Oamaru started its existence in the mid-1800s as one of a few large sheep farms in North Otago. The natural harbour was recognised and a breakwater built to facilitate trade. Buildings sprung up – banks, grain stores, post offices and a court house – built with a type of limestone called Oamaru stone because it is sourced locally and used all over the country. Oamaru fell on hard times and lacked resources to pull down the older buildings while other towns were replacing older buildings with new ones. As a result Oamaru has a fantastic collection of older buildings in an unspoilt precinct by the harbour. Better times have returned recently with the district becoming wealthy through the meat, dairy and education industries and this has allowed the locals to restore and strengthen the old buildings.
Today Oamaru is a little known tourism spot where prices tend to be reasonable for accommodation (of which there is a glut) and there are some exceptional restaurants, which you would not generally expect in a town this size.
Visitors come to view the nightly return to shore of little blue penguins. The town has several colonies of these birds, the smallest and only blue variety of penguin in the world. The largest colony is now run as a commercial activity by the town council, offering an opportunity to view the penguins in their natural habitat. There is also a small colony of yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho), one of the world's rarest penguins, just outside the town.
Oamaru is the gateway to the Waitaki Valley, a stunning natural area bisected by the braided Waitaki River, whose hydroelectic dams have created numerous lakes for water sports and recreation. The Waitaki Valley is home to New Zealand's newest wine appellation, where a number of vineyards are producing Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and other varietals that are winning international awards.
Partly because of its impressive architecture, and partly because of its artsy nature, Oamaru has become New Zealand's self-proclaimed capital of Steampunk. A festival of steampunk is held annually in Oamaru, usually during June. The town's Victorian heritage is also celebrated in a festival, held annually in November.
By carOamaru is located on State Highway 1, 250 km south of Christchurch (approx 3hr 15min) and 115 km north of Dunedin (approx 1hr 30min). State Highway 83 meets SH 1 at Pukeuri, 9 km north of the town centre, providing access from Omarama and the Mackenzie Country via the Waitaki Valley.
If you want a more leisurely route from Dunedin, follow Oamaru to Dunedin avoiding SH1 in reverse.
By busDaily bus services operate between Christchurch and Dunedin and between Christchurch and Te Anau via Oamaru. The main bus stop is in Eden Street, just east of the Thames Street (SH 1) intersection.
Oamaru town is small enough to cycle around. Taxis are available.
address: 60 Thames StCultural, industrial and agricultural history and an exhibition on the author Janet Frame. Rebuilding work is under-way until late 2019 - until this is complete only a single room is open.
address: 2 Waterfront RdSee little blue penguins (kororā in Māori and Eudyptula minor in Latin) in their nests or coming ashore at night.
address: 1 Itchen StSteampink is a sort of science fiction inspired by Victorian steam powered machinery. The HQ contains a selection of exhibits constructed from twentieth century junk, some of which are animated. you can play "tunes" on a weird version of an organ. Some exhibits in front of (and a couple inside) require $2 coins to come to life.
Victorian PrecinctThis is the town's original commercial area, largely built in the 1870s to 1890s. It is the most complete Victorian streetscape in the country. The buildings were constructed of a hard, compact limestone that was quarried locally and known as Oamaru stone. Many buildings have been restored and they house shops, galleries and eateries.
Whitestone Cityaddress: 12 Harbour StMuseum about Oamaru.
address: cnr Torridge and Humber StsFactory viewing gallery and shop.
56 Eden StreetThe childhood home, from 1931 to 1943, of the author Janet Frame.
Out of town
Bushy BeachTake a 5–10 minute walk through coastal vegetation to a viewing hide from where you may see yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho in Māori) and other marine species.
Moeraki BouldersLarge round boulders on the beach.
address: Alma-Maheno Rd (State Highway 1)Established in the 1850s, Totara Estate exported New Zealand’s first shipment of frozen meat in 1882. A number of limestone farm buildings have been restored by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
phone: +64 3 431-2024address: State Highway 83, DuntroonA museum on the geology and fossils of the Waitaki district. It exhibits fossilised whales, dolphins, giant penguins, giant sharks and other invertebrates from the marine ecosystems of the Oligocene, 20–30 million years ago. Duntroon is 43 km (31 minutes drive) from the centre of Oamaru. There is also a free self-drive Vanished World Trail you can follow to view geology, fossils and Maori rock art in situ.
- Waitaki Valley
- Waitaki vineyards
- Scenic flights with North Otago Aero Club from Oamaru Airport.
Steampunk NZ FestivalThe weekend of Queen's Birthday (first Monday in June).
Victorian Heritage CelebrationsHeld in November.
Victorian Sweets and Toysaddress: 2 Itchen StTraditional sweets, sold by the once from glass jars. Also has a selection of British and US imports.
phone: +64 3 431-3505address: 1431 State Highway 1, RD 5HA gem, 2010 New Zealand Restaurant of the year.
- Fleurs Place, Moeraki.
- Fat Sally's Pub and Restaurant.
- North Star Restaurant and Bar.
address: Kakanui-Waianakarua Rd, Kakanui SouthCaravan/tent sites, some with power, and one cabin.
phone: +64 3 434 5008address: 2 Reed StreetPleasant small hostel with dorms and individual rooms in a 1950s wooden bungalow.
address: 41 Towey St5 room luxury lodge
- Free Wi-Fi is available at the library, next the North Otago museum.
- North to Timaru in South Canterbury