Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Oamaru - New Zealand's finest Victorian town

Main Street of Oamaru
Oamaru is an easy 115 kilometre drive north of Dunedin and for a heritage or Victorian era buff it is well worth the trip, in fact, I'd say, it's not to be missed.  I quite like this quote from Peter FitzSimons, a well know Australian former rugby international and raconteur who called Oamaru "New Zealand's best kept secret, which is itself the world's best kept secret".  Reputed to be the finest built town in New Zealand the scale and grandeur of many of its civic buildings is astonishing and unexpected in what was originally settled as a small service town for the surrounding farming industry.   It was Oamaru's good fortune to be an early player in the export of frozen meat to the UK bringing great prosperity to the town. That and  the ready availability of fine white local limestone meant it wasn't long before grand banks and offices were being erected in the then fashionable classic style.  It seems  almost bizarre that  a town of only 13,000 inhabitants should have such huge, grand, pillared banks, grain stores, an opera house, a courthouse, churches and a post office, none of which would look out of place in London, Paris or Washington DC.  A stone's throw from the main street is the town's Victorian Heritage Precinct. The shift of commerce to other areas and the closure of the port in the 1970s left this area largely original and untouched. Now old grain warehouses and storage buildings  house shops, galleries, and food stores.  There is even a whiskey tasting shop and the Loan and Merc, the second restaurant belong to Fleur Sullivan of Fleur's Place, Moeraki.

The Victorian Heritage Precinct.  The large building at the far right houses
the Loan and Merc restaurant
Mary in the Victorian Heritage Precinct
My sister-in-law, Mary, and I spent a happy afternoon picking and poking around Oamaru.  I had been there many years ago but could barely remember it so it was a novel experience to see it as if for the first time. We wandered the main street admiring the fine buildings and then  past the Steampunk HQ...for those of you into Steampunk, Oamaru calls itself the Steampunk capital of New Zealand. We visited art and craft galleries and marvelled at the penny farthing bicycles for hire and, no, we weren't tempted! We poked our heads into the Victorian Tea Rooms where the serving staff dress in Victorian costumes - the waiter was sporting a luxurious pair of mutton chop whiskers -  and serve delicate teas on pretty china cake stands.     Then it was on to Fleur's Loan and Merc for a drink where we sat back on large comfortable leather settees and enjoyed watching the clientele come and go.  The Loan and Merc is located inside a large old grain warehouse, and is a completely different style of restaurant from Fleur's Place at Moeraki. This restaurant is vast and filled with long refrectory style tables and benches, the grain mill equipment  still in place.  The meals served here are carvery style, totally in keeping with the venue, but as it was the afternoon  we just had a drink in the comfortable bar enjoying the views out into the harbour.
Serving maid in the Victorian Tearooms.

There is a lot more to explore in Oamaru including little blue penguin and  yellow eyed penguin colonies, vintage train rides, attractive gardens and the popular Whitestone Cheese factory. Oamaru's Riverstone Kitchen was named New Zealand's Restaurant of the year 2010/2011. Oamaru  is also the birthplace of a number of famous New Zealanders, including one of our best known writers, Janet Frame.

However, as we were staying in Dunedin we didn't have time to investigate everything before making the drive back....a good excuse to return to Oamaru some time, I say!