Where can you travel between the Edwardian and Victorian eras and back again, with a dash of the Jurassic period and Steampunk thrown in? It’s easier than you think - just drive from Dunedin to Oamaru and you’ll get it all, with a few fresh produce markets, seaside villages, penguin sightings and plates of first-class seafood to boot. The east coast of the South Island is not always given as much road trippin’ hype as its neighbours (think Southern Scenic Route, Great Alpine Highway and Alpine Pacific Triangle); heck, it doesn’t even have its own fancy name! But the sights, smells and savours of this journey make us think it should be right up there with the best of them.
So for nature, wildlife, cuisine and history, pop off on a weekend trip to Oamaru, and soak up all there is to experience on the way. This itinerary gives you the best of the best… But, to be honest, there’s so much to be seen, tasted and encountered, you can improvise as much as you want. If you’re in an EV though, don’t improvise too much. You might need our recharging tips, or you might have to stay a bit longer on this roadie than experienced. But that might not be such a bad thing.
If you feel like starting your day with a bowl full of breakfast goodness and a tall glass of ocean air, the St Clair hot salt water pool might just put a salty smile on your face. Like the Bondi Icebergs but with a more lowkey, Otago-style humility, The Perc St Clair perches above the pools on the edge of the St Clair esplanade, where a well-placed seat could give you views of the entire 3 km stretch of Ocean Beach, all the way to Lawyer’s Head. Thankfully, as your growling tummy might affirm, it’s not just the scenery that makes The Perc worth your while, with a menu that keeps Dunedinites flocking to the seaside for cruisy weekend brunches. In terms of what to order, would you even be in Dunedin if you didn’t have the Bacon Buttie for breakfast?
Saturday mornings in Dunedin, aside from sleep-ins and sports, are religiously reserved for the Otago Farmers Market, rain, shine or snow. Located outside the iconic Dunedin Railway Station, it’s the perfect meeting point of Dunedin’s esteemed Edwardian architecture and the wider Otago region’s more stripped-back talking point: the land. With fresh produce from all over Otago, as well as a mouth-watering range of food trucks, international cuisine and wines, it’s enough to make even the toughest food critic weak at the knees. The Tart Tin is the quaint sweets-filled caravan that makes the locals go crazy, and if you haven’t quite had enough bacon-in-bread for one morning you can find your next fix at the famous Bacon Buttie Station.
Whether it’s your first or five hundredth time driving up the South Island’s east coast, the Moeraki Boulders will never not be a rewarding stop, even just to remind yourself how epic New Zealand’s nature can be. Believed in Māori mythology to be the remains of eel baskets washed ashore from a sunken Ngāi Tahu migration waka, these spherical wonders actually began to form around 60 million years ago from ancient seafloor sediments. Artistically scattered, perfectly symmetrical and some over two metres wide, these babies are the magical backdrop for the next 100 photos in your camera roll. Perhaps they’re not quite as big as some ‘grammers would lead you to believe… They’re not exactly of Raiders of the Lost Ark proportions, but are pretty impressive nonetheless.
How does a homely meal for lunch in a cute roadside cottage sound? Housed in a renovated (but still charming) historic building, Vanessa’s Cottage Cafe is the perfect reason for travellers to break their drive in the sweet but sleepy hamlet of Hampden. Once a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of spot, Hampden now has visitors planning their journey between Dunedin and Waitaki/Canterbury around having lunch at Vanessa’s. Their handmade pies have somewhat of a reputation in these parts… Surely you don’t need much more convincing than that.
Take a time portal to a period of medieval gothic architecture, industrialisation and ridiculous clothing in Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, which is a little bubble of preserved history. Some of New Zealand’s best Victorian streets are here, complete with galleries, arts and crafts stores, cafés and restaurants, museums and a whole lot of character. You can dress up in period costumes for portraits at The Photo Shoppe Studio, or hop on the Oamaru Steam and Rail train for a vintage trip to the seaside. History doesn’t have to be all books and stiff documentaries!
Towns like Oamaru often get a rep for having few and far between exciting dining options, but Cucina is here to change the game. Blending their South American, Italian and Spanish nationalities and heritage, owners Yanina & Pablo Tacchini have created something a bit special for Oamaru gourmands, as well as lovers of an aesthetically-pleasing dining situation. The campanelle with burnt pumpkin sage and smoked goat’s curd is our pick, (how could it not be?) accompanied by a well-matched wine. Or, for (a very reasonable) $60, ‘trust the chef’ and get a unique experience of Cucina’s mastery with a four-course sharing selection.
The rugged coast of Oamaru has been a welcoming home to some very small friends since the 1990s, when blue penguins began nesting in a rock quarry. The smallest penguins in the world now pull the largest amount of tourists in the region, whilst living naturally in a protected breeding area. You can view these little guys at any time of the day, but the best chance is in the evening, when the penguins that have been out fishing for the day return to their nests. The best action happens just after sunset, so make sure to time your visit accordingly.
In the winter, viewings take place between 5.00-8.30pm, so it’s probably best to go and catch a glimpse of the feathered waddle (the word for a group of penguins on land - how gangster is that!) before dinner, whereas during summer the 7-11pm viewing times leave plenty of room to grab your feast beforehand.
The Oamaru TOP 10 Holiday Park offers everything you need for a one-night stopover, whether you are sleeping in your plugged-in car (or van, if that’s how you roll), or want something a little more homely. From powered sites to deluxe cabins, you’ll be able to find exactly the level of comfort you need. There are two commando plugs available to use, so whatever accommodation you choose, your EV will be set for your next day of travelling. Sitting just a bridge away from the Oamaru Public Gardens, the Oamaru TOP 10 Holiday Park gives you the perfect setting to recharge your own energy too.
Get a burst of fresh air in the morning with this short walk around the side of Cape Wanbrow, which, if you’re lucky, will treat you to another sighting of our fine feathered penguin friends. Rather than the blue penguins that nest at the colony, the birds that call Cape Wanbrow home are of the yellow-eyed variety, or hoiho as they are commonly known, but are just as cute. These wee dudes usually cross the beach before 9am, so you’ll have to be up and at ‘em sharp to be in with a chance to see any action. But even if you don’t time it well, the walk is worth your time just in itself, because there’s nothing better than a cliff-top track with views of the coastal sunrise to start your day.
All this time spent in Oamaru and you still haven’t had a steampunk encounter? Don’t worry, that’s about to change, starting with a slice of steampunk with the best view in town, The Galley. With ironclad design and all the references to inventive steam-powered machinery the trend is known for, surrounded by a picture-perfect harbourside panorama, The Galley is not your usual morning coffee spot. Grab a fresh scone and your caffeinated elixir, and enjoy the peace of the Oamaru coast. Is it too early for fish and chips?
You’ve already visited the Victorian Precinct, now experience it again with a very different lens. Futuristic and funky, kooky and quirky, Oamaru’s Steampunk HQ is New Zealand’s best experience of the ‘Victorian world gone mad.’ Founded in 2011 by a group of creative masterminds, the alternate door into the Victorian Era showcases art exhibitions, light and sound displays, films and some hidden eccentricities, including a life-size Steampunk engine. Channel your inner Dr. Who and discover all the best that this bizarrely incredible place has to discover.
If everything else in your road trip falls apart, the one thing you can’t leave the Waitaki District, actually make that the entire South Island, without experiencing is eating at Fleur’s Place. The heavyweight champion of seafood in these parts, Fleur’s Place has gained celebrity status both locally and internationally, often heralded as being at the forefront of New Zealand cuisine. Book well in advance (and we mean it - Fleur serves up to 200 people on a good day) so you can waltz to your table without a single worry, and sit down for a beautifully drawn out gastronomic experience. Gathering the catch of local fishermen straight from their boats (which land at the jetty outside the restaurant), you’d be hard pressed to find anything fresher than Fleur’s food, unless you hop on a boat and catch it yourself.
To allow yourself to digest a little before getting back in the car, spend a bit of time exploring the quaint fishing village of Moeraki, where the sleepy charm is often overshadowed by aforementioned Fleur’s Place and Moeraki Boulders. Once an early European whaling station, Moeraki is now a peaceful holiday town with a close-knit community of permanent residents, saved from the crowds by its isolation off State Highway One. Picture-perfect (not to mention selfie-perfect!) with its historic cottages and quiet streets, as well as the sheltered bay filled with colourful fishing boats, Moeraki is one to pull on the heart-strings for sure.
Through the mist of the Otago Harbour peeks a suburb worth making a detour for, with Port Chalmers offering all sorts of portside magic. Holding an important place in New Zealand’s meat export history (the first shipment of meat left NZ from here in 1882), Port Chalmers is still Otago’s main port, but that in no way means the spot has been ruined by industry. Historic and artsy, quiet but friendly, it’s the kind of city-fringe town that would make you want to leave the rat-race for good. You wouldn’t think you were so close to Dunedin, or even the 21st century, which is part of the beauty. It’s not just in the name, Port Chalmers will charm your socks off.
Two former houses joined together by a magically-rustic dining patio, Ombrellos is the kind of restaurant that you’d come back to time and time again to experience the quirky but warm atmosphere, and devour one of their exquisite meals. Even the starters are serious mouth-waterers, with everything from duck liver pate to house-cured salmon gravlax to salt and pepper squid. Food envy is real at Ombrellos, because everything just looks so damn good. But not only do they have a 10/10 menu and one of the grooviest courtyards in the city, Ombrellos are also known as being the best restaurant for craft beers in Dunedin… Take our money please.