The former port town of OAMARU, 85km south of Timaru, is one of New Zealand’s most alluring provincial cities, and a relaxed place to spend a day or two. The most immediate attraction is the presence of both blue and yellow-eyed penguin colonies on the outskirts of town, but the town itself has a well-preserved Historic District, a core of nineteenth-century buildings built of the distinctive cream-coloured local limestone that earned Oamaru the title “The Whitestone City”. At the turn of the twentieth century it had a reputation as being the most attractive city in the South Island – a status it’s regaining thanks to ongoing restoration.
The best times to visit Oamaru are from November to January when penguins are in their greatest numbers, and for the Victorian Heritage Celebrations over the third weekend in November when the streets of the historic district become a racetrack for penny-farthings, cheered on by local residents in Victorian attire.
The limestone outcrops throughout the area once provided shelter for Maori and later the raw material for ambitious European builders. As a commercial centre for gold-rush prospectors, and shored up by quarrying, timber and farming industries, Oamaru grew prosperous. The port opened for migration in 1874, although many ships foundered on the hostile coastline and in the late nineteenth century wrecks littered the shore. After this boom period Oamaru declined, times evocatively recorded in work by local writer Janet Frame. It’s only in recent years that the town has begun to come alive again.