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Heather Schiller
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Moeraki and Oamaru.

You’ll Eat like a King, and Maybe see a Penguin or Two

 

Words by Emma Fenton-Wells

Blog #11 of her solo trip in NZ

 

 

When you ask any Kiwi where to eat there will be a resounding answer: Fleurs Place.

I made a rule early on that if I heard about something three times I’d go and investigate. When it came to Fleurs, dozens of people had raved to me about the restaurant, so off to Moeraki I went.

 

Oamaru City Centre

 

When I rolled into town on a Tuesday afternoon, I was faced with another resounding fact: everything but the pub in Hampden was shut. And the pub was hosting a wake (though I was more than welcome to attend???). There’s barely a quarter of an hour between Moeraki and Hampden, though the latter has much more in terms of places to find food… and well people too, and yet I was hitting a wall.

In Hampden, a very reputable fish and chip shop called Hampden Takeaways sits next to another excellent establishment called Vanessa’s Cottage Cafe. Vanessa’s is closed on a Tuesday and the bloke who owns Hampden Takeaways is so sick of people asking for her opening times that now he closes on a Tuesday too. This knowledge can only be acquired locally or from the experience of rocking up to closed doors. The more you know.

 

Penguin Crossing in Oamaru Photo credit: Casey Horner

 

In one of New Zealand’s regional food nevadas, but with little options, I grabbed what ended up being a pretty good burger and headed down the winding road to the Moeraki Village Holiday Park. The town is more or less a jetty. Fishing boats come in and out all day, bringing in their catches which include blue cod. If you’re going to eat blue cod, this is the spot as you’ll know it’s fresh.

Moeraki is overrun with rabbits and penguins. In fact, there’s easily more penguins than people. It’s the strangest place to have a world famous restaurant atop an old jetty, and yet, completely tracks.

As it was a Tuesday, I’d be staying in town until Thursday when I had an 11am booking at the restaurant. So I set up camp overlooking the sea in a basic campsite, and decided to trek down to Oamaru the next day to see some penguins.

Well I never saw any penguins, but my mind was blown. Oamaru reminds me of driving into Bath in the UK. Huge sandstone buildings wrap around roads to wide a bullet train can turn around in them. The town was built for 40,000 inhabitants, yet it’s only really maxed out at 14,000. Oamaru is both the Steampunk capital of New Zealand, and the Victorian. Until you get there, the combination might not make sense but after a few hours you’ll get it.

 

Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books

 

Steampunk HQ

 

As with any new place, I started my day by checking out the local museum - in this case the Waitaki Museum & Archive. After a meader of their excellent collection of Maori artefacts found on local farms, one of the lovely archivists sent me on my way with a list of things to see and do:

  • Steampunk HQ: It’s an experience to another more desolate future meets museum. A must-see when in Oamaru. I was blown away by the craftsmanship behind the space - it’s really like no other.
  • A town brimming with artists, I cannot implore you enough to go for a wander down to the Victorian Precinct. When a staircase indicates that an artist might be present, I suggest following your nose. You’ll come across the craftsmanship of local legend Miss Purple or the Grainstore Gallery. The latter was my favourite of Oamaru. The artist and proprietor has taken such lengths to curate a rather theatrical space to delight. It’s very cool.
  • If traditional Belgian ales are your calling in life, make a stop in at Craftwork Brewery. Their locally brewed beverages are excellent.
  • Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books: A beautiful location filled with a staggering collection of second hand books. It reminded me of The Last Bookstore in downtown LA, except much cosier. For avid readers, it is worth the pilgrimage.
  • Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony: An Oamaru staple which I didn’t actually see! Doors open at 4pm, leaving you plenty of time to see the city. If you want the experience for free, penguins can also be found down near the Moeraki Lighthouse - ask a local when the best time to go is (it changes seasonally).
  • A visit most certainly should be paid to the Moeraki Boulders. These strangely spherical boulders lining Koekohe Beach are a scientific marvel (the beach itself is a scientific reserve). In any weather, they’re dramatic and make for a great photo op. Note that if you park in the main car park you’ll be asked for a $2 donation to help with the upkeep. The beach can be reached by other means should you be pinching pennies.

 

Art in Oamaru

 

Art on show in Oamaru

 

By the end of the day, I was Oamaru’s biggest fan. The community of artists who call it home have created a city filled to the brim with their exploded imaginations. Spending a day there was one of my favourite discoveries in the whole country.

I drove back to Moeraki keen to finally order dinner from Hampden Takeaway. It was shut. The ladies across the road at Four Square informed me the owner decided to spend the day at the races. Classic.

On Thursday morning at 10.45am I wandered down the wharf to Fleurs. At the front gate, I was greeted by a stray seal having a nap, but quickly seated by a human. The restaurant was more akin to someone’s beach house than a gourmet destination. By 11am the entire restaurant was packed.

11am on a Thursday. In a town with barely 100 residents.

 

The world famous Fleurs Place, New Zealand

 

The world famous Fleurs Place, New Zealand

 

After a delicious meal, Fleur herself dropped by for a chat. She’s at the restaurant most days, her energy cannot be missed. Even owning and hosting the most well known restaurant in the country, she’s as humble and chatty as if you’re popping in for a cuppa in her home kitchen. Many diners were on return visits. They returned to see Fleur and taste her garden foraged, rustic menu. If I were Anthony Bourdain, I’d call it a perfect meal.

Later, having ticked off a huge bucket list item I stopped by Vanessa’s for a genuinely good coffee and muffin for the road - it was another packed local establishment in this hidden foodie destination.

I never made it to Hampden Takeaway.

 

The spherical wonder of the Moeraki Boulders

 

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