There’s so much more to Central Otago than ski slopes and luxury lodges. We’ve put together a list of all you need to know before you explore this stunning part of our backyard this summer this summer.
If you’ve got friends or relatives visiting Aotearoa, top of their list should be sorting out their NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority). Head to the Immigration New Zealand website for all the details.
Central Otago is a sprawling, inland wilderness that sees the most extreme temperatures in the country; in the winter, its mountains are our country’s snow sports centres. In the summer, its dusty plateaus are home to bustling wineries and shining blue lakes.
Over the past century, its main source of income has shifted from gold to stonefruit, wine, and sheep. Cultivated beehives are hidden in plain sight on lush hills that are home to wild boar and wallabies. Massive cliffs soar over bright blue alpine water. People have changed this land with man-made lakes and vineyards as far as the eye can see, but it still feels wild.
Known as “Central” to those who live nearby, this region is populated by dozens of small villages and towns a half-hour’s drive apart. Being so spread out, the people of Central are always looking for a friendly face to brighten their day. Brighten yours by stopping at some Central’s hidden delights.
The Best Little Village
Tucked in a forest that provides a lush contrast to the plains of Central Otago is Naseby, a living museum home to only a hundred delightful residents. It was once called Parker’s, then Hogburn, and today it’s still referred to by many as the “jewel of the Maniototo”. Naseby was established during the gold rush and has maintained many of its original buildings.
An architectural history of New Zealand can be observed with a quick walk around the town: Victorian buildings like the red brick post office are still standing alongside kauri villas and buildings made from sun-dried mud bricks.
Out in the elements, landlocked Naseby captures the climate extremes of the Maniototo region perfectly. In winter, you can ice skate in the open air, try your hand at curling, and enjoy the southern hemisphere’s only natural ice luge, which winds into the forest and out again. In summer, the forest lakes are full of fish and the Mt Ida Range makes for a beautiful hike.
The Best Scenic Route
One of the most popular ways to experience Central Otago is also one of its best. Old railways used to cut across the region, but they’re long gone; now, the straight lines cut into the ground make up 150 km of cycleways.
There are several cross-region bike trails, but the most popular is the Clyde-Middlemarch trail, which consists of four or five days of full-time biking along. You’ll cycle through old gold mining land, rock-strewn fields straight of Lord of the Rings, and settler villages populated almost entirely by vintners. There’s accommodation available at the end of each day’s ride, and often a stunning vineyard restaurant will appear at around the mid-day mark to break up a long summer’s day riding.
Bikes are available for rental at the beginning of the trail – no need to bring your own. For those making the most of the experience, the Taieri Gorge train runs from Dunedin to Middlemarch, and is arguably the most scenic train journey in the country. It’s an incredible way to start or finish your Central Otago journey.
Padded seats and shorts are both strongly recommended.
The Best Get-Rich-Quick Scheme
In the late 19th century, Central Otago was flooded with settlers from all over the world chasing the gold rush. All the small townships near the mines had very matter-of-fact names: Mutton Town, Welshtown, Tinkers. They’re long since abandoned, because living off mutton in a cave is no long-term life plan. However, the names and old stone buildings still stand.
There are fully-fledged gold rush tours, if you feel like getting the whole story. There are ruins of old settlements, plenty of graveyards, and small antique stores and museums that house remnants of Central’s past. One history lesson you’ll learn from the teapots, stoves, and old tools is that the Chinese have been living in New Zealand just as long as Europeans – in 1880, around 40% of gold miners were Cantonese.
The empty mines are still there to be clambered all over, because there’s no better way to understand history than to get deep inside its earthy depths. The gold isn’t all gone; river panning is still practised near Arrowtown. You’re not going to make yourself rich, but you could get a little pocket money.
The Best Historic Hospo Spot
You may have heard of Fleur’s Place, the famous fish restaurant in Moeraki. Venture deeper inland, to the tiny town of Clyde, and you’ll find restauranteur extraordinaire Fleur Sullivan’s beloved second child: Olivers.
Olivers was originally opened as a provisions store in 1869, and is one of the region’s most significant heritage buildings. It’s passed through many hands, but it was Sullivan who re-opened it as a restaurant, with the original family lodgings refurbished as boutique accommodation. If you’re a little too inclined to Otago’s delightful pinot noirs, you can always just stay the night.
Fleur’s moved on now, but the current owners of Olivers have retained her level of care. They’ve restored the traditional schist buildings, making this not only one of the region’s best restaurants, but one of its foremost historical sites too. Foodies make the trip from Queenstown, Cromwell, and Bannockburn into the quiet country village of Clyde every evening to enjoy the best cuisine the rich Central Otago ground can spit forth: mains of wild game, fresh salmon, and pork belly; flavours of locally-sourced truffle, honeycomb, and cheeses.
Reservations, as you might expect, are recommended.
The Best Maze
On the outskirts of Wanaka lies Puzzling World, an art installation/tourist attraction that’s been messing with people’s heads since 1973.
Proudly home to “New Zealand’s most unusual public toilets,” Puzzling World has more optical illusions than you can shake a kaleidoscope at. One room gives you the full Alice in Wonderland experience, making you appear at first giant and then tiny to anyone standing at the other end of the room. After a quick photoshoot, you can watch water flow uphill, walk through the Hall of Following Faces, or complete a massive outdoor maze.
As a fun bonus activity for any spiritualists, Puzzling World will give $100,000 to anyone who can prove they have psychic powers by locating a specific item hidden on-site. Many have tried, all have failed.
Complete your visit with a mental decompression in the cafe, or book the conference room for an off-beat business venue.
For more from our ‘Top of the List’ series, check out the below:
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