POCKET-SIZED TIMARU lives and breathes the seaside.
From a very young age growing up in Christchurch, countless family summer holidays were spent in Timaru, where a summer staple remains the Caroline Bay Carnival, which soon celebrates its 110th outing.
Brimming with rides, sideshows, talent quests and live concerts in the Sound Shell, the summer carnival is old-fashioned family fun.
Eager to stretch the legs, I headed to the northern end of Caroline Bay to size up proceedings on the Memorial Walkway that leads you across the Benvenue Cliffs and the historic Blackett's Lighthouse, a gorgeous structure that dates back to 1878 and the origins of the port's development.
Clad in narrow kauri weatherboards, it remains one of the last standing timber lighthouses in New Zealand. The ravishing ocean views intersect with some striking geology further north of the Dashing Rocks walk, which leads you to the ancient lava flows of Mt Horrible, spilling into the sea, and giving rise to a rocky platform of basalt columns.
History runs deep in Timaru and the city's main thoroughfare of Stafford St is endowed with a sweeping parade of ornate Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
I ventured to the pint-sized by punching-above-its-weight South Canterbury Museum, which walks you through the region's story with aplomb, including an introduction to some of the South Canterbury's greatest heroes.
A beautiful replica of Richard Pearse's "flying machine" dangles from the ceiling, who flew this microlight-looking contraption in March 1903, months before the legendary Wright brothers.
A beloved city landmark is the 1870s Landing Services Building, a two-storey bluestone gem, cleaved out of volcanic basalt rock. Today, the building houses a variety of attractions including Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre and the lip-smacking Street Food Kitchen, which doubles as an alluring restaurant and cocktail bar.
The Asian-fusion menu is a taste sensation, while the cocktail menu is as inventive as it is expansive. Street Food Kitchen has raised the bar on the city's hospo credentials.
Another irresistibly unique experience is to enjoy some libations at Hector Black's Lounge Bar. This Stafford St venue is whimsical, wondrous and wildly eccentric. It's lavishly furnished in fabulous interiors, and I found myself lounging on a leather sofa, sipping superbly crafted cocktails, while ogling the bar's namesake, the taxidermied Jack Russell dog, Hector, while his alive and kicking son, Nash, snuggled up to me.
The array of taxidermy animals is breath-taking including an upright wild pig that looks like he's about to burst into song. An eclectic spree of antiques and art pieces festoon the walls, from the hymn number boards you'll typically find in country churches to auctioneer podiums.
For Timaru's best dining, hop across the road to The Oxford, housed in a century-old building with a swish monochrome décor. Service is sparkling and whip-smart while the cuisine is high-class comfort food starring local produce and fresh, full-bodied flavour. The duck wontons are a delight, while I devoured my Cuban Pork main with relish.
South Canterbury is studded with a trove of hidden gems, headlined by the region's Maori rock art. Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre gives you a great introduction to our nation's first art galleries. Limestone rock faces and the walls and ceilings of caves served as the canvas for Ngāi Tahu, over hundreds of years. The centre houses eight artworks that were cut from the limestone rock face over a century ago.
I then joined a Ngāi Tahu guide, Sue, for a riveting tour to one of the most revered cave sites, home to the Opihi taniwha, near Pleasant Point.
Sue remarked that the South Canterbury and North Otago area boasts hundreds of rock art sites, studding the Opihi and Pareora river valleys, generally north-facing nooks, sheltered from the southerly. The overwhelming majority are sited on private farmland, which thankfully safeguards them from vandalism.
The Opihi taniwha has appeared on everything from postage stamps to Theo Schoon's interpretations. Spanning more than 5 metres across the cave ceiling, the drawing resembles a mash-up of swollen bellies and entwined tails.
It was originally painted in ochre red, but subsequently touched up in black pigment, although by whom or when remains a mystery. The valley setting is a spectacular slice of soulful hinterland. It's being heavily planted in native seedlings in a bid to restore the valley to its primeval state.