Ōamaru has given its own twist to the solid stateliness of the Victorian era, writes Eleanor Hughes

We reach Ōamaru through Ōamaru Gardens, via the Southern Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail. The colourful, manicured flowerbeds are like an oasis after riding past kilometres of paddocks and rural scenery. Signs point us to the trail end at Friendly Bay. A large frame forms a picture-perfect spot with the harbour, dotted by yachts and old wooden launches, in the background. We pose with our bikes before delivering them back to Cycle Journeys Depot. Time to find our way back to Empire Hotel Backpackers, which we spotted when coming into town, and explore Ōamaru.

Passing imposing, whitestone buildings with fancy columns and decoration that make me feel like I'm in London, not small-town New Zealand, we reach our accommodation on Thames St. The main commercial thoroughfare is four lanes, plus a median strip - constructed this wide to make for easy turning of oxen and carts back in the 1800s. Today, there's barely any traffic on the street bedecked with hanging baskets of red, yellow and blue flowers.

My room looks out to Steampunk HQ where a dirigible is suspended and a steam engine points skywards. We'll check it out tomorrow.

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Late afternoon we walk close to 3km to reach Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve. The best time to see hoiho, yellow-eyed penguins returning to shore, is two hours before sunset. A crowded hide at the end of a clifftop walk looks out over the beach, which is closed to the public from 3pm. All the best viewing spots are already taken.

We peek between hushed onlookers. Eventually, there's a murmur ... someone has seen something… it turns out to be a seal. We give up after an hour or so and hitch a ride back into town.

Blue and Yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted - if you're lucky - in Ōamaru. Photo / 123rf
Blue and Yellow-eyed penguins can be spotted - if you're lucky - in Ōamaru. Photo / 123rf

Down at the nearby wharf we stare into the darkening night for nearly an hour trying to spot blue penguins coming ashore. That search, too, is fruitless.

The Criterion Hotel on the corner of Tyne St is pumping as we walk past, the music following me to my room. I drift off to sleep listening to distant singing.

Steampunk HQ is full of weird and wonderful creations. Trains, cars, animals, even an old dentist chair have all been created or added to by welding together bits that never had anything to do with each other in a previous life. They look both Victorian and futuristic, a combination that's difficult to describe.

An organ plays alien-type voices and beats and I check out the portal — a glass-sided room where I feel as if I'm zooming through galaxies as strings of flashing lightbulbs change colour. It's awesome. Outside, is a weird array of upcycled and reinvented vehicles — a jeep, diggers, a giant chopper motorbike built from tractor parts with boilers added, a blackened train carriage that looks like something out of a Mad Max movie. We spend at least an hour poking, pushing, pulling and being intrigued. Oh, to have the imagination to invent these things.

Wandering the Victorian Precinct centred along Harbour St, I feel like I've walked through a time portal into a sepia photograph. There's little colour, except for fluttering pennants strung between limestone warehouses and the red corrugated-iron building once the Ōamaru Livery Stable and Forge, which now sells crafts. This former commercial district of the late 1800s is now home to around 50 shops, museums, galleries and workshops.

The Victorian Precinct in Ōamaru. Photo / 123rf
The Victorian Precinct in Ōamaru. Photo / 123rf

There's steampunk-themed clothing and jewellery stores, antiques, a bookbinder, breweries, the Victorian Wardrobe Costume Hire shop, and the Criterion Hotel, where an old black lantern streetlamp stands outside. A penny-farthing is propped against a wall.

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Venturing further, we vaguely follow a leaflet I picked up from the information centre, featuring 23 New Zealand Heritage-listed buildings. I learn that in the late 1800s, Ōamaru was as big as Los Angeles at that time.

We track down St Paul's Presbyterian Church with its steeped roofs and soaring bell tower built in 1875 and spot the domed towers of St Patrick's Basilica that looks older than early 20th century. In a quiet part of town, having wandered residential streets where grand, old, double-storey homes still stand, we find the green-trimmed, cream wooden railway station. It stretches for 50 or more metres along Humber St and was famous for its dining room which, the leaflet states, seated 700. I can imagine horses tied to the veranda posts.

At the Whitestone Cheese Factory, we're not in time for factory tours or workshops but taste several cheeses and leave with a Windsor Vintage Blue. I scoff it not long after, while sitting in the Empire's shared kitchen looking out at the town's original, single-storey post office built in 1864, and its 1884 replacement, a stately two-storeyed whitestone building with a central clock tower.

We spend the rest of the afternoon lying on the small, sandy beach at Friendly Bay under a blue sky. Children build sandcastles, teenagers kick balls and colourful fishing boats lie still, tied up at the wharf.

Our host at the Empire is supping out at the front at a table, complete with china cups and an old-fashioned teapot, when we return. He tells us blue penguins are around, usually seen between 11-11.30pm. Some used to live under the Empire and the old post office, in a creek running under the street. Apparently they can be heard early morning and at night talking to each other, sounding like babies crying.

I'm too tired to wait up. With the Criterion Hotel quiet, tonight I doze off listening for talking penguins.

CHECKLIST: ŌAMARU

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly direct from Auckland to Dunedin. Ōamaru is about 90 minutes' drive from the airport.

DETAILS
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For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew