The drive from Dunedin to Ōamaru only takes an hour and a half, but there’s so much to see and do along the way that it’s well worth taking your time.
Spectacular coastal scenery and wildlife, important historic sites, quirky shops, tasty pies and the freshest fish ‘n’ chips are among the hidden gems waiting to be discovered on this stretch of SH1.
Here’s our guide to all the top stops.
Arc Brewing Co
Just 20 minutes north of Dunedin you’ll find this neat little brewery, located on the right-hand side of the highway at Blueskin Bay.
Arc Brewing Co is housed in an eye-catching old barnlike building that was once a hotel. Inside, it’s been transformed into an effortlessly cool taproom and function space, where you can sit down and enjoy a pint of one of their fresh brews (or grab a rigger to take away if you’re driving).
They have a regularly rotating line-up of local food trucks, and live music adding to the relaxed vibes.
Turn right just after Arc Brewing, and you’ll end up in the coastal settlement of Warrington/Ōkāhau. While this part of the world is known for its wild and moody beaches, the beach at Warrington – a sand spit separating the Blueskin Bay estuary from the Pacific Ocean – is sheltered from the swells with clear blue waters, making it one of the region’s safest swimming beaches.
Keep driving along Coast Road from Warrington until you reach Seacliff. For almost 100 years, this seaside village was home to the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (later renamed Seacliff Mental Hospital).
The castle-like structure was the largest building in the country when it was built in 1884, housing 500 patients and 50 staff at its peak. Author Janet Frame was among those committed there, in the 1940s.
In December 1942, a fire swept through a locked ward, killing 37 female patients. It would be the deadliest fire in New Zealand history until the 1947 blaze at Ballantynes Department Store in Christchurch.
The hospital closed in 1973, and little remains of it today. But you can visit the Truby King Reserve – named after the asylum’s most prominent medical superintendent – on its former site and spend a quiet moment contemplating the past.
Huriawa Pā Walk
From Seacliff, keep driving along Coast Rd until you reach Karitāne. This laidback community boasts a popular surf beach, overlooked by the dramatic Huriawa Peninsula.
There’s a loop track around the peninsula that takes about 45 minutes to walk, offering spectacular views and passing by blow holes where you can see the tide burst through the rocks.
Huriawa Peninsula is also wāhi tapu – a place sacred to local Māori – as it was the site of a fortified pā established by the great chief Te Wera in the late 18th century. It was thought to be the strongest defensive structure of its type in Otago, and Te Wera and his people were able to survive a six-month-long siege from a rival chief, thanks to a freshwater spring located within the pā walls. There are plaques along the walkway that tell more of the history of the area.
Get back onto SH1, and you’ll soon be passing through the small town of Waikouaiti. But don’t leave without stopping to do some digging at The Oddity, a treasure trove of a second-hand shop.
This place is heaving with furniture, toys, crockery and Kiwiana kitsch, with lots of region-specific delights to be found (such as collectibles relating to iconic Dunedin tea brand Tiger Tea). And just when you thought you’d rummaged through it all, you’ll discover a steep staircase at the back of the shop, which leads up to a secret attic crammed with even more curiosities.
Feeling peckish? It’s a good job you’ve reached Palmerston, home of McGregor’s Bakery and Tearooms. This iconic bakery has been around for more than 100 years, and while these days their famous pies are produced in a factory in Timaru, they’re still a firm favourite in their original home.
As tempted as you might be to order a classic like mince or steak and cheese, you’d be foolish not to try the mutton pie – it’s the local specialty.
Just north of Palmerston, you’ll come across the sign for Shag Point/Matakaea. The area around this headland has a long and fascinating history, with fossils from the dinosaur days discovered here (including a 7-metre plesiosaur, one of the most complete reptile fossils ever found in New Zealand), and evidence of Māori settlement dating back to the 12th century. It’s also a prime spot for seeing New Zealand fur seals.
Turn right and keep going until you reach the car park at the end of the road. From there, it’s a short walk to the clifftop where you can look down and see dozens of seals basking on the rock shelves and playing in the sea.
When visiting, make sure you only eat and drink in the designated areas, as there are historic urupā (burial grounds) and other sites that are tapu to the tangata whenua.
Most visitors have heard of Moeraki’s famous boulders, or the revered restaurant that is Fleurs Place. But head down to the southern tip of Moeraki Peninsula and another amazing destination awaits – Kātiki Point, a historic reserve which is home to an important pā site, an old lighthouse, and a hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) breeding colony.
To see the penguins, follow the obvious tracks from the lighthouse car park to get to the viewing locations. Be sure to stick to the rules, which include keeping a safe distance from wildlife, and not using flash on your camera. The reserve is open from 7.30am to 5.30pm, and there is a donation box at the gate – at least $5 per person is the recommended amount.
Keep an eye out for other creatures, too – there are often large numbers of New Zealand fur seals here, plus other sea and shore birds, including little blue penguin/kororā.
You can also follow the tracks to the end of the peninsula to see the site of the Te Raka-a-Hineātea pā, that was occupied from the 18th century and is one of the few terraced pā sites in southern New Zealand. Be sure to act respectfully by remaining on the formed track, and not eating within the reserve.
Vanessa’s Cottage Café
Back on SH1, you’ll soon end up in the township of Hampden. There are a couple of foodie stops of note here – the first is Vanessa’s Cottage Café.
This café is as charming on the inside as it looks on the outside, but it’s the food that will really win you over. Vanessa’s cabinets are filled with all sorts of comforting classics – enormous muffins, scones, and cinnamon oysters (which have nothing to do with the seafood) – as well as a mouthwatering range of homemade pies, which are right up there with the best in New Zealand.
If you’ve stopped by Vanessa’s Cottage Café for lunch on the way to Ōamaru, time your trip back so you can get yourself a fish ‘n’ chip feed from Hampden Takeaways.
Previously known as Lockie’s, this wee shop has built up a reputation over the years for its beautifully fresh fish – the blue cod is a local favourite; choose from battered or crumbed. Enjoy them down the road at the Hampden Beach reserve for the ultimate fish ‘n’ chip experience.
As you near Ōamaru, on your right you’ll see a tree-lined driveway and a sign for Totara Estate.
This historic farm was the birthplace of New Zealand’s billion-dollar frozen meat industry – the sheep that were slaughtered for the first-ever refrigerated meat shipment from New Zealand to England in 1882 came from here.
Today, you can visit the restored buildings and get a sense of what farm life in the late 19th century was like, with dress-ups, farm activities, sheep feeding, and old-fashioned games to play. You can also enjoy a cup of billy tea and scones in the old cookhouse, and there’s a heritage gift shop on site.
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