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Getting away . . . to Timaru

People laughed when they said they were having a “girls’ weekend” in Timaru. It may not be an exciting destination like Italy, Sydney or the United States — but if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we have to enjoy our own backyards, writes Susan Partington.

Heidi Rice, Maddy Jones, Rachel Crawford and Susan Partington thought they would be going overseas with their families in 2020 but when all their travel plans were cancelled, they decided to take a trip to the South Island to visit their friend Suzan Anderson who had moved there at the beginning of the year.

Moving into Level 2 restrictions right before their trip did cause a bit of worry for the four women, but didn’t stop them from packing their winter thermals, donning masks and hopping on the plane. Although they were not cheap, the flights were very easy and a quick layover in Wellington meant that the total travel time was under three hours.

Located on the east coast of the South Island, just between Christchurch and Dunedin, Timaru is a charming small town. It may not have kilometres of beach like Gisborne but Caroline Bay, with it’s well-kept park area and boardwalks, offers beach walkers a lovely place to stroll with dogs in the winter and a chance to see little blue penguins in the summer. The boardwalks were icy on their early morning stroll, but the bright winter sunshine kept the chill away. They also spotted a seal sunning himself on the rocks.

Timaru is a wonderful base to explore the South Canterbury region. We scanned the QR codes at countless bakeries, cafes and boutiques all over the region. The Fairlie Bakehouse was a particular highlight with its unusual and delicious pies, such as pork belly and apple, salmon and bacon and lasagne pie. The sweet treats were just as unique and tasty, including a cronut (half croissant, half doughnut) and the famous South Island Denheath custard slice.

These baked goods fuelled us for exploring on foot. Suzan is a keen tramper and had scouted out many short walks to do in the area, including an unmarked walk through a gorge and a late afternoon stroll on the banks of Lake Tekapo. The golden grass, rocky landscapes and snow-capped mountains on every horizon really made South Canterbury feel like an overseas experience, until the lambs gambolling on the hillside reminded you that you were smack dab in the middle of God’s own country.

The still blue waters of Lake Tekapo were even more awe inspiring and peaceful without the busloads of tourists that used to clog up the place. One no longer needs to dodge selfie sticks while viewing the iconic stone Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s rare and wonderful to be able to enjoy the special beauty that the South Island has to offer in peace.

Remarkable retail ramble

An hour south of Timaru is Oamaru. Between the quirky steampunk vibe and the olde worlde charm of the whitestone buildings, Oamaru was delightful. Just outside of town, we had brunch at the Riverstone Kitchen which is right next to a regal, medieval castle surrounded by an actual moat. This castle is the residence of a local eccentric, Dot Smith, and gives new meaning to the phrase “dream house”. We felt like queens as we enjoyed a long, leisurely brunch with a view of the beautiful gardens and the castle. The only downside was the woefully inadequate cocktail menu. The staff couldn’t even add orange juice to a glass of bubbles without stuffing it up. But one taste of the zesty strawberry sorbet and all was forgiven.

After any visit to a castle, one must embark upon a quest. The five of us searched around the dairies and shops of Oamaru for the fabled Regina Pineapple Chunks from the Rainbow Confectionery Company. These are rumoured to be better than your average pineapple lump, but sadly we couldn’t find any of these legendary sweets.

We did enjoy visiting the wide range of interesting shops in the Victorian precinct.

The stone streets and colourful bunting makes it feel as if you have stepped on to the set of a period drama, especially when the old, red steam train passes by. The shops in the area are full of strange steampunk-inspired fashions and funky homeware. Adventure Books is a niche bookstore devoted to books on Antarctic exploration, mountaineering and adventure travel with a collection of rare books and maps and even a small sailboat docked inside. Shopping in Oamaru is a real treat for anyone who loves a remarkable retail ramble.

This trip to the South Island might not have been the overseas adventure that the four of us had spent years dreaming of and saving for, but we were grateful for the chance to explore a corner of New Zealand we had never seen and to experience wonderful travel destinations that are only one island away.

A regal, medieval castle: Delightful Oamaru is an hour south of Timaru and Riverstone Castle, just out of town, is well worth a visit. Pictures by Rachel Crawford
LAKE-SIDE: Lake Alexandrina is a hidden gem in the Mackenzie region, just west of the much larger Lake Tekapo.
GRAINSTORE GALLERY: Located in a former Victorian grainstore, the Grainstore Gallery in Oamaru features a selection of new works from local and guest artists.
SPECTACULAR: Lake Alexandrina in the Mackenzie Basin is a spectacular example of a South Island high country lake.
Nautical theme: The Galley Cafe in Oamaru.
INTENSE: Lake Tekapo gets its intense milky-turquoise colour from the fine rock-flour (ground by glaciers) which is suspended in the water.