Oamaru – one of New Zealand's greatest treasures and hidden secrets –architecture to die for

Thursday 7 October 2010, 8:47PM

By Word of Mouth Media NZ


oamaru-criterion-pub Credit: Kip Brook
Oamaru grainstore gallery
Oamaru grainstore gallery Credit: Kip Brook
Oamaru pen-y-bryn
Oamaru pen-y-bryn Credit: Kip Brook


If you are not a surfer, sunbather climber or boatie, Oamaru is possible the best destinations in New Zealand.

Standing on the cobbled corner of Harbour and Tyne Street, I am cast back 130 years in time among a wealth of historic architectural treasures. There is no evidence of anything other than Victorian architecture. I amble down the lane with its old rail line still running down the side, where trains picked up sacks or grain to be loaded on to bowsprits, spars and fully rigged triple-masters on Sumpter wharf in the harbour.

This precinct is New Zealand’s most intact Victorian streetscape. The old precinct area is coming alive again, though nothing has changed on the outside. I look up at the 133 year old Oamaru Mail building. I can sense the printer’s ink and the whir of the press churning out the first edition among the hive of newspaper activity.

Across the road is the Penguin Club where some of the best band and NZ top singers perform. Top Sydney-based Kiwi Jackie Bristowe is playing there this month – sadly I just miss her. Down the end on the left is the massive old Loan and Merc building, which is currently home to the Grain Store art gallery on the second floor. The stairs to the second floor are worn away in the passages of time by the clod-nail boots of messenger boys, grain merchants and millers. The gallery is one of New Zealand’s biggest and most impressive community galleries featuring artists like Donna Demente and Chris Wilkie.

The precinct area has such appeal and probably dirt cheap rent compared to downtown Auckland that Fleur Sullivan, who runs Fleurs in Moeraki, is setting up a pub type restaurant on the ground floor of the Loan and Merc later this year.

All the Harbour St buildings are made of Oamaru stone which has weather well and has a sense of belonging and a future despite being ignored for much of last century. Harbour St was a place not to go at night in the early part of the 20th century. They called it bad-egg street for the down and out types who could be lurking. These days it must be regarded as New Zealand’s finest historic commercial streets – bar none.

Around the corner I trawl an older second hand book shop which feels centuries old. Next door I pop in and have a yarn to Oamaru’s most colourful bearded character, book-binder Michael O’Brien. He’s into organics and everything else that is in vogue. He’s a genial good bugger. A few more steps along the road, and I am outside the Criterion pub, 133 years old, revived and popular once more. It’s hard to believe it was once a temperance hotel but then up to the 1960s, Oamaru was a ‘dry’ area and you had to drive north over the Waitaki River to get a flagon of beer from the Glenavy pub.

The sun is setting and I drive up the hill to be the best Victorian style lodge in New Zealand – Pen-y-bryn Lodge. As with the rest of the town of 12,000, there is a real sense of history here. The lodge is a magnificent building; a former estate home. My room featured a grand old Victorian claw foot bath-tub with its original brass fittings and the billiard table is the envy of any man who loves the game. The table was one of three commissioned by the government for Parliament but was auctioned off when the government found that they could only accommodate two of them; it's been at the lodge since the 1920s.I sip buttery Spy Valley chardonnay wine and gaze out to quiet, sleepy Oamaru, wondering if time has stood still for so long. The 926sq m house lodge is rich with antiques and original furnishings throughout. The rooms feature amazing oak wood panelling and other original features. When built in 1889, it was the largest private house in South Island in 1889. It is the only place to enjoy in luxury in the area and is an ideal staging post between Christchurch and Dunedin.

Oamaru is blessed with other magnificent buildings – the two old post offices – including the ‘new’ second Oamaru Post Office, built in 1884, now sadly used as offices for the Waitaki District Council. There’s the Forrester Gallery and the National Bank buildings with their columns and stunning Oamaru limestone carvings. For more living history there is also the Empire Hotel Backpackers (1867) or Brydone Hotel (1881) – once a pub with no beer (prohibition until the 1960s) Oamaru (1881); the churches, the Opera House and so it goes on.

I confess to being bewildered by the lack of lure by local authorities to draw people off state highway one and down to the architectural heaven near the beginning of Thames St. Tourists reach the Thames Highway-Severn St intersection and head north or south – missing all the best of Oamaru. It’s crazy. The lack of bold signage to the grand old part of town is a mystery. Come on – tell the world Oamaru. Do more to lure tourists.

But there is more to Oamaru than just old buildings. This was the home of one of New Zealand’s greatest ever authors, Janet Frame, who died six years ago. Her home is now a tourist attraction.
Oamaru is also famous for its strutting penguins that put on a show every night as they climb out of the sea and waddle into their nests past a seated grandstand for tourists.