NZ travel: 7 reasons to visit Ōtāgo, from Dunedin to Queenstown

Southern style comes in many guises, all of them welcoming, writes Sara Bunny

With spectacular scenery, world-class wines and characterful country pubs, Ōtākou/Ōtāgo has a vibe all of its own. Ahead of Ōtāgo Anniversary on March 21, here are just a few of the reasons to pay a visit to this magical part of the south.

Dunner stunners

From the crashing tides at St Clair to the quirky boutiques in town, Ōtepoti/Dunedin is brimming with energy. If it's art you're after, grab a map and take yourself on a street art tour of the city's incredible wall paintings, then be sure to stop by Dunedin Public Art Gallery for a creative fix. Head to the revitalised Warehouse Precinct for top-notch coffee, or park up at one of the city's many great cafes, including Beam Me Up Bagels, Buster Greens, or The Perc. Later, get among Dunedin's bustling craft beer scene at one of the local hotspots, including New New New, Noisy Brewing Co, and the super-cool Steamer Basin.

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On Saturdays, start the day by eating your way around the Ōtāgo Farmers' Market and, when darkness falls, discover the city's spooky side on the Hair Raiser Tour. Away from town, check out ruggedly beautiful Tunnel Beach, and be sure to take a jaunt to the unspoilt bays along the Ōtāgo Peninsula. No trip to Ōtepoti is complete without a visit to Larnach Castle, where visitors can tour the Gothic-style mansion, venture up the castle tower, and relax in the manicured gardens.dunedinnz.com


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Wānaka wonders

There's much more to Wānaka than its mesmerising lake - it's also an adventure-lovers haven. For walkers, Eely Point Track starts in town and meanders along the lakeshore, past sheltered picnic areas and along to Bremner Bay, a popular swimming spot for families. Waterfall Creek Track is another easy trail that takes in the famous "Wānaka Tree", while slightly further out of town, the Mount Iron Walk offers spectacular views over lakes Wānaka and Hāwea. For more experienced trampers, Mount Aspiring National Park has scenic adventures galore, including the popular Roys Peak Track and the multi-day Gillespie Pass Circuit.

Mountain bikers are also spoilt for choice, with everything from easy rides near town to high-country loops around the Pisa Range. If the water is calling, hire a kayak from Paddle Wānaka and venture to Ruby Island, or join a tour group to take on a section of the mighty Clutha River. If that's still not adventurous enough for you, sign up with Skydive Wānaka to freefall 15,000ft, or join Wānaka Paragliding for a tandem cruise past the surrounding mountain ranges.


NZ travel: 7 reasons to visit Ōtāgo, from Dunedin to Queenstown

Queenstown luxe

With top ski fields, postcard-worthy views at every turn and some of the country's best wineries on the doorstep, it's no wonder Tāhuna/Queenstown is a holiday hotspot. It's always great for family getaways, but if you and a special someone want to treat yourselves, Queenstown has you covered.

For accommodation at the ultra-luxe end of the scale, stay at Matakauri Lodge, The Spire, Hulbert House, or if you're with a group for a special occasion, Lodge at the Hills. You'll barely want to leave such decadent digs, but when adventure calls, take to Lake Wakatipu with a cruise on the historic TSS Earnslaw, get a birds-eye view on the Skyline Gondola, or venture to charming Arrowtown. Dial up the romance with a dip at the Onsen Hot Pools and a stroll through the glorious Queenstown Gardens, then relax with a cocktail at Attiqa's sundeck rooftop bar.

For something extra special, the best way to see Queenstown is by helicopter. Options include a mind-blowing meander over Milford Sound with Heliworks Queenstown, your own private mountaintop picnic with Over the Top Helicopters, or the chance to discover deserted snowy slopes with Alpine Heliski.


Grape goodness

In a country not short of natural beauty, Central Ōtāgo stands out as truly spectacular. But it's not just rolling hills and tussock-covered valleys, it's wine too of course, and plenty of it. Here, the combination of extreme temperatures and glacially derived soils makes for prime pinot noirs, robust Rieslings, and lots more to whet your whistle.


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With wine grown in six sub-regions across Central Ōtāgo , it's best to tackle one section at a time, and there are plenty of tour options to save someone having to be the sober driver. Altitude Tours offer everything from full-day wine immersions to short samplers, while Appellation Wine Tours have a variety of adventures for the vino curious. If you're not fazed by setting out on foot, Cromwell's Four Barrels Walking Wine Trail is an 8km, self-directed wander to some of the area's best cellar doors.

Discovering new places is all part of the fun, but longtime favourites include Akarua Wines, Amisfield Winery, Gibbston Valley Winery, and Carrick Winery in beautiful Bannockburn.


History lessons

From the tales of the region's 1860s gold rush, to Ōamaru's vibrant Victorian past, Ōtāgo is a treasure trove for history buffs. Picturesque St Bathans is one former mining town well worth a detour from the main drag. It's known for its historic buildings, striking emerald lake that used to be a mining pit, and resident ghost said to haunt the local pub.

Cromwell's historic precinct is a mix of original and reconstructed buildings packed with old-world charm, and Clyde is another characterful spot with a nod to its gold mining past. Arrowtown's pretty line-up of heritage cottages and shop fronts has long been popular with visitors, while Ranfurly's Centennial Milk Bar is one of the town's most beloved Art Deco gems.

Back on the coast, no trip to Ōamaru is complete without a wander through the Victorian precinct. Here, Victorian Italianate warehouses sit next to original limestone buildings from the town's earliest days, and it's one of the most well-preserved historic areas in the country. If architecture isn't your thing, it also boasts boutique shops, a cafe and bakery, a couple of craft beer breweries, and a larder for essential foodie provisions.


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Nature's finest

You would fast run out of column inches trying to list all of Ōtākou's scenic wonders. For starters, it's well-known for its world-class ski slopes, including Queenstown's The Remarkables and Coronet Peak, nearby Cardrona Alpine Resort, and Wānaka's Treble Cone. Away from the chair lifts and ski runs, Ben Lomond track rewards walkers with wish list.

Beyond Kākā Point at the region's southernmost coast, Nugget Point was once named in Lonely Planet as one of New Zealand's greatest scenic lookouts. Follow the pathway up to Tokatā Lighthouse for the best views of the area's famed rocky inlets (or nuggets), and spot the fur seals lounging on the rocks below.

On the topic of rocks, Moeraki's mysterious beach boulders are another natural drawcard. Geologists say the spheres are 65-million-year-old calcite deposits, while according to Māori mythology, the boulders were formed from gourds that washed ashore from the great voyaging canoe, Ārai-te-uru.

Southern hospitality

Packed with local legend and more charm than you can shake a stick at, Central Ōtāgo's country pubs are some of New Zealand's best. The photogenic Cardrona Hotel is one of the most recognisable, with its old-school faCade straight from the gold-rush era. Inside, it's always bustling with locals, tourists, wedding parties, and those needing a reprieve from the hairpin bends of the infamous Crown Range Road. The Vulcan Hotel in St Bathans is a characterful spot to sit with a beer, while Naseby's historic Royal Hotel is the perfect place to warm up after a day at the curling rink. Towards Alexandra, the Ōmakau Commercial Hotel is a popular stopover for cyclists tackling the Ōtāgo Rail Trail. Like an oasis in the desert, the homestead serves up hearty meals for weary travellers, as well as locally-made brews from the onsite taproom.

At the upscale end of the country pub theme, Oliver's in Clyde is a classy local hotspot. Housed in one of the town's original stone buildings, it's a general store, cafe, restaurant and brewery that keeps everyone well fed and watered. In the heart of wine country, the Bannockburn Hotel is another firm favourite. Here, visitors graze on tapas, while taking in the dreamiest backdrop of vine-covered hills.

For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.


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