While you’re here, you won’t want to miss –
Spreading east from the end of the Southern Alps across to the Maniototo Plains is Central Otago, the South Island’s barren but beautiful landscape. Here the wide blue skies, golden tussock plains and sun-scorched ochre hills will definitely inspire the photographer or artist within you.
In the late 19th century, gold was discovered in Central Otago – creating a mining phenomenon that saw the creation of industry, wealth and drama for early New Zealand settlers. The gold mining towns that still exist today are brimming with history and stories, more often than not at the local pub, where the tall tales and the Speights beer flow freely.
While you’re exploring the varied things to do in Central Otago, you’ll also discover the famous southern hospitality. Visitors to the heartland are always welcomed with open arms.
Gold Mining Towns
If you head out on State Highway 85 from Ranfurly to Alexandra, you’ll be able to explore the small town gems of Central Otago. Highlights of this route are Naseby, St Bathans and Ophir – all historic gold mining towns and each with its own unique character, stories and activities.
Picturesque Naseby is known as the “Curling Capital of New Zealand.” You can have a try at this icy sport at the indoor ice rink in summer and in winter out on the frozen dam. Since the gold rush, time seems to have stood still in Naseby – the main street features many of the original shops, including the watchmaker, post office and pub.
Sleepy St Bathans is also a must-visit for its Blue Lake and collection of well-preserved heritage buildings, especially the iconic Vulcan Hotel.
Learn about the history (and resident ghost!) of this watering hole when you stop for great pub food and of course, the South Island brew – Speights beer.
Fascinating Ophir in the Manuherikia Valley has its share of historic buildings as well as a functioning schist stone suspension bridge. This time-capsule town has been recorded as both the hottest and coldest place in New Zealand.
Ranfurly’s Art Deco
Central Otago can have extreme weather so Fall and Spring are the best times to enjoy the Otago Rail Trail, which starts in Middlemarch and ends in Alexandra. This is a former railway route that attracts many cyclists for its relatively flat grade and chance to explore some of the region’s lesser known scenic wonders via gorges, viaducts and tunnels.
Whether you’re traveling by bike or car, spend some time in Ranfurly – a stop on the Rail Trail and one of the most populated settlements in the area. You’ll find a wonderful collection of lovingly restored buildings from the Art Deco era. Highlights include the Centennial Milk Bar that’s now a museum and the old railway station where you can pick up Art Deco and New Zealand souvenirs.
There’s also a self-guided Art Deco walk to learn more about the intriguing history of Ranfurly. If you’re able to visit in late February, you can enjoy the Ranfurly Art Deco Festival – the whole town takes to the streets to party.
If you get gold fever while visiting Central Otago, then you’re in luck. There’s still gold in the hills. With over 20 gold mining locations dotted around the area on the Otago Goldfields Trail, you can learn the history, see the progression of the machinery used and even pan for gold.
A must-visit on the trail is Gabriel’s Gully near Lawrence, where the first discovery of gold by Gabriel Read in 1861 basically kick-started the fledgling New Zealand economy.
The scale of the gold mining operation here was enormous and the first gold field town of Lawrence practically sprang up overnight. Stop in town after visiting Gabriel’s Gully for the heritage buildings and museum, which has stories and artifacts from those days, as well as a choice of cafés – The Wild Walnut, The Prospector Café and Coffee Mine Café.
Wineries & Festivals
It is said that Central Otago’s goldmine now is its Pinot Noir. Head over to the Earnscleugh Valley, between Alexandra and Clyde, to find plenty of wineries and accompanying eateries for a leisurely day out. For a special treat, visit the award-winning Two Paddocks Winery (by appointment only) – owned by actor and producer, Sam Neill.
Orchards, as well as vineyards, abound here and Cromwell’s summer harvests of apricots, nectarines, cherries and peaches are legendary. From November to February check out the Cromwell Farmers Market in the Old Town Historic Precinct for fresh local produce. Roadside stalls also overflow with fresh, sun-ripened fruit in nearby Roxburgh this time of year – or – get among the trees and pick-your-own.
A couple of January festivals to keep an eye out for in Cromwell are the Cromwell Heritage Precinct Wine & Food Festival and the New Zealand Cherry Spitting Championships. Yes, the winner is the person who can spit a cherry-stone the furthest!
Quirky events and characters are a dime a dozen in Central Otago. Perhaps it’s something in the Speights?
The variety of things to do in Central Otago combined with the extraordinary scenery, friendly locals and delicious food & wine ensure you’ll keep coming back for more.