Oamaru has been in the press quite a lot lately here in New Zealand! A few weeks ago, a group of five friends (aka “The Whisky Wives”) came to Oamaru for a gourmet weekend that was featured in Christchurch’s Avenues magazine. You can read about their visit below, or click here to read it online.
A gourmet stop in Oamaru
Girls go south
With the clock nearing 4.30pm on a Friday, the “whisky wives” piled into a people-mover and headed south, destined for Oamaru and a well-deserved weekend away.
Our group of five met through our husbands’ love of single-malt whisky. The men formed a club to make regular tastings a legit affair and, by default, we became “whisky widows” six times a year. Tired of the boys having all the fun, we decided to disappear for a weekend and Oamaru was an easy choice, to satisfy food, wine and cheese cravings. First on the agenda was dinner at Riverstone Kitchen.
The restaurant is situated 12km north of Oamaru, on State Highway 1, so meeting our 8pm booking was not a problem – although finding the restaurant was. It was dark by the time we neared the award-winning eatery and we could easily have hurtled past the modest entrance.
Riverstone Kitchen’s dining area, quiet on this Friday night, seemed cavernous, yet still welcoming. A high ceiling and concrete floor were warmed by an impressively large fireplace, atop which a cluster of candles stood.
A bottle of Amisfield sauvignon blanc was the table’s first request, followed by a group commitment to the chef’s tasting menu, which changes daily and offers a series of small servings. Chicken terrine canapés started our six-course dinner. We shared plates of hot-smoked salmon with sautéed potatoes and horseradish crème fraîche, and roast duck with Jerusalem artichoke puree, wilted greens and baby carrots. A crowd favourite, the bright red beetroot risotto, bound with melted goats’ curd, was savoured slowly to extend the pleasure. The dessert, a slice of rich and fluffy passionfruit tart, with a quenelle of mascarpone, slowed down a few, who then forfeited the final bite, a Grand Marnier chocolate truffle. We sipped our last glass of wine on couches in front of the fire, before continuing on our way, bound for our first roost, Highfield Mews.
The next day, we awoke to a beautiful morning, and enjoyed continental breakfasts in impeccably styled rooms. All we needed was a barista-brewed coffee and so, on motel owner Ross Ward’s advice, we headed for Steam café, the only coffee roastery in Oamaru.
Sipping lattes and mochas in the heart of Oamaru, we began to get a feel for the town. The café occupies a stand-alone building cast in the iconic, yet impressive, Oamaru stone. Our modest table and bench seats were complemented by a collection of retro jugs and framed pictures of times gone by.
As our weekend was dedicated to relaxation, our next stop was Oak Villa. Originally a home, the house has been converted into a massage and beauty business by owner and sports-massage expert Beverley Judd. Our pamper package included a divine half-hour massage and a hydrotherapy spa, which made us feel better about missing a soak in Highfield Mews’ spa baths, and offered an impressive view of the ocean. With the growls of stomachs disturbing the peace, it was time for a cup of tea and a scone.
Annie’s Victorian Tea Rooms is owned by Annie Baxter, who used to offer a similar experience at Stoddart’s Cottage in Diamond Harbour. Stepping inside the café is like entering a time warp. As we crossed the threshold of the old AMP Building, we were met by staff in full Victorian garb. The café is frozen in time, and lined with memorabilia from Queen Victoria’s era. The lady herself stared down at our table from a print hung beneath an equally severe-looking stag’s head. Wooden shelves held a selection of silver teapots and Royal Doulton china, while an elegant wooden dessert cart was laden with elaborate cakes, cupcakes and slices.
Our ladies’ lunch consisted of soup, scones with cream and jam, and pots of loose-leaf tea, made all the more leisurely by the pace of service (short-staffed, apparently), but good things do take time.
Our next stop took us deeper into Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, where more than 40 businesses showcase their wares. Carol Edwards has been there for 13 years, and greeted us at the door to the Photo Shoppe, with a camera slung around her neck. She eyed us up and was soon pulling dress after dress from a crowded clothes rack to take us back to the 19th century.
Before we knew it, we were transformed. With the added flourish of fans, a parasol, chokers and pearls, lacy gloves and elaborate hats, the flouncy dresses – some reminiscent of bridesmaids’ attire gone wrong – came to life. The old part of Oamaru provided the ultimate backdrop and, as we sashayed down the main street, looking jovial and ladylike, we couldn’t help but laugh. Leaving Carol to turn photographs of us in our colourful regalia into sepia images, we hopped over to Steampunk HQ, before it closed for the day.
Outside a two-storey limestone building, a black steam train billowed fire from its stack, a steel dirigible with skull insignia floated in mid-air, and a rusty gorilla made from pieces of machinery glared into the distance from a car’s roof. These installations surround Steampunk HQ, owned by Brian De Geest and filled with Donald Paterson’s sculptures and film work by Jac Grenfell. Unlike the fashion shows and steampunk-themed parties, these displays show a macabre side of the science-fiction sub-genre.
A spooky soundtrack of clanging machinery resonated throughout the ground-level spaces. It reminded me of the constant banging and thumping of Christchurch’s CBD. In Oamaru, these noises represented the industrial revolution and were coupled with displays of old machines and motorbikes, dentist chairs and television sets in a representation of steampunk that blends Jules Verne with Sweeney Todd. “As long as it’s quirky and doesn’t make sense, and has the Victorian theme, it’s steampunk,” says Jac, with a shrug and a curious look in his eye. Steampunk HQ has been open a little over six months and plans to add a fine-art gallery upstairs.
The Victorian Precinct is not just home to the old and quirky; there’s a new wine bar there, too. Birdlands Wine Company has been making and serving wine in Harbour St for the past two years (that’s certainly “new” in these parts). We met part-owner Craig Lory, who mastered winemaking at Lincoln University before building on his experience in Waipara, Nelson, South Australia and Burgundy, France. Now back in his hometown, he produces Birdlands wine without agri-chemicals or mechanical assistance. That’s right, he stomps the grapes himself, in the back room of the wine bar, where the magic brews.
We chose to swill our wine with a platter of Oamaru’s Whitestone cheese. We delicately consumed piece after piece of Vintage Windsor Blue, Farmhouse (the company’s first cheese), and the gooey Lindis Pass brie, matched with Craig’s refreshingly different sauvignon blanc (devoid of tart gooseberry flavours), his surprisingly light pinot gris and delicious riesling. The Waitaki Valley makes the difference, as the area’s dry climate allows the grapes to ripen slowly. Craig leaves his sauvignon blanc fruit on the vines for as long as two months.
From one lap of luxury to the next, we left our gastronomic paradise to check in at our five-star accommodation. Pen-y-bryn Lodge is Victorian opulence at its best. Jaws dropped as we walked into the entrance hall of the 1889 mansion that was a home until 1995. Our hosts for the evening were former owners Bernice and Roy Vannini, who sold the lodge to James Glucksman and James Boussy in 2010.
The lodge has bountiful vegetable gardens and the owners are members of the slow food movement, so we were sorry not to be able to enjoy James Glucksman’s expert cooking skills. However, with famous foodie Fleur Sullivan’s Oamaru eatery just down the road, we were surely in safe hands.
The Loan & Merc opened in 2010, but not as a carbon copy of Fleur’s Place, half an hour away in Moeraki. It is a new venture, which takes its name from the building, the 1882 NZ Loan and Mercantile Warehouse, and features long banquet tables, high ceilings and sturdy beams. The tavern and eating house focuses on the hearty and the rustic, as opposed to all things fresh from the sea – Moeraki’s mantra.
With the restaurant making its own chutneys, relishes and sauces, as well as curing and smoking meats and fish in-house, it was easy to choose smoked-fish platter starters, along with garlic mussels and tasty, tapas-sized meatballs, too.
As we waited for our mains of roast venison, pork hocks and lamb racks, beautiful melodies rang out from a table near the bar. A local choir had started rehearsing over a few drinks, filling the hall-like bar and dining area with impressive harmonies.
When our meals arrived, we learnt the meaning of “hearty” and knew the salad was fresh – a lone caterpillar nodded his head from a piece of lettuce. The pick of the bunch was the venison, but the other meals proved too much for female appetites and the specials not as spectacular as expected – including an inedible piece of lamb.
To finish the night, we popped around the corner to Birdlands, where we enjoyed a few more laughs at the wine bar, before hailing the town’s sole cab company (not large enough to offer eftpos) to take us up the hill.
Not yet ready for bed when we arrived at Pen-Y-Bryn (Welsh for “top of the hill”), we cracked a few walnuts in the grand drawing room, admired the English oak parquet floor, and imagined what it would be like to live there. Eventually, we slunk into the luxurious beds, warmed by hot-water bottles.
The next morning, breakfast was served in the dining room, where we sat beneath an ornate plaster ceiling originally sent in pieces from Florence, Italy. I couldn’t resist testing out the 1866 Collard & Collard grand piano, in need of a tune.
It was difficult to leave Pen-Y-Bryn. We hadn’t made full use of the library, with a section dedicated to cookery books, or the billiard room, home to an Italian slate billiard table, originally built for the New Zealand Government in 1915. However, we couldn’t stay – we had whisky husbands awaiting our return.
After browsing the Oamaru Farmers’ Market and stocking up on more Whitestone cheese, we hit the road. Our time in Oamaru was refreshingly different, with “quirky” the word of the hour, but it ticked all the boxes for a girls’ weekend away, an easy three-and-a-half-hour drive from Christchurch.
More things to see and do in Oamaru
Portside Restaurant and Bar – with an impressive view of the harbour, Portside delivers quality food and a great atmosphere.
Jessie Roberts’ Store – revisit your childhood as you look through the vast selection of wooden and popular toys, and ensure you leave with a bag of something sweet, too.
Whitestone Cheese Factory – during weekday mornings, watch cheese-makers go about their business, or stop for a tasting platter and coffee, or to restock your fridge with award-winning cheese.