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A Side Trip to Historic Oamaru

Oamaru is a small town with the largest collection of Victorian heritage buildings in the country. If you’re interested in architecture, it is a must-see. Built in locally hewn, creamy-white limestone, many of the hefty, ornate buildings, complete with enormous Corinthian columns, will make you think of ancient Greece. It’s located 115km (71 miles) north of Dunedin (about a 1 1/2-hour drive), and your first stop should be the Oamaru i-SITE Visitor Centre, intersection of Itchen and Thames streets (tel. 03/434-1656; www.visitoamaru.co.nz). Pick up the free Historic Oamaru brochure, which details 30 key buildings—many of them located in the restored Victorian Oamaru Historic Precinct (www.victorianoamaru.co.nz), which starts just around the corner from the visitor center in the Tees and Tyne Street area. Many of the buildings there now house artists, craftsmen, cafes, and pubs. One of the most fascinating is Michael O’Brien Bookbinder, 7 Tyne St. (tel. 03/434-9277); O’Brien is a renowned craftsman making beautiful books by traditional hand-bound methods. He even lives a Victorian lifestyle and dresses in period costume. Forrester Art Gallery, 9 Thames St. (tel. 03/433-0853; www.forrestergallery.com), is also worth a look, located on the town’s main street and housed in the former Bank of New South Wales.

Wildlife enthusiasts also have a treat in store because Oamaru is home to a large colony of the world’s smallest penguin, the Little Blue. You can find the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, Waterfront Road, Oamaru (tel. 03/433-1195; www.penguins.co.nz), by walking through the historic precinct on Tyne Street and then veering left onto Waterfront Road. It’s an easy 5-to 10-minute walk, or a short drive to their visitor center, where you have to pay for daytime Behind the Scenes Tours (NZ$15 adults, NZ$5 children 5-15, NZ$35 family), or for the Evening Viewing, when you get to see the nocturnal blue penguins come ashore (NZ$25 adults, NZ$15 children, NZ$65 family). The center is open daily year-round from 9:30am until about an hour after dusk. For evening viewing, be sure to arrive 30 minutes before sunset.

It’s well worth staying a night in Oamaru and you’ll find very pleasant, moderately priced accommodation at Highfield Mews, 244 Thames St. (tel. 03/434-3437; www.highfieldmews.co.nz), where new motel rooms go for NZ$130 to NZ$220. If you want to treat yourself to an upmarket stay in one of Oamaru’s most extraordinary heritage homesteads, make your way to the very beautiful Pen-y-bryn Lodge, 41 Towey St., Oamaru (tel. 03/434-7939; www.penybryn.co.nz), where multilingual and multitalented Americans James Glucksman and James Boussy are your inspiring hosts. Rooms here are NZ$625 (including breakfast, pre--dinner drinks, and canapés) or NZ$875 if you include a 4-course dinner.

There are growing numbers of good cafes in the town. Portside Restaurant, Waterfront Rd. (tel. 03/434-34000), opposite the Blue Penguin Centre, is a lovely spot for hanging out over the harbor, for lunch or dinner. They’re open Thursday through Tuesday from 11am until late. Whitestone Cheese Café, corner Humber and Torridge streets (north end of town) (tel. 03/434-8098; www.whitestonecheese.co.nz), has a terrific cafe and a deli bulging with their award-winning boutique cheeses, and delicious lunch choices from soups and savory dishes to indulgent cakes with coffee. They’re open daily 9am to 5pm.

If you’re heading back to Dunedin, make sure you stop at the famous Moeraki Boulders, 36km (23 miles) south of Oamaru. These strange, perfectly round boulders, formed 65 million years ago, are strewn along the beach like giant eggs. They’re well signposted and it’s easiest to access them from Moeraki Boulders Café, State Highway 1 (tel. 03/439-4827; www.moerakiboulders.co.nz). You could have breakfast or coffee there and then drive south a few hundred yards and turn left to the small fishing village of Moeraki (about 3km/2 miles away), where you’ll find the multi-award-winning lunch restaurant Fleur’s Place, 169 Haven St., Moeraki (tel. 03/439-4480; www.fleursplace.com), at the end of the wharf. The fresh fish are well worth the trip. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:30am.

If you’re driving north from Oamaru, stop 12km (8 miles) further on, at the award--winning Riverstone Kitchen, 1431 State Hwy. 1 (tel. 03/431-3505; www.riverstonekitchen.co.nz). In addition to having a large playground where kids can let off steam, their food has gained a near--legendary reputation in a very short time. They’re open Thursday through Monday from 9am to 5pm; dinner is served Thursday through Sunday from 6pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.