Sci-fi fans and others will appreciate the many attractions of Ōamaru, writes Sarah Pollok
Steampunk may have put Ōamaru on the map, but there's far more to the Waitaki town and the wider region than most Kiwis realise.
If you aren't a sci-fi fan but love historic architecture, top-notch eateries and magnificent natural attractions, all without the bustle of tourists, this region is for you.
Day 1: Coastal drives, waterfront wines and penguin shows
After landing at Dunedin airport, grab a car and a coffee from the CBD and follow SH1 north for an hour as it winds through large farms and small towns before hitting the coastline and reaching Moeraki.
Here you'll find Moeraki Tavern, an eatery that may look humble on the outside, but serves some of the best kai around. Grab a table that looks out across the harbour while you dig into pub fare like fish and chips, chicken wraps or pizza, served up by kind, enthusiastic staff.
Then, it's time to see the famous Moeraki Boulders, a five-minute drive and five-minute beach walk away. The spherical rocks may seem like a man-made art installation but these 2m-high boulders were naturally created some 60 million years ago.
Hop back on SH1 for another 30 minutes, passing Hampden, Herbert and Alma before reaching Ōamaru.
From there, you'll want to head to one of the town's best attractions, the Victorian Precinct. From the outside, the 19th century neo-classical buildings may seem untouched, giving you the unusual sense you've gone back in time. But once you step inside the beautiful buildings, you'll find the coal stores, grain warehouses and merchant shops have been replaced with cafes, galleries and trendy boutiques.
For trendy homewares, clothing and accessories by popular brands like Ashley & Co, Citta and Stolen Girlfriends Club, head to Housekeepers. Meanwhile, all things cute and small can be found at William Bee General Merchants, which have NZ-made gifts and clothes for kids and adults.
Bookworms can hunt for a bargain at the second-hand bookshop, Slightly Foxed, while all visitors should climb the staIrs at 5 Harbour St and enter the whimsical art mecca known as Grainstore Gallery.
If you've always wondered what Steampunk is or what it looks like, it is worth visiting the Steampunk HQ. Part museum, part gallery and entirely interactive, the various rooms tell the story of this science fiction genre. Make sure you step into the Infinity Portal for an epic photo opportunity.
Wind down from the excitement with a final stop at Forrester Gallery. Originally The Bank of New South Wale, circa 1884, the classic building is now home to a growing collection of regional artists and hosts many activities to help kids enjoy and engage with the exhibits.
After a full day of exploring, it's time to eat and few places are better than Del Mar Eatery. Since opening in late 2020, the waterfront restaurant has been popular with locals, offering a fresh seasonal menu with a focus on seafood dishes like ceviche, octopus tacos and mussel-clam hot pot.
In Ōamaru, dinner is followed by a show starring some of the region's cutest talent.
At Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony's nightly viewings, visitors get front row seats to see hundreds of kororā, our little blue penguins, and New Zealand fur seals.
Like Blue Planet in real life, you'll see "rafts" of penguins swim ashore and clamber up the rocks, dodge the scary seals and waddle their way to individual nesting boxes, while a staff member narrates the action.
End the evening by falling into one of the plush beds at Poshtel. Like the city itself, this hotel is a mix of old-school class and whimsical fun, each room full of vintage curiosities, antiques and historical artefacts, and each with its own theme - from fishing to golf or skiing. However, they also live up to the "posh" part of the name, with thick bathrobes, soft linen and Whittaker's chocolates on arrival.
Day 2: Flat whites, Geosites and top-notch tasting platters
Start the morning with breakfast and a quality coffee at Tees Street. Classic brunch dishes are given a South American, Asian and Mediterranean twist by the Argentinian owners, while Supreme coffee ranges from flat whites to Vietnamese-style.
It's a 40-minute drive to two of Waitaki Whitestone Geopark's Geosites; Elephant Rocks and Anatini.
If the unusual rock and limestone formations look familiar, it's because both these spots were featured in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Surrounded by acres of quiet farmland, you'll feel worlds away from civilisation, although you're just minutes away from the town of Duntroon.
Here, you can grab a coffee and baked treat from the unmissable bright pink Flying Pig Cafe before visiting Vanished World. Founded in the early 2000s, the educational centre works closely with the University of Otago to show visitors what the region was like 30 million years ago. Explore fossils and displays of dolphins with razor-sharp teeth and gigantic penguins before entering the fossil extraction room, where you can chip away and unearth your own fossil to take home.
It would be easy to drive right past the little red shed perched on the edge of River-T Wines' vineyard, but such a mistake could cost you a highlight of the trip. Walk through the cellar door restaurant, to the porch on the other side and you'll be treated to sweeping vineyard views best enjoyed with their gorgeous tasting platters and wine flights.
Next on the itinerary is a geological wonder that will fill you with a humble sense of awe; the Clay Cliffs. Towering metres into the sky, the cliffs were created by layers of gravel and silt pushed high into the sky by the active Ostler Fault more than 20 million years ago, creating otherworldly formations. As the cliffs sit on private land, you'll need $5 cash to pop in an honesty box before continuing along a rough gravel road to the car park. From there, you can walk 10-15 minutes up among the cliffs. As expected with clay, things can get slippery when wet, so pack sturdy shoes.
Then, it's a two-hour drive back to Ōamaru for dinner at one of the best restaurants in the region, Cucina. Decked out with black walls, dark wooden tables, simple lightbulbs and lush greenery, it doesn't take long to feel like you're in the heart of Melbourne or London instead of smalltown New Zealand. Run by the owners of Tees Street Cafe, the seasonally-inspired, locally-sourced menu is full of exquisite dishes from 55-day aged ribeye with charcoal-grilled vegetables to fresh beetroot pasta with buffalo mozzarella. Don't see a vegetarian or vegan option? The friendly team are happy to make something work.
DETAILS For more things to see and do Ōamaru and beyond, go to waitakinz.co.nz
This piece originally appeared in New Zealand Herald Travel here.