There’s something about the light, the buildings, the wide main boulevard (State Highway 1, also known as Thames Street) with the tree-lined median down the center, that just evokes a more genteel period of time, despite the cars whizzing along. As if there is a bit of a time warp, so that the modern period has merged with Victorian New Zealand, creating its own time zone. Dentist offices appear to be little English cottages in the midst of a garden. Rest homes have titles like Jane Austen novels. (Really, I saw Northanger Rest Home.) We are transported to a lovely seaside resort full of historic buildings, under which penguins nest. This is a special place.
The lovely pale gold buildings are offset by row upon row of hanging flower baskets – cascading pinks and lavenders and yellows punctuated by greens add dots of color along the footpaths (sidewalks), where tourists and locals promenade, just browsing and relaxing.
The buildings are incredible. Oamaru is situated on a plain between foothills and the sea, with very few trees. The English flocked here in the late 1800s to create a beautiful town built to support the shipping industry, exporting refrigerated and frozen meat (really!) back in the 1880s or so. But, because there were no trees, the buildings were made of the local Oamaru stone, a golden limestone carved into neo-Classical pillars and pediments and capitals and raking cornices. At the time (1880-ish), Oamaru was about the same size as Los Angeles was back then. And, as with many ports, there were the support services of bars (saloons?), brothels, hotels, and such.
But then the economy changed in the 1910s or so, other ports grew, and Oamaru was in debt with all these new buildings and no need for them. So the town kind of dried up, and no one moved in to take over the buildings or tear them down. Things just stagnated.
And, once again, tastes changed, tourism grew, Oamaru grew again, and all those buildings have been bought up, cleaned, and turned into fashionable shops and cafés, hotels, apartments. Tourists come for the penguins, but are charmed by the lovely town itself.