Books, Cheese and Victorian Costumes

steampunk hq oamaru

Oamaru is a coastal town between Christchurch and Dunedin. It’s known for two things: little blue penguins and steampunk. I went penguin watching there when I was a kid, so this visit, I headed straight for Steampunk HQ.

Steampunk HQ is an art gallery, but no ordinary one. It has an immersive atmosphere that’s almost spooky, showcasing Victorian inventions from the realm of fantasy. It can be found on the fringe of Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, an area of preserved and restored buildings from the town’s 1800s heyday. The buildings are all made out of stone, more specifically a hard kind of limestone called whitestone. This is what gives Oamaru its distinctive look.

oamaru criterion hotel victorian precinct

I was excited to explore the Victorian Precinct. Walking down Harbour Street felt like stepping back in time. As well as museums, galleries and giftshops, there was an old-fashioned bakery, a bookbinder’s, vintage clothes boutiques, a whisky tasting place and not one, but two second-hand bookshops.

penny-farthingBoth bookshops were interestingly decorated. The first I visited, Adventure Books, was exploration-themed. There were old globes and maps, and – just casually – an entire, full-sized sailing boat sitting in the shop. The second, Slightly Foxed, had a more general selection of literature. Alice in Wonderland art and quotes adorned the walls, and the cupboard under the stairs was a children’s playroom. It even had a mezzanine, from which you could look out over the whole shop. I made a few too many purchases, all of which were entered in a Victorian-style ledger, wrapped in brown paper packages and tied up with string!

victorian costumeThe Victorian Precinct is right by the harbour, where you’ll find a large, steampunk-themed playground and a rather good pub called Scotts Brewing Co. – it’s a microbrewery that does tastings as well as great pizza. It was recommended to me by one of the wonderful guides at Whitestone City, a small but brilliant museum on Harbour Street. Not only are you encouraged to interact with the artefacts, you can dress up in Victorian clothing to do so! My fiancé and I had a whale of a time there, especially riding on the penny-farthing carousel.

But Oamaru has delights beyond the Victorian Precinct. The Public Gardens are well worth a walk through. In fact, our accommodation was directly adjacent to the Oamaru Public Gardens, perfectly situated for an evening stroll. I especially enjoyed the Wonderland Garden, a space inspired by children’s fantasy literature, featuring a fairy statue gifted to Oamaru in 1926. I would have loved to have had a picnic there; alas there was no time.

oamaru public gardens

There was time, however, to visit one of the best cheesemakers in New Zealand. The Whitestone Cheese factory has a shop and café, and you can take a tour to see how the cheese is made. We didn’t do the tour, but we did indulge in a tasting platter. I, a cheese snob, was impressed. We ended up buying a few blocks for the road. Their blue cheese is particularly good.

fairy statue

All in all, Oamaru felt like a holiday destination tailor-made for the likes of me: lovers of books, cheese, history, gardens and dressing up! And don’t forget the penguins.

Frankton Thunder

I went to a cool, little festival the other day. There were classic cars, steampunk market stalls, old motorbikes, bands, vintage pin-up girls, army vehicles, awesome costumes and even an electric car that had been opened up to reveal its inner workings. It was an annual festival called Frankton Thunder. It took place in Frankton Village, a part of Hamilton I’d never been to before. I’ll definitely go again, though – it looked like there were a few interesting shops around.

The sun was bright and the cars were gleaming. I was wearing a hastily-thrown-together steampunk costume, (because, as you know, I grab any excuse to wear a costume, even though most of mine are still packed from moving house,) which – much to my surprise – won a spot prize from the Hamilton Steampunk Society! It was their first market and it was a good one. My mum got us a couple of fabulous hats.

At one point whilst we were browsing the stalls, some Glen Miller music started playing. Now that’s my kind of festival! There were a few food trucks off to the side, but we ended up going into a nice café with our steampunk purchases. I didn’t end up buying a chainmail (well, scale mail) bikini, but I was very tempted. Aw hell, I was tempted by everything – it was that kind of market – from corsets to blasters to a gorgeous edition of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

As well as the steampunk stalls, there were a few wonderful-looking steampunk vehicles on display. The creativity of some of them astounded me. They were made out of quite ordinary vehicles, a bit of bike here; a bit of tractor there. They weren’t truly Victorian, but they were cool. I also enjoyed looking at the army vehicles and classic cars more than I thought I would. Overall, the festival was a bit of an eclectic mix, but it worked. I look forward to next years’ Frankton Thunder.

There seems to be a festival on every weekend in Hamilton at the moment. I really do enjoy living here. During the six months my fiancé and I were away in Europe, even more improvements have been made, including a beautiful area in the centre of town, down by the river. I need to get some pictures of it! In fact, I have a whole lineup of new places I need to visit and blog about. (If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to drop a comment below.) It’s going to be a busy year.

Corsets, Clockwork and a Cicada

Steampunk Market in Kihikihi, you say? I’m there!

Kihikihi is a small town half an hour south of Hamilton. I’d never been there before, but I’m very glad I went. The Steampunk Market took place in the old Town Hall, but there were other historic buildings to explore as well. These included one of the loveliest wooden churches I’ve seen in New Zealand!

kihikihi-church

The name Kihikihi means ‘cicada’ – it’s onomatopoeic, you see. There’s a sculpture of a cicada outside the church, observing every car driving in and out of the town. I must admit, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy walking around the town quite as much as I did.

kihikihi-cicada

The market wasn’t very large, but there were lots of people there and lots of pretty costumes! Of course, there were corsets for sale. And an abundance of jewellery made out of watch cogs. And top hats and goggles and old bits of junk that looked vaguely cool. That’s what steampunk’s all about!

kihikihi-town-hall

Further along the street from the Town Hall, there was a colonial jail and house, which were open for viewing. It was a beautiful day. The white, wooden exteriors gleamed in the sunlight. On the veranda of the house, as there so often is, was an old woman spinning wool.

kihikihi-historic-house

Naturally I dressed up.

kihikihi-church-portrait

I seriously can’t wait until we do another South Island campervan trip, because I want to visit the steampunk capital of New Zealand, Oamaru. Oamaru has a really cool Victorian Precinct selling books, antiques, jewellery and art. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for historic villages closer to home, such as Howick.

kihikihi-historic-house-exterior

With its heritage trail and collection of second-hand shops, including a 1920s shop was unfortunately closed when we were there, Kihikihi might just be worth visiting – on your way down to Waitomo, perhaps?