This lovely spot comes with barrels of history, some of it millions of years old, as Elisabeth Easther discovers.

Origin of name:

Originally called Dunstan Creek, the town was later named by surveyor John Turnbull Thomson for the Scottish parish of Abbey St Bathans.

Population: Just 6. In the 1860s the figure tipped 2000.

The climate: Soaring above 30C in summer and often snowing in winter, this is a land of extremes.


Claim to fame: The haunted Vulcan Hotel. This is the only surviving pub in a town that once had more than a dozen watering holes. Room 1 is reputedly home to the spirit of a young prostitute known as The Rose who was strangled in the hotel in 1880. Some guests tell chilling stories of being held down in the night, which interestingly makes Room 1 even more popular.

Town mascot: Jack the black Labrador — when he's not taking himself on walkies around the town he usually just hangs out at the pub.

Old news: In winter, in the old schoolhouse, the ink used to freeze in the inkwells and the pupils would often have a six-week holiday in middle of year on account of the big freezes.

Famous neighbours: Brian Turner (poet), Graham Sydney (painter) and Anton Oliver (former All Black) live in the area and can all be seen down at the pub from time to time.

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What makes the town tick: Tourism and the high country stations.

The Vulcan Hotel, reportedly haunted. Photo / Phillip Capper
The Vulcan Hotel, reportedly haunted. Photo / Phillip Capper

If you want to move here:

Think about opening a kayak rental business down at the lake over summer, you'd make a lot of people happy.


Source of pride: The beauty of the landscape and those darling historic buildings.

Town events: St Bathans' Sheep Dog Trials are held once a year at The Domain. The Wooden Cup is a rugby trophy fought for each September and then there's the local St Bathans Fete. Held each January, it's a riot of music, food, entertainment, vintage bits and pieces, clothing and more.

Best reason to stop: The picturesque Blue Lake — an abundance of minerals gives the water a vivid turquoise hue — and the haunted hotel.

Kids love: Playing at the lake or enjoying an ice cream at the pub.

Best park: Oteake Conservation Park is on the doorstep of St Bathans, and in summer people travel across the mountains to Omarama on horseback, by mountain bike or in four wheel drives. The Domain, complete with camping ground, is pretty scrumptious too.

Best playground: Nature. Best bathroom: The long drop at the DoC camping ground is hard to beat or, if you prefer flasher flushing facilities, the new mud brick loos opposite the hotel are where you'll go to spend a penny.

Best walk: The DoC track around the lake. Walking right around the water takes about 90 minutes, or alternatively the shorter track will take you about 40 minutes, and the series of historic photos helps to bring the mining past to life. Or you could check out Oteake Conservation Park, set amid the St Bathans, Hawkdun and Ida Ranges. Here you can walk for a couple of days, staying in huts as you go.

Local hero Anton Oliver.
Local hero Anton Oliver.

Best view:

Top of the Blue Lake.

Best place to pull over: Stop opposite the Vulcan Hotel for 360 degrees of dazzling photo opportunities.

Best swim: Take a dip in the Blue Lake or in one of the many swimming holes in the rivers.

Best museum: The whole town is a living museum, and the hotel has historic photos and curios to admire. But don't just wander through, be sure to buy a drink or a coffee while you're enjoying the wonders on display — fair's fair, after all.

Cream of the coffee: The Vulcan Hotel is the only place to get your fix, unless you visit on fete day when there's coffee everywhere.

Best food: The Vulcan serves pub grub, from toasted sandwiches to steaks, but it can be handy to book ahead to be sure of a meal. They also put out a bit of baking — carrot cake being most popular.

Wet your whistle: At the Vulcan Hotel you never know who you'll meet propping up the bar — and in summer there's a charming outdoors area. Some of Travel's South Island sources inform us that the publican can be a character.

Best mountain biking: St Bathans is a popular side trip for people cycling the Otago Rail Trail.

Best adventures: Go four-wheel-driving through to Omarama, or take a horse trek.

Best digs: The Constable's Cottage and St Bathans Jail are super places to stay, beautifully appointed and great value. Experience the history of the town while enjoying all the modern comforts, not to mention one of the best views of the Blue Lake.

Best kept secret: St Bathans features in The Light Between Oceans, a film that's being released in September, starring Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz. It's about a lighthouse keeper and his wife who live off the coast of Western Australia and raise a baby they rescue from a drifting rowboat. With locals used as extras, a tiny little mud brick house stands in for the lighthouse keeper's cottage and the director dossed down in the jail.

Extinct wonders: In 2006, mammalian fossils were discovered here (previously bats were thought to be New Zealand's only mammals), and what's more, the land also used to be home to moa, crocodiles, turtles and a kind of flamingo. Palaeontologists love this place because the make-up of the land has helped to preserve layers of fascinating fauna from between 16 million and 19 million years ago.

Wildlife: In the air, you'll see karearea (New Zealand falcon) wheel about, while other birdlife includes riorio (grey warblers), tuturiwhatu (banded dotterels), black-billed gulls and sometimes even kaki (black stilts). On land, critters include rabbits, skinks, geckos, pigs and deer. It's not uncommon to see utes passing through town with dead animals proudly displayed on the back.

Safety warnings: The town's water comes from a 19th century Scandinavian water race and, because the sluice is open and passes through farmland, you need to boil the water before drinking it.

The verdict: Pretty as a postcard.