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.
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.
Both 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!
The 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.
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.
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.