After the hot, bronzed hills of Central Otago the carpet of sunflowers as we approached Ōamaru came as a refreshing treat, like moving from a Graeme Sydney piece into Frida Kahlo’s world.
These flowers have become a popular roadside photo op for overseas visitors, the burst of colour serving as a colourful promotion for the local productive soils.
It seems that Ōamaru has been quietly overachieving on the produce-growing front for some time now. The sunflowers are just one spectacular example, grown by long-time local company Topflite. The seeds are also used in their handcrafted bird and small animal feed.
The birds aren’t the only ones benefiting from the superb growing conditions in those limestone hills.
While buttery Jersey Benne potatoes are Ōamaru’s most well-known culinary export few may know the coastal microclimate is also responsible for delectable gourmet vegetables like raddichio, kale. fennel and celeriac. So, pretty much all the good stuff.
We undertook some serious investigations at the local farmer’s market , which is on Sundays from 9.30am down by the harbour.
As huge fans of Whitestone Cheese, we were pleased to see them at the market. If you haven’t tried their oozingly creamy Lindis Pass Brie, particularly when it’s cut from the wheel, you’re seriously missing out (join their Cheese Club to remedy this!) They also host guided tours on site where you’ll see the cheese making process up close and, as importantly, indulge in a delectable tasting session.
To experience the local produce in situ there are plenty of superb cafes and restaurants. Riverstone Kitchen, just 15 minutes north of Ōamaru, is already a destination on every respectable New Zealand foodie map. The sprawling locale offers a wide range of both culinary and visual delights.
We were also blown away by the options downtown. Cucina offers understated elegance and unique takes on Spanish and South American favourites. The menu is bolstered too by their use of products from the local Scotts Brewery which, with their large craft beer selection on tap and delicious pizza, is a drawcard in its own right.
Next door to Cucina there’s also Tees St Cafe , which won us over with their excellent coffee and lush doughnuts.
Of course, there’s far more to experience here than just a quenched thirst and a full puku.
The historic harbour is certainly one to spend some time in. With an exposed beach nearby and the notoriously wild southern winds it was once considered one of New Zealand’s most dangerous anchorages.
Closed to shipping in 1974, the harbour is now a registered historic place. It’s also home to Ōamaru’s cutest local, the kororā or blue penguin, who made a nesting spot out of an abandoned waterside quarry in the 1970s.
Locals told us of breeding pairs nesting under houses, boatsheds and in the garden and building nesting boxes is a popular activity for kids. We decided to catch the penguins coming ashore after their hard day’s fishing as part of the Blue Penguin Colony’s evening viewing session, which is definitely recommended.
At the harbour’s edge a steampunk-style adventure playground entertains the children. Ōamaru is of course the steampunk capital of the world - and there is plenty to capture the imagination walking through the romantic limestone thoroughfares of the Victorian Precinct .
Artisan bakeries, whiskey rooms, well-stocked vintage clothing and second-hand bookstores - a quick look around here always always turns into a hours-long event culminating in a promise to come back. With the recent influx of young and keen entrepreneurs to the seaside town there’s bound to be something new to see next time.
And that’s what we love so much about Ōamaru. It’s still somewhat wild and untamed. But there’s inspiration (and culinary satisfaction) to be found both out in the open and hiding away. Go look for yourself - you won’t be disappointed.