Your Guide to Arts and Inspiring Places in Ōamaru
Read on for your guide to exploring areas of art and inspiration in Ōamaru - a kaleidoscope experience of remarkable places and celebrated burgeoning local creatives, where being different is absolutely encouraged.
Words by: Izzie Thompson
Photos by: Nancy Zhou
Ōamaru has an identity that’s carved in stone. Locally quarried limestone, to be precise. Built on the short stretch of flat land that separates the rolling hills of stone from the sea, this North Otago’s distinctive townscape is manifest. Centred around the harbour are the structures that shaped Ōamaru in the 1860s, warehousing, offices, shops and hotels, while further back are the authoritative banks, the courthouse and civic buildings – all resplendent in Ōamaru whitestone.
Adaptive reuse has transformed this historic quarter into a vibrant, creative centre. Today, boutique accommodation, design stores and galleries galore are found in heritage buildings. Discover hidden gems around every corner, from an artist working away in their studio gallery, to resourceful native birds making the most of now-empty human-made entities.
Itchen, Harbour and Tyne Streets
Down the southern end of town, adjacent to the now defunct port, is the most complete commercial streetscape of Victorian buildings that you’ll find in Aotearoa.
This historic precinct is a living monument to the town that was built on the prosperity of the 1860s and 70s in North Otago - a rich bounty of grain and wool. The original proprietors of many of the buildings, such as ‘Connell & Clowes Auctioneers’ and ‘J & T. Meek. Millers & Grain Merchants.’ are indelibly recorded in the stone façades.
Wile away half a day, exploring between and behind the distinctive Ōamaru whitestone walls, now home to boutiques, galleries and cafés. You’ll even find cobbler and curio shops in keeping with the Victorian heritage. The sense of grandeur and solidity imposed by the edifices is softened by the friendliness of the shopkeepers, who’ll gladly discuss the individual charm of their immediate surroundings. Among the ornate arches and embossed friezes, it’s not hard to imagine the bustling trade and bargaining between merchants, bankers and skippers that once took place on these cobblestone-lined streets.
13 Wansbeck Street, South Hill, Oamaru, Ōamaru & Waitaki
From a saddlery to a boarding house to the extant bundle of studio, museum and gallery, plenty of colourful beings have occupied The Terraces, a heritage building a mere stone’s throw from the Victorian Precinct.
Now a working art studio home to two local artists, Kevin Murdoch and Al Bell, the space is filled with their work as well as Kevin’s curation of curios from Ōamaru’s past. The combination of these relics, Kevin’s oil paintings of Waitaki landscapes and Al’s printmaking showing the minute textures of the terrain, means that there is a lot to take in, both visually and verbally; the proprietors are always happy to chat about their work and the region’s history, and pass on some local recommendations. You might even get the story of the building itself – the recent restoration that is, there are no equine or supine tales to report of late.
9 Harbour Street, South Hill, Oamaru, Ōamaru & Waitaki
Next on your guide to arts in Ōamaru is Grainstore Gallery, found on the upper floor of a building which, as you may have already guessed, has not always housed objects of the artistic sort.
After the eponymous seed storage, the local paper used the space for almost seventy years, and in a familiar fashion [to The Terraces], it’s now local artist Donna Demente’s ‘collection, salon, studio and museum.’ Donna’s whimsical world of paintings, detailed masks and (sometimes larger than) life-sized papier-mâché busts and faces of Queen Victoria, are right at home in this cavernous area – don’t be thinking you’re climbing the stairs to a cosy attic – overlooking a vast collection of ephemera and vignettes.
Allot a decent chunk of time for the exploration of this intriguing emporium. See if you can count how many pairs of eyes are gazing over the gallery. Or don’t, if you want to be out in time for dinner.
A Legacy in Limestone
The discovery of limestone deposits inland from Ōamaru, alongside the town’s population boost in the 1860s were catalysts for the construction of the notably Victorian town centre.
Architects and stonemasons revelled in creating then-fashionable classical buildings, thanks to the locally quarried stone which lent itself to carving. A key player in linking the hinterland farms’ goods to the rest of the world, the port flourished and thus the harbour area developed first; warehouses and grain and wool stores in grandly designed limestone buildings rose alongside Victorian-era hotels and offices.
From the imposing Corinthian-columned frontages of the courthouse and former banks of Otago and New South Wales to the smaller but no less elegant first post office and Thames Street bridge and everything in between, there is a wealth of history to uncover behind the grandiose, creamy frontages distinct to this region.
1 Humber Street, Oamaru, Ōamaru & Waitaki
Not only does Ōamaru have the most century-old stone buildings in the country, it’s also the steampunk capital – of the whole world. Set in the Victorian era (and what better backdrop than Ōamaru’s 1860s architecture), steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that lives and breathes an alternate future wherein retrofuturistic technology, design and fashion are inspired by steam-powered machinery.
An interactive museum, Steampunk HQ is brimming with a wacky and wonderful collection of art, sculpture, movies and sound from this niche subset of sci-fi. Jump down the rabbit hole by dressing up in Victorian garb in the foyer and selecting a steampunk name and trade for your journey ahead. Intrigued yet? Take a walk on the quirky side, exploring the fantastical world of steampunk in the Mecca of steampunk.
3 Harbour Street, South Hill, Oamaru, Ōamaru & Waitaki
Crafted, a gallery showcasing the works of Waitaki artists, is tucked inside one of the carefully preserved Ōamaru stone buildings within the precinct. Step inside, and you can view the works of around fifteen local artists.
As you explore, you'll find incredible examples of weaving, glasswork, sculpting, woodturning, basket making, painting, textile work, and so much more. The creators of Crafted, Rod and Sue McLean, are also McLean & Co Weavers. The pair craft limited edition textile pieces using unique fabrics and locally sourced NZ from their home in Ōamaru. You can also see some of their work at Crafted.
Inc. Design Store (6 Itchen Street) and Housekeepers Design (18 Harbour Street)
Sitting somewhere between art and play, the items at Inc. have been handpicked by owner/director and independent designer Helen because she sincerely believes in their function, quality, ingenuity and beauty and in supporting emerging local artists’ quirky and fun creations. This concept store began inside a house, showcasing, in the very space Helen used them, items she adores that serve a purpose and add playfulness to everyday life.
Down at Housekeepers, unique home goods are also curated so that you can effortlessly add luxury to your day-to-day. Homewares, fashion, art and accessories; ambrosial scents, soft natural fabrics and eye-catching designs; the products are not only individually beautiful but also sit well beside one another and add a thoughtful touch to any home environment.
Casa Nova House, The Vicarage, Poshtel, Old Confectionery
Both the legs and the eyes are probably in need of rest after all those whitestone wanderings. Ōamaru has an array of unique accommodation offerings, many set within historic walls.
Luxury bed and breakfasts Casa Nova House and The Vicarage are tucked back from the main road, uptown and downtown, respectively. You’ll immediately feel at home in these character dwellings, curling up with a drink in a cosy parlour or relaxing and reading a book on a neat lawn. Old-world charm is abundant at these oases in suburbia.
Slightly closer to the action is Poshtel, where every room has a distinct personality. A keen caster? Go for the Fly Fishing Room. More interested in instruments of the mellifluous sort? There’s a Music Room for that. With a focus on arts and sports, Poshtel is full of funky relics and storied delights at every turn that talk of the history and culture of the region.
Last in this roundup, but certainly not least, is The Old Confectionery. These luxurious apartments are situated in the heart of town, the historic precinct, in a lovingly restored heritage building that was once upon a time headquartered Rice’s Confectionery. Another slice of history complete with modern-day impeccable hospitality, plush furnishings and home comforts, the complimentary Whitestone cheese and crackers aren’t the only treat you’re in for under this roof.
Ōamaru Waterfront Walk
Re-energised after a well-deserved lie-down, you’ll be ready to head out(doors) for some more exploring.
Starting from the old Harbourside Railway Station on Itchen Street, walk through Harbourside Gardens (found on the creek side of Steampunk HQ) and follow the path around the back of the Victorian Precinct towards Friendly Bay.
After a quick swing and slide at the Steampunk Playground, continue south around the harbour’s edge, taking your time to read the interpretation panels along the way. Aotearoa’s only surviving authentic Victorian deep-water port, this harbour hasn’t been used by cargo vessels since 1974 and is now a working safe haven for fishing boats and yachts, and matapo/Otago shags.
The lengthy, empty Sumpter Wharf which, because of its unstable state, was closed to (human) traffic almost twenty years ago, was too good of an opportunity for the matapo to pass over – now their breeding ground, they’ve executed a total takeover. A couple of minutes down the road is this waterside walk’s final feature, the Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony. But first, conveniently located between the two colonies, make a pit stop at Del Mar for a bite to eat (or lick, if you can’t walk past the tantalising gelato cabinet, all made in-house), with sweeping sea views.
As dusk approaches, make sure you’re seated in the stands next door in preparation for the impromptu show. Kororā/little penguins fish out in the open ocean all day, and around sunset, they arrive home to their nests – the colony here in Ōamaru have been making use of the closed quarry just beneath your feet. How’s that for some kiwi ingenuity?
A scenic fifteen-minute drive down the coast from Ōamaru will lead you to the golden sandy beaches and quaint coastal community of Kakanui.
The Kakanui River runs through the township, creating two main beaches: Kakanui Beach, north of the estuary and Campbells Bay/All Day Bay to the south. Are you into long walks on the beach? What if it meant seeing an impressive geological sequence in the outcrop to your right and a good chance of Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest marine dolphins in the world, playing in the surf to your left? Exposures of the Ototara limestone formation are visible down the coastline. If you stroll the entire length of All Day Bay, you’ll reach a coastal lagoon at the southern end that is home to a considerable diversity of indigenous flora and fauna.
With rich, fertile volcanic soil, an abundance of produce is grown in the surrounding market gardens – keep an eye out for roadside stalls to purchase some goods for yourself. Rarely crowded sheltered bays, a campground, playground, and café, and even a consistent surf break, Kakanui is truly a hidden gem in Waitaki’s crown.
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