Oamaru and the Waitaki District seems far more prominent in tourism advertising of late (as with Whanganui). It’s somewhere I’d never considered visiting until recently, but with a weekend to myself, I flew to Dunedin, hired a car and drove from Dunedin to Oamaru.
Here’s how to spend a weekend in Oamaru, what felt like the perfect amount of time to see all the highlights of this underrated South Island town.
Based on recommendations from friends, Steampunk HQ had to be my first stop in Oamaru, but I was very unsure what I would find there.
The Steampunk HQ website defines Steampunk as “a quirky and fun genre of science fiction that features steam-powered technology”. The old steam-powered metal sculptures, gadgets and installations were all quite whacky.
Steampunk HQ cost $15 for entry and the entire experience is interactive – visitors are welcome to touch everything. The highlight for me was The Portal – a small, mirrored room with LED lights hanging from the ceiling which change colour in lighting sequences with music.
If this is your first stop after driving to Oamaru it’s worth noting that the museum has no toilets but there are public ones across the street.
Whitestone old town
Oamaru is known for its 19th century architecture formed of white Oamaru Stone. The whitestone buildings and streets of the old town are gorgeous and include sweet shops and eating places.
An annual Victorian heritage celebration has been held in Oamaru since 1989 with events including Pennyfarthing lessons, tours of historic places, high teas and dances.
Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is a must visit. I opted for the premium entry which gets you your own plastic seat in the premium viewing grandstand, a few metres from where most of the Little Blue Penguins (the world’s smallest penguins) come up from the water. The premium seating area also files out past the nests so you get an opportunity to see the penguins very close up.
From the less expensive, general seating you can see penguins coming up the ramp from the water so while this is not the closest position, you will see them first.
Guides, including a Mandarin speaker, narrate the experience and provide information on the colony before the penguins begin to arrive. Taking photos and videos of the penguins is not permitted.
You can leave quietly at any point, but I stayed with the last of the crowd. Being November, we saw over 200 Little Blue Penguins arrive (and a few playful seals) but the numbers vary by season.
It was dark walking back to my accommodation in Oamaru from the colony and there were a few penguins on the road and pavement along the way. Drivers are advised to check under their cars in carpark when leaving for penguins before leaving and there’s a 30km speed limit.
At $58 for an adult, the entry price wasn’t cheap but this is a must do in Oamaru and was the highlight of my trip. Payments contribute to research programmes and the long-term conservation of the Oamaru penguins.
There are some really nice Oamaru restaurants – I went to Cucina as a solo diner and loved that they set me up at a table looking down Thames Street.
The owners of Cucina also have Del Mar, a family friendly seafood restaurant near the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.
Riverstone Kitchen, around a 20 minute drive out of Oamaru, also came highly recommended.
A fan of sour beers I had a lunchtime Sour Puss Lemon/Lime Sour in the sun on the deck at Scotts Brewing Co. and a Scotch Bonnet at Craftwork early in the evening.
Where to go in Oamaru for:
Local history: I spent a couple of hours wandering around the Waitaki Museum and Archives. Exhibitions of interest included one on the introduction of animals such as stoats, weasels, rabbits and salmon to New Zealand, stories of European Settlement from different cultural and societal backgrounds (since closed), and collections of taoka, including stone tools, adornment and items for fishing and hunting which were all discovered at the mouth of the Waitaki River.
Gardens: The Oamaru Public Gardens are among the oldest gardens in New Zealand. As well as a range of plantings, the different gardens which are linked by a walkway include ponds, a display house, bird aviary, bronze statue, fountain and a children’s playground. Whether you’re wanting a walk, picnic spot or just to sit somewhere quietly with a book (me) the Oamaru Public Gardens are worth a visit.
Markets: The Oamaru Markets take place every Sunday between 9:30am and 1pm. Stalls on offer included curly fries, coffee, cheese rolls, candles and soaps, fresh produce, cheese and bakery items. Live music created a friendly atmosphere and it was obvious locals run into each other here each week.
Shopping or gifts: I was impressed by the beautiful stores in Oamaru including Inc Design Store and Housekeepers Design.
Coffee: The plant filled Tees Street Cafe has great coffee and delightful cabinet treats including doughnuts as well as a full menu.
Accommodation in Oamaru
If you’re looking for budget accommodation in Oamaru, Oamaru Backpackers on Tees Street has plenty of good reviews online. It’s near the old town and several blocks back from the waterfront area.
I had a single room which was quiet and the shared areas were all kept clean and tidy. They use an app-based key and there were complementary cereals, milk, tea and coffee and spreads in the shared kitchen.
If I’d been less strict on budget Poshtel would have been my choice.
If you’re driving from Dunedin to Oamaru and have got time to spare I’d recommend stopping in Moeraki along the way. The city is also within an easy drive of Christchurch and Timaru.