If you’ve picked up your Dunedin Airport Car Rental and are driving north to Christchurch or Mt Cook/Aoraki you’ll pass through the large country town of Oamaru. Sitting about half way between Timaru and Dunedin, Oamaru began life as a service town for the surrounding farming areas as they were settled in the 1850s. The area had previously been used by Maori groups and early European whalers and was documented by Captain Cook on his visit down the coast in 1770. Once established, Oamaru quickly grew into a busy port town.
And it is now these beautiful old port buildings that have helped build a resurgence in Oamaru as they have been taken over by artists, cafes and galleries to become known as the Victorian Heritage Precinct. This collection of limestone buildings is recognised to be the most complete collection of Victorian commercial buildings in New Zealand and were mostly built between 1865 and 1885. Many are in the rather grand Neo-Classical style and are amazingly well preserved.
There is an interesting mix of businesses in the precinct, including several traditional enterprises that have changed little over the decades. These include a book-binder, soap makers and a beading store. Each year events are held to celebrate this unique place and the businesses and artisans that work there. And to help keep these events as authentic as possible many people dress in period costume to attend. The Victorian Wardrobe now offers a large range, possibly the biggest in the country, of Victorian replica clothing which is available for hire for any of these occasions. Take a look – it is open every Thursday. The Victorian Heritage Precinct is down at the harbour front.
Another popular activity around Oamaru is penguin watching, with colonies of both little blue penguins and the far less common yellow-eyed penguins hidden along the coastline. Little blue penguins can be seen very close to the Victorian Precinct along the town’s foreshore where they nest beneath the cliffs. There are tours to see their breeding area during the day or you can watch them come ashore in the evening after a day’s fishing at sea when they march up to their burrows for the night. The elusive Yellow-Eyed penguins or hoiho can be seen just south of town at Bushy Beach.