From Penguins to Steampunk: The 6 Coolest Things to Do in Oamaru

In case you missed it, we’re spending almost 7 weeks traveling New Zealand in a motorhome. For all of the posts from the trip in order, look here.

The drive from Tekapo to Oamaru only took a few hours. X-Man wasn’t feeling well, so he slept the whole time. As a breastfeeding mama, I had spent the hours since he started running a fever deperately hoping I would get sick too so that I could pass the antibodies to him, minimizing his sickness. I was relieved when I started to feel shivery during the drive.

We arrived at our campsite in Oamaru on a lovely sunny afternoon. Xander had swapped duck watching for boat watching. How sweet is the concrete furniture at this campsite?IMG_4599.JPGIMG_3302.jpgIMG_1756.jpgOamaru is a small town of about 13,000 people on the South East coast of the South Island. There is a wonderful historical record from 1814 about the native Maori people from Oamaru killing and eating a party of 7 European whalers who they came across sleeping in a boat. Mmm…delicious cannibalism.

We did not encounter any cannibals, but we did find other remarkable things in this charmingly quaint town. Oamaru is the coolest! They have preserved a ton of old Victorian buildings to create a Victorian Precinct, and have embraced Steampunk culture to integrate the two. Here are the highlights in no particular order:

1. Harbour Park

This is a children’s park with a Steampunk theme. The most badass park ever. Not only are the attractions fun (way too fun to be allowed in the States!), but the design is incredible. I won’t try to do it justice…just take a look.IMG_3303.jpgIMG_3319.jpgIMG_3307.jpgFor scale…Kris is 6’ 5” and is teeny next to this slide. He had to try it out.IMG_3314.jpgIMG_3308.jpgA zipline connects the elephant to this marvelous contraption:IMG_3315.jpgIMG_3317.jpgPeople think my husband is very serious. They’ve never seen him entertain his son on a playground.

2. Steampunk HQ

In keeping with the Steampunk theme, this restored Victorian building houses a plethora of random, eclectic objects. You could wander for hours and never make sense of it all.IMG_3332IMG_3358IMG_3355I love the guy fishing off the roof.

3. Blue Penguin Colony

A colony of blue penguins, the smallest species of penguin, lives just at the end of the harbor in Oamaru. Every morning they head down to the water to go fishing for the day, and each evening return home to their nests around sunset. You can buy a ticket to be in the viewing stands to watch them come home in the evening.

If you’re going to visit, we found it worthwhile to pay the extra for the premium seats. It separated us from the busloads of tour groups and put us within a few feet of the penguins as they came in. We could have reached out and kicked them…if we were terrible human beings. The building in the center of the drawing below is the general seating and on the right is the premium seating. The penguins come in right at the premium stands, and since they’re tiny birds and it’s dark, I would imagine you barely see them from the other seats. As a bonus, you get to walk the boardwalk over their houses to get the premium seats, so we saw a few heading into their nests as we arrived a little late. The whole colony design is very much like penguin Hobbiton.IMG_4608.jpgAs part of the conservation effort, they tried building boxes for the penguins to nest in and the little guys loved it. The colony thrived, more than doubling in size since they started protecting them. People complain that it is too commercialized, but I thought it was wonderful. They allow people to watch from a safe distance and prevent anyone from interfering with the nests. Realistically, if they weren’t charging for access and controlling people’s behavior, you would have people shining flashlights in their nests and trying to pick them up. Here is what the nest boxes look like:IMG_3410.jpgWe respected the strict no camera policy when we saw the actual penguins, but here is a picture of a picture of what the adorable little guys look like:IMG_3503.jpgIMG_3398.jpgOne of the things we found most interesting was that as cold as it was outside and as frigid as the water must have been, they had to work so hard swimming and climbing the rocks that they actually have to sit and cool off while they preen their feathers before going back into their nests. Seeing them waddle home for the night was incredible. Well worth a visit.

4. New Zealand Whisky

The distillery in Oamaru is no longer in production, but they have about 130 barrels left that they found in a warehouse and have bottled in blends and as single malts. Since none of it walloped me over the head with peaty, smokey goodness, it didn’t really suit my taste, but was drinkable. As a bonus, the tasting room is in a super cool old building in the Victorian Precinct.IMG_3325.jpgIMG_3371.jpgGreg was wonderful with Xander, who was delighted to crawl around the floor, rip up magazines, and terrorize Greg’s dog.IMG_3379IMG_3376IMG_3381The whisky marmalade they sell here was phenomenal. We bought one and sampled it for breakfast before promptly returning to purchase more. I won’t admit how many.IMG_3385.jpgI promise it’s water.

5. The Victorian Precinct

The old buildings and general effort to embrace the history here are fantastic, but my favorite part was definitely Michael O’Brien’s hand bookbinding workshop. IMG_3326IMG_3359IMG_3365We didn’t get to meet the man himself, but we did see him out and about riding his Victorian bicycle around town. The second hand bookstore a few doors down were kind enough to give us the key to his workshop when we popped in to ask whether they knew when Mr. O’Brien would be in. It was a reminder that we most definitely weren’t in LA anymore. He makes custom creations, and apparently sometimes lives an entirely Victorian lifestyle. You may be interested to know that he’s looking for an apprentice…IMG_3360IMG_3369His workshop was filled with eclectic and interesting objects. As we walked back out to return the keys, we had to step over his mail that had been dropped through the post slot. I couldn’t help noticing how many handwritten letters he had received, and I was jealous. I really must start writing more letters. Who would like one?

6. Moeraki Boulders

This one is a bonus since it’s technically about half an hour away from Oamaru, but worth the easy drive. They are large, round boulders that are scattered across Koekohe Beach. The beach alone is worth the trip, but the boulders are cool to see. IMG_3422IMG_3425

I am sad to say that we didn’t make it to Whitestone Cheese Company to demand that they explain themselves for creating the monstrosity that is their Pale Ale cheese. We were going to stop on our way out of town, but Xander fell asleep immediately in the car. Since he was sick and we had a fairly long drive to get through, we decided it was best to let him sleep and save the cheese for another time. I would definitely come back to Oamaru. For now, it’s on to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula!

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5 thoughts on “From Penguins to Steampunk: The 6 Coolest Things to Do in Oamaru

  1. As an Oamaruvian who lived away and returned it is lovely reading this..a special town true
    …hope the rest of your trip is super.


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