Donna Demente's Masks
The Historic Precinct in Oamaru is New Zealand's most complete Victorian streetscape, it’s not just from another time, it seems like another world. Largely built between the late 1860’s and early 1890’s, many of the buildings were designed by John Forester of ‘Forester and Lemon’. He was the bricklayer/self taught architect behind many of the phenomenal whitestone facades in the area. Today, these large and impressively decorated buildings still hold a stately, even ghostly presence. A key thing to remember while walking the streets of Oamaru is ‘Look Up!’ the carved rooflines and vintage signs are not to be missed.

During the 1860’s, Omaru was the breadbasket of Otago’s gold fields. If you are wondering why the main street is so wide, it’s because bullock teams towing huge wagons of wheat couldn’t complete a three point turn. So the wide boulevards had nothing to do visionary town planning, they were built to enable bullock team U-turns.

Today, the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust is working hard to restore the Historic Precinct. It may appear ghostly, but with a little exploring you will find a host of artisans’ beavering away, freshly baked bread, eclectic retailers, and a chance to sample fine whisky. One of the best examples of a historic rebirth is he Criterion Hotel. It was closed in 1905 with the advent of prohibition, and has been fully restored to a working Victorian style pub.

At The Grainstore Gallery, Donna Demente’s papier-mâché creations and paintings fill one of the most lusciously creative galleries that I have ever seen. There were echoes of the movie The Labyrinth, the storybook Alice in Wonderland, the poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, Buddha-like faces, Botticelli cherubs and completely unique other worldly creations. It was more than obvious why Donna won the top awards at New Zealand’s World of Wearable Arts competition. The
Whisky Gallery kept me visually captivated, and I could have spent hundreds of dollars with Vaughan at Lazy Cat Pottery and Tileworks.

Jason and his team of chefs at the
Loan & Mercantile served up the best Ploughman’s Platter that I have had anywhere in the world. The indomitable Fleur of ‘Fleurs Place’ (the award winning restaurant at Moeraki) has recently bought the Loan & Merc, and with the aid of some gentle arm twisting convinced Jason (a world class chef) to come to Oamaru.

While struggling to choose exactly what part of the ploughman’s feast I wanted to put on my freshly baked bread, I happily babbled on about Oamaru’s amazingly creative inhabitants. Jason, with his quiet South African accent smiled and said ‘Yes, it’s a happening town, and I won’t be leaving anytime soon’, which collaborated nicely with my sentiments of ‘I’ll be back’.

Oamaru is only an hour’s drive from Dunedin, and I’m already scheduled to return in November for the annual Victorian fete, New Zealand National Penny Farthing Championships and World Stone Sawing championships. All combined, this will make for an extraordinarily interesting weekend.

If you only have one day to spare visit on a Sunday because the Woolstore Market is full of an infinite number of treasures; simply go with some spare change, a blank memory card on your camera, and a desire to explore.

Whitestone streetscape
Sunday Market