Revisiting And Rediscovering A Richer Otago
Feature by Cameron Brewer – Sunday, 13 January 2013
Revisiting And Rediscovering A Richer Otago
In the 1990s Cameron Brewer set up a community newspaper called Inside Otago. Each month he would deliver the publication around the province. Over the New Year holiday period, Brewer now an Auckland councillor retraced his steps, rediscovering the richness of Otago and noting some changes 15 years after he left for the North Island.
By Cameron Brewer
Instead of One News showcasing Dunedin’s rusty roofs around the Octagon, they should put the nightly weather camera on the Andersons Bay causeway and pan across the Otago Harbour to the Scottish-rich southern centre. From there, television viewers would see a city of steeples, stone, and now the country’s best collection of Victorian and Edwardian urban architecture sadly because of Christchurch.
From the historic causeway infamously built by Taranaki Maori imprisoned during the New Zealand Land Wars, I wound around the harbour edge in our rental car to introduce my partner to the celebrated Otago Peninsula – the home of the Royal Albatross and the Yellow-eyed Penguin. We didn’t go to see them but we did get as far as Portobello where we visited Happy Hens - a great little studio which makes colourful hand-painted ceramic chooks. I already own two. This time I bought four egg cups.
Portobello’s local galley was running an exhibition celebrating five years since the Dunedin City Council bought the highest landmark on the peninsula known as Harbour Cone. The seaside village of Portobello is cute and on the day we were there you could see a massive cruise ship docked across the harbour at Port Chalmers.
The man at the gatehouse at Larnach Castle on the peninsula high road told us they’d been busy that day with many cruise tourists hopping on coaches to see New Zealand’s very own castle. It’s a great setting but we thought the $25 admission charge just to get the two of us in the garden was expensive. It would have cost us $56 if we wanted to see inside. Locals will tell you it’s best to see the 1871 mansion from the outside and save the rest of your money for an inside tour of Olveston historic home in the city.
Heading back into Dunedin on Highcliff Road, we passed Every Street – notorious for the Bain murders. The headline in the Otago Daily Times that morning was “Survey majority: pay Bain”. I wondered whether that 1994 horror on top of the 1990 Aramoana killings painted for some people a depressing image of Dunedin. However two decades on it’s the university students and all their antics that are again most synonymous with Dunedin.
Lunch at the Esplanade restaurant overlooking St Clair beach was a very summery affair and few Kiwis would appreciate Dunedin has such a long stretch of golden sand. Then heading back into the city I was struck just how central the Hillside railway workshops are – central to the South Dunedin shops that is. The nearly 90 job losses were undoubtedly a loss for Dunedin and any Made In NZ push, with Auckland’s new fleet of electric trains set to come all the way from Spain.
After a lovely night at Gowrie House bed & breakfast on the hill in Roslyn, we popped down to the Saturday farmers’ markets at the photogenic 1906 Dunedin Railway Station, where we saw again McArthur’s berries. The day before we bought some of their beautifully sweet raspberries and strawberries at their farm store near the village of Outram after our host picked us up from the Dunedin airport.
Once New Zealand’s busiest railway station handling up to 100 trains a day, these days it is the departure point for the one and only Taieri Gorge railway excursion train to inland Middlemarch. However people will again flock to the station’s ornate basalt grandeur and Oamaru stone trimmings when its main platform is transformed into one of the world’s longest catwalks for Dunedin’s iD Fashion Week from 10 March.
Leaving town for what is colloquially known as Central, we passed the House Of Pain with a Colliers real estate sign reading “Carisbrook – For Sale” and wondered what the will become of the old sports ground.
Dunedin’s new indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium stands like a big white igloo at the northern corner of the city with its replacement of Carisbrook controversial to say the least. Also eyebrow-raising was Dunedin City Council leading the bailout of the struggling Otago Rugby Football Union – with the OTD naming that grave situation and the subsequent rescue package as the local sports story of 2012.
Lawrence was the first town of note. Signposted as the gateway to Central Otago, Lawrence was where the province’s manic gold-rush all started with the 1861 discovery in Gabriel’s Gully.
Akin to the Matakanas and Greytowns of the North, Lawrence has cute miners’ cottages for sale at just over $100,000 – 1/10th of the price of something similar in Auckland’s Ponsonby. The museum and information centre sits in the middle of the main street and its controller gave us a warm welcome. Photographs of original goldminers as elderly men with long grey beards at the 50th jubilee celebrations in 1911 hang proudly.
Leaving Lawrence we pass through the likes of Millers Flat, Ettrick, and Roxbourgh. We unsuccessfully try to find something to eat in Alexandra before arriving in the quant historic village of Clyde below the massive Clyde Dam filled to the brim with brilliant teal blue water gathered to make electricity.
It was the 1860s goldrush that saw Clyde’s mainstreet of chalky beige stone buildings instantly spring up on the banks of the once gold rich Clutha River. Olivers, where we stayed, sold general provisions to miners. Now its heritage buildings have been converted into stunning boutique accommodation nestled among old fashioned scented roses, lavender bushes, and fruit trees. And like a lot of Clyde, the property is encased by rock walls.
As well as premier homestead accommodation, the smaller stable rooms are perfect for those starting out or finishing up the internationally recognised bike ride that is the Otago Central Rail Trail from Middlemarch to Clyde.
The 150km bike trail over what was once an old rail line now supports a lot of accommodation and hospitality businesses along the way. Costing DOC and the Otago Central Rail Trail all of $850,000 in the 1990s to make the likes of the old bridges safe, it was money well spent. Today the trail delivers millions to the Otago economy and is big business for bike suppliers. We didn’t get on our bikes but we did drive 20 minutes out on SH85 alongside the trail to historic Ophir where we enjoyed a coffee at Pitches.
Also worth a visit is Bannockburn just out of Cromwell. It is a wonderful pocket of local wineries for those who enjoy a tasting or a vineyard lunch. We visited Mt Difficulty and Bald Hills, before enjoying an antipasto platter at Carrick. Pinot Noir is of course the mainstay but most seem to also produce a full range of whites – a great way to spend an afternoon, with all of them in easy driving distance of each other.
Cromwell was the most effected with the flooding of the Clutha to create the dam and Lake Dunstan. At nearly 40, I’m just old enough to remember my parents telling us on a South Island holiday in the early 1980s that a number of the riverside orchards and farms would soon be under water. In the end six farms and 17 stone-fruit orchards were submerged or made uneconomic. The country was thinking big.
Just when you thought Queenstown couldn’t get more popular it continues to.
The New Zealand Herald ran a story when we were there that Queenstown is now New Zealanders number one preferred holiday destination, with up to 40% of its two million annual visitors Kiwis.
On the road between Frankton and town, massive apartment complexes now drop down the embankment on the left to Lake Wakatipu. The success of the intensive developments has been patchy with some still yet to be fully fitted out. As well as all the apartment development, not to mention the massive Hilton on the Frankton waterfront, the pads are getting higher and higher on the surrounding hills, right up among Queenstown’s fast-spreading and problematic wilding pines.
Coming into Queenstown after we enjoyed lunch at one of the area’s original commercial vineyards, Gibbston Valley Winery, I was struck at how many new houses are packed into Lake Hayes Estate opposite the lake itself and before you get to the partly Auckland owned international airport. The Queenstown Lakes District Council is proud of this substantial subdivision which enables local families to buy roomy suburban styled homes for around $500,000. It’s affordable housing in New Zealand’s most expensive town.
Jack’s Point is another new residential development. On the road beyond the Remarkables ski field and in the direction of Kingston, this fabulous golf course development just a few minutes from Frankton is in its infancy but already has beautiful established homes with wooden shingle roofs, natural timbers, and more local schist rock. Contrasting this massive manicured countryside estate is a dramatic steep serrated mountain range behind, making a stunning proposition for the luxury end of the market.
The much improved fully tar-sealed Crown Range road to Wanaka was another revelation as were some of the trendy new watering holes along the lakefront at Wanaka, including a bright new Speights Ale House.
While we enjoyed a flash meal at Masterchef judge Josh Emett’s new restaurant Rata in Queenstown, in Wanaka it was cold and wet and so we went for The Spice Room, apparently voted on Trip Advisor the best curry house in the South Island. If I knew anything about Trip Advisor, I too would add my approving comments and vote.
Wanaka has got bigger but it retains its low key charm. These days it boasts some pretty smart cribs – a crib of course being the preferred Southern term for bach. Also exclusive in the south are Night ‘n Day super dairies, cheese rolls, and Jimmy’s Pies.
As tempting as that late-night local tucker sounds, on our last night in Dunedin we opted for Italian at Etrusco in the old Savoy building on Princes Street. The pasta portions were huge and the welcome was typically warm. Earlier that evening the barman at the Octagon’s Stuart St Brew Bar was just as chatty and genuinely interested about where we were from and what we’d been up to.
Perhaps the nightly news’ weather-cam shot of the Octagon’s rusty roofs is in fact just one of those metaphorical books that shouldn’t be judged by its cover?
Our 1,000km week-long road trip confirmed that Otago can turn on some of the most heartfelt hospitality to be found anywhere. Add that to the region’s breath-taking scenery, food, wine, and rich 19th century history, Otago is not only charming but it’s a market leader in 21st century New Zealand.