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The world was a different place when I made a pact with my wife last year.
Our shared agreement to go away at least one night a year had two conditions — it has to be somewhere outside Dunedin and our children can’t come.
For our inaugural trip we spent one night in Auckland to see a U2 concert and spent a night in with a view of a burnt convention centre.
In a Covid-19 world, those heady days of watching international rock bands seem like a distant memory, so when I was offered the chance for a weekend in Waitaki, I broke the news gently to my children.
My wife and I arrived in Oamaru on a Friday afternoon, and our first stop was Steampunk HQ in the Victorian precinct.
I won’t lie — I wouldn’t have gone if my wife hadn’t insisted.
I was expecting Steampunk HQ to have a strong focus on fashion but it was more an exhibition of stunning scrap metal sculptures in a beautifully macabre atmosphere.
However, if dress-up is your thing, flick them a fiver to gain access to a closet of steampunk clothing.
Nearby, you’ll find Craftwork Brewery, which serves Belgian-style ales. I recommend the full-bodied beer Flemish Floozie.
Beware, the beers pack a punch — ranging between 5.5% and 9% alcohol — and the pickled eggs are addictive.
It’s clear to see the business is a labour of love for the couple who brew the beer — Lee-Ann Scotti and Michael O’Brien.
I could have stayed in the bar all night but the arrival of the star attraction was due any minute at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.
The colony is a 10-minute stroll around Oamaru Harbour, just beyond the breakwater, which was being pounded by big waves.
The little penguins are late, possibly disoriented by the churning sea.
After the wee birds are back in their nests, we walk back to the precinct for dinner at restaurant Cucina, passing a seal and penguin on the footpath.
At Cucina, we order the ‘‘trust the chef’’ tasting menu — a selection of shared plates for the table.
Everything is great but the highlight is the 55-day aged ribeye steak.
On the delivery of each dish, the waiter gives you a story about the food which reflects the South American heritage of restaurant owners Yanina and Pablo Tacchini.
Mentioning to some locals we dined at Cucina, we’re told how lucky the town is the couple have decided to settle there.
After dinner, we retire to boutique bed and breakfast The Vicarage in Reed St in central Oamaru, which was built in 1901.
The building was once part of a church (hence the name) and a maternity hospital.
The dwelling continues to deliver: our bedroom is beautifully decorated, a chaise longue in the bay window providing a dramatic flourish and a small vase of lavender on a bedside table a quaint touch.
Make sure you have at least one croissant at breakfast.
The next day we travel to Duntroon, a farming town on the west bank of the Maerewhenua River about 45km northwest of Oamaru.
The only thing open when we arrive is Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop — a beautiful red wooden building built around the start of the 20th century.
In the building, Nicol’s Blacksmith Historic Trust manager Judy Waterston — with help from volunteer John Stannard — shows us how to forge our own fireside pokers.
We didn’t let the fact we don’t own a fireplace dampen our enthusiasm, smashing hot metal between a hammer and anvil to become the proud owners of two pokers.
If you have someone in your life who you find hard to buy a present for then book them a blacksmith course.
In a paddock down the road from the blacksmith, you can meet Brooke the horse, unofficially the town’s highest-ranking official and otherwise known as ‘‘the Mare of Duntroon’’.
A short walk down a gravel road, past a wetlands, Braided River Jet Boating owner Ronald Clearwater waits to take us on a trip up the Waitaki River in his 4.6m-long jet boat.
With the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs, we skim as far north as the Waitaki hydro station.
On the way, our guide points out river-nesting bird species flying overhead and trout swimming in the clear blue river.
If the course of the river allows, you can be dropped off on a riverbank in Kurow near the River-T Estate vineyard.
The cellar door is unpretentious and relaxed.
We get a wine tasting tray, sit on a hay bale, enjoy the view of the vineyard and surrounding Station Peak Hill and St Mary’s Range, while listening to country music.
Then it is back to Duntroon for dinner.
The food is great at the Duntroon Hotel — the pub provided packed lunches for the boat trip and at night served a succulent steak with all the trimmings.
After dinner, we retire to our luxury accommodation, Black Cabin, which features a walk-in tiled shower and — more importantly — a woodburner to test out my new poker on.
Despite a warm night, I had the fire roaring, transforming the wooden cabin into a sauna, which meant the windows had to be opened to get to sleep in the king-sized bed.
Before you leave Duntroon, you could visit the Vanished World Centre, an interactive museum revealing the unique geology in the area.
Or see it for yourself at the nearby Elephant Rocks limestone formations and The Earthquakes limestone cliffs.
For another geological wonder, travel further north to the Clay Cliffs — sharp pinnacles and ridges separated by steep and narrow ravines.
On the way back from the cliffs — to delay reality for a little longer — we stopped for a soak at Hot Tubs Omarama.
The soak was a fitting way to finish a fantastic weekend away, leaving us refreshed and ready for another year with the rambunctious rug rats.
Shawn McAvinue was hosted by the Waitaki District Council.