The Victorian Heritage Celebrations have been held in Oamaru for over 30 years in November and are a highlight not only for the city but also all of the wonderful people who make the journey to attend it.
If you’ve heard of the Heritage Celebrations (it’s also sometimes referred to as the Oamaru Victorian Festival, Oamaru Heritage Festival, or Oamaru Victorian Celebrations) but haven’t yet made the trip to attend then I definitely recommend experiencing them at least once in your life. There are several free to attend events and others that are ticketed.
While some of the events come and go, or change to fit the theme selected for the year, there are a few cornerstone events that happen every year.
Dressing up in Victorian dress is encouraged, but if you’re happy just to watch events such as the Grand Street Parade, the Victorian Fashion Show, and the Cycle Racing in modern attire no one is going to turn you away. You can read more about what to wear here.
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Here are a few of the core events that make up the Victorian Heritage Celebrations in Oamaru:
The Garden Party
Held in the beautiful Oamaru Public Gardens (unless the weather is (hardly ever) terrible), the garden party is a brilliant chance to gather by the rotunda and enjoy the company of friends and acquaintances, play a game of croquet, drink tea and nibble on sandwiches, scones, and a piece of cake.
This is free for anyone to attend and the atmosphere is always delightful.
The ball is the biggest event of the Heritage Celebrations and always very popular.
Run by Jim and Jen, this is an evening worth paying the ticket price for.
If you don’t know many of the dances there is a practice held in the morning, and it’s a very judgement free zone so if you muck up the steps a bit that’s okay (just keep moving so no one runs into you).
Dinner is served in courses throughout the evening too, providing an opportunity to chat to others attending the ball.
Chances are, by the end of the evening, you’ll be tired but so pleased that you attended.
The Grand Street Parade
Held on the Saturday, this parade winds it’s way from the Victorian Precinct along a specified route. You will see suffragettes, local groups, school floats, vintage cars, and so much more.
The parade is followed by the Great Photo Opportunity.
The Penny Farthing and Cycle Races
Held on the Saturday afternoon, cyclists and penny farthing riders compete in different races including slalom, slow races, and sprints.
Always a drawcard for spectators, it’s always a good idea to secure your viewing spot before they start.
The Victorian Fashion Show
Crinolines, bustles, and puffed sleeves!
Held after the races in the Scottish Hall (and presented by yours truly), this is a popular event which gives you the opportunity to admire the Victorian fashions that take to the catwalk.
There is usually a bit of a mix of day and evening dresses, and a range of fashions from throughout the Victorian era.
You might even learn a few Victorian Secrets (that’s right – there have been undergarments on display before) and a menswear section is being introduced this year.
The other dance during the Heritage Celebrations is less formal (and less expensive) than the ball and is held on the Saturday night. With more of a laid-back feel and more energetic dances it is always a lot of fun.
Dinner is served partway through and there’s generally a walk through before each dance so it’s easy to join in.
The Victorian Fete
Sunday is Fete Day, when the Victorian Precinct is blocked off from traffic and stalls line the footpaths.
Not only will you have stalls to browse but there’s plenty of entertainment provided from buskers to live music performances on the main stage.
You’ll want to secure the best vantage point to watch the Stone Sawing Competition. Men, women, and children all have a go, competing to see who can saw through a block of Oamaru stone first. If you’re feeling brave you can sign up on the day to have a go yourself.
It’s a $10 entry fee for adults but if you need to leave the area for whatever reason you’ll get a hand stamp to let you come back in so for a whole day’s worth of entertainment it’s a really good deal.
Other events in the past have included historical talks, breakfasts, high teas, a musical evening, burlesque, magic show, and walking tours.
If you want a more in-depth look at what events were held in previous years you can check out past programmes here.
What To Wear
Dressing up in Victorian dress is encouraged, but if you’re happy just to watch events such as the Grand Street Parade, the Victorian Fashion Show, and the Cycle Racing in modern attire no one is going to turn you away.
Quite a few attendees of the Heritage Celebrations make their own dresses – from the 1840s to Edwardian – there is always quite a mix of styles you see walking around. If you want an excuse to break out the sewing machine and make your own outfit, make sure you give yourself plenty of time.
There are a few costumers who aim for historical accuracy, but no one will bat an eyelid if your outfit isn’t. We’re all more excited about the fact someone has decided to join in on all the fun than worry about the number of petticoats you might be wearing (or if you’re corseted or not).
You’ll also see some steampunk costumes too as the aesthetic is based on Victorian fashion (and Oamaru is also known as the ‘steampunk capital of the world’)
What if you have nothing to wear?
Never fear! The incredibly lovely, extremely talented ladies at The Victorian Wardrobe have a large range of outfits for men, women, and children.
If you’re going to be in Oamaru earlier in the year you can pick and book your outfit ahead of the event. They’re usually open on Thursdays but you can also make an appointment to see them at another time and day.
If you can’t book in ahead of time that’s okay – there are still plenty of outfits to choose from during the Heritage Celebrations. Just pop in and they will happily play fairy godmother and transform you into a gentleman, lady, or even a member of the working class if you prefer.
The Whitestone Civic Trust also has some easy outfit ideas here.
Can I wear the same outfit?
Absolutely, while some attendees have a different outfit for each day, there is no rule to say that you can’t wear the same clothes during the Celebrations – a lot of people do 😊
What else is there to see or do?
Oamaru has plenty to offer and you’re guaranteed to find something that takes your fancy.
Whitestone City can be found halfway along Harbour Street in the Victorian Precinct. The town’s information centre is just inside and beyond that you can explore various parts of Oamaru and her surrounding area’s history.
It’s pretty interactive, and the volunteers are more than happy to share their knowledge with you. There’s no set entry fee for this experience – just pay what you think the experience is worth on your way out.
There’s even a Penny Farthing Carousel that you can take a ride on!
Known as the Steampunk Capital of the World, Oamaru has a sort of Steampunk Museum that sits on the edge of the Victorian Precinct. Steampunk HQ is instantly recognisable thanks to the steam train outside the building.
It is also home to The Portal, which is a lot of fun to hang out and take photos in.
Harbour Street also usually has a stationary penny farthing you can hop onto for a fun photo.
Oamaru Steam and Rail run trips out towards Del Mar and the Blue Penguin Colony with their steam train several times a day during the Heritage Celebrations. There is a chance to hop off the train at the end before the return journey to take some photos and on one trip that I took, we were able to (very quietly) spy on a couple of Little Blues whose nest had been made inside one of the Red Sheds.
It’s hard to miss the incredible neoclassical buildings on Thames Street – while one is a bank, the other is home to The Forrester Gallery, and worth visiting if artwork is your thing. And, on the other side of the road and down a bit you can find the Waitaki Museum, which recently had a bit of a makeover.
And, if you love cute little animals then you can visit the Blue Penguin Colony in the evening and watch the Little Blues waddle adorably ashore (you might even see some seals hanging around too! You can also visit Bushy Beach to see Yellow-Eyed penguins.
If you feel like roaming a little further you have to check out the geological marvels that are the Moeraki Boulders. They can be found off State Highway 1, about a half hour drive south of Oamaru.
Also down that way is Shag Point (Matakaea) where you can take a short walk to look out at the seals who like to play in the water or lounge about in the sunshine and snooze.
Heading inland from Oamaru, other heritage sites to visit include Nicol’s Blacksmith in Duntroon, about a half hour drive from Oamaru. There is a cute gaol right next door, and a stones throw down the road you’ll find the Vanished World Centre.
Nearby are the Elephant Rocks – large limestone formations that may look a little familiar if you’ve seen The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Speaking of filming locations – the Clay Cliffs by Omarama has featured in Mulan. You’ll find these just over an hours drive from Duntroon (about an hour and 3/4 from Oamaru)
Accommodation And Travel
Okay, sounds great, but where can I stay?
Accommodation books up pretty quickly for the week so it pays to be prepared. Your options range from backpackers to hotels and costs can vary. As the majority of events occur in or near the Victorian Precinct it’s a good idea to book somewhere close by.
If your budget is tight then there are two backpackers close to the Precinct – The Empire Backpackers on Thames Street, Oamaru Backpackers on Tees Street. The Empire used to be a hotel, and was built in 1867.
A little bit further away (about a 15-20 minute walk from the Victorian Precinct) but still within the budget realm is the Oamaru Top 10 Holiday Park. It’s right by the Public Gardens so you can easily enjoy a nice stroll in your finery.
For hotels near the Precinct there are two on Thames Street to choose from – The Brydone, and Poshtel. The Brydone has been operating since 1881 while Poshtel is fairly new in town.Other places to stay near the Victorian Precinct include Mariner Suites, The Old Confectionery, Federation House, or The Vicarage.
There are quite a few other places to stay as well so do have a google to check out your other options and I’m sure you will find somewhere that ticks all of your boxes.
Oamaru is an hour and a half drive from Dunedin, or about a three hour drive from Christchurch. If coming from Queenstown it’s closer to four hours via either possible route.
Oamaru doesn’t have an airport so if you’re travelling by air you have a choice of three airports to start your journey from – Christchurch, Dunedin, or Queenstown. You can either hire a car or make your way to Oamaru on an Intercity bus.
Check out the Victorian Heritage Celebrations website
And their FAQ Page