-earth."

Infamous locals: Town is full of them, walk into the local pub and you'll always find a couple.

Best website: middlemarch.co.nz
Big business: Predominantly farming, although the Otago Rail Trail brings in a fair bit.

Weather or not: The Taieri Pet is a fruity cloud formation that occurs over this way and sometimes it looks like a vast stack of pancakes in the sky.

Town fiestas:

Every second Easter, Middlemarch throws itself open to hopeful romantics who come to the famous Singles Dance looking for love. The

Strath Taieri A&P Show

each March is a rural delight.

Here for a short time: The Sutton Suspension Bridge, just a couple of kilometres from SH87, is an engineering marvel featuring fetching stone pillars, and there's a decent swimming hole beneath it.

Best reason to stop: Because the landscape is jaw-dropping while the peace and quiet provides respite from the bustle of everyday life. Painters and photographers go wild for this region.

Kids love: Take the nippers on the Taieri Gorge Train. On Fridays and Sundays it goes all the way to Middlemarch. Land Rover and farm tours are also popular, as is swimming in the Taieri River.

Salient point: Sutton Salt Lake is the only inland salt lake in New Zealand. Created from run-off rainfall, the water absorbs minerals and salt from the rocks as it flows. In summer it's a dry, cracked mud pan whereas in winter the water complements the countryside's rocks and pillars, flora and fauna. Heaven for cycling and walking.

Best park: There's a brand new multi-sport astro turf sports field at the A&P Showgrounds, as well as tennis courts where rackets can be hired. The playground has swings and slides - as you'd expect - as well as a vintage tractor and a neat wooden bridge and tunnel.

Best walks: DoC tracks go all the way to the top of the Rock and Pillar Ranges, with a network of huts if you fancy doing an overnight. There is everything from short strolls to multi-day hikes. Or walk the aforementioned Sutton Salt Lake, giving about 40 minutes to circumnavigate.

Best view:

Every metre of the road to Middlemarch is amazing. Dropping into the valley you'll be rewarded with views of river, mountains and rock formations.

Picture perfect: Sir Peter Jackson described Strath Taieri as a location where "you can literally shoot in 360 degrees every direction. We've had some incredible skies, what we call Close Encounters of the Third Kind skies".

Look up: The stars are stellar.

Best swims: For a cool pool dip, the Middlemarch Community Pool is 25m long, casual keys available from Maggie's. Or opt for nature and the river.

Best museum: Middlemarch Museum is a historical highlight, an elegant and lovingly curated collection. It's also home to the famous Platypus, a 10m iron submarine designed and built in 1873 for gold prospecting.

Cultural outings: Pick up a brochure from any of the local shops and navigate the self-guided Heritage Drive and visit the ruins of Sutton Military Camp.

Nice arts: During summer when the Taieri George Train toots into town on Fridays and Sundays, the craft shop at the railway station swings into action, showcasing the works of local artisans. Pick up a gorgeous miniature schist house or a pot of Strathdale organic clover honey.

Top shop: Maggie's is the best little shop in town for groceries, butchery items, icecreams, pies, milkshakes, videos and a warm welcome.

Cream of the coffee: Kissing Gate Cafe serves great coffee and delicious homemade food. Their big breakfast is a gem, ditto their pies and date scones. Or swing by Quench Cafe and Bar for coffee, cold drinks and more delicious food including the Sunday special lamb shank pie. Wet your whistle: Strath Taieri Hotel is all about warm smiles, cold beer and hearty pub food, and their blue cod (battered or baked) lures diners from far and wide. Found opposite the railway station, the hotel is a real oasis for riders at the end of the rail trial.

Best mountain biking:

Otago Central Rail Trail is one of New Zealand's best-loved rides — with good reason — and Middlemarch is the start, or the finish, depending which way you do it.

Rest your head: Middlemarch has a range of accommodation for all budgets from quirky to historic. The views are amazing and the beds uber comfy.

Wildlife: The rare Otago skink, with its distinctive black, green and yellow spots, is unique to the region, and the ancient and endangered mountain weta lives around here too. Trout are also pretty plentiful, so hook up with a guide and you'll be almost guaranteed to bag a brown trout.

The verdict: If you're down this way, driving or cycling, you simply have to make time for an overnight stay because Middlemarch is utterly beguiling.