Rayleen McNally's garden in Poolburn

Otago Farmhouse Gardens & Victorian Fete: A Guide’s View

Kiwi Guide Ali Frew enjoys the landscapes and fabulous gardens in flower on our Otago Farmhouse Gardens tour.

Each year MoaTours operates two Otago Gardens tours to coincide with the Victorian Fete in Oamaru. One tour starts in Queenstown and finishes in Christchurch, the other operates in reverse, starting in Christchurch and finishing in Queenstown with exactly the same gardens included. I guided the tour which starts in Christchurch and finishes in Queenstown and I’m very happy to share my experience.

This is a fantastic itinerary that takes in a range of New Zealand’s amazing South Island landscapes from the Canterbury Plains, North Otago, Central Otago and the Maniototo with the focus on the historic, iconic and amazing Otago farms and gardens.

This landscape is populated by an amazing range of people who have often created something out of nothing. They have had to nurture, manage and create unique ways to use and store water. This really blew my mind. Not only was creativity required, but also the vision. 

This tour is timed to perfection for the locations we visited – from peonies to lupins everything was out in full force!

Day 1: Christchurch – Geraldine – Oamaru

I met our team at at Christchurch airport and after introductions we headed south.
On our way to Geraldine, across the Canterbury flats and braided rivers of the Rakaia and Rangitata, we arrived at Hamish and Boo Woodhouse’s for lunch.

This is a great way to start our tour – a small and inviting garden with huge hospitality. The benchmark was set, and Boo’s recipes requested by the troops.

After lunch we take the scenic route and a quick stop at Barker’s in Geraldine before ending the day in Oamaru. I have to say that without a doubt the Mariner Suites in Oamaru are amazing. Our rooms had so much space that I was asking myself “what’s missing”?

The team enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant, and are very much looking forward to exploring Oamaru and surrounds tomorrow. After dinner some of the group took an optional excursion to watch the Blue Penguins come ashore down in the harbour.

Our first garden - Hamish and Boo Woodhouse
Our first garden - Hamish and Boo Woodhouse

Day 2: Oamaru, sightseeing and gardens

After breakfast we begin a day of visiting historic homes and gardens. Oamaru is a beautiful town full of of Oamaru stone buildings. Their scale gives you some idea of the town’s past success on the back of gold mining and frozen lamb. There is a quote that floats around that at one point Oamaru was bigger than Los Angeles. These days the quaint, and tourist oriented, Victorian Quarter and Steampunk Museum, point to a more funky character in the main streets.

Totara Estate

Our first stop is historic Totara Estate for a guided tour through the buildings topped off with billy tea and scones. Now a Heritage New Zealand owned building, this historic farm played a significant role in New Zealand’s history.

From here the first ever shipment of frozen meat was sent in 1882. That event changed farming prosperity and is still a major export today. The restored buildings we wander through were bought by Heritage New Zealand (then the Historic Places Trust) in 1980. Utilitarian, but made of beautiful Oamaru stone, they stand as a tribute to the toil and determination of the early pioneers.

We head off the short distance to our next visit, beautiful Rocklands Gardens where we are hosted by Sally and Phil Cleland.
We lunch Marcus and Cathy Holgate at distinctive Burnside Homestead surrounded by 160 year old specimen trees and sheltered flower gardens in a parkland setting. The original orchard and vegetable garden, a tame flock of sheep and poultry add to the authentic experience of a past lifestyle.

Brookfield House

Expect the unexpected on a visit to Jennifer (JJ) Rendell’s beautifully restored historic home, Brookfield, near Oamaru. Registered as a Category 2 Historic Place and constructed in the 1880s, Brookfield was once home to Oamaru’s first mayor and is appropriately grand in design.

Jennifer purchased the home and its surrounding 13 acre estate in the early 2000s and set about restoring the beautifully detailed Oamaru stone exterior, modernising the interior and improving the rambling grounds. The result is a delight for visitors.

The ornate exterior, designed by local architectural firm Forrester and Lemon who were responsible for many of Oamaru’s Victorian buildings, is superbly presented. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s quirky nature is abundantly present, with unexpected and unusual sculptures, artworks and installations making frequent appearances both inside and out.

The expansive gardens include a wide range of exotic and native plantings alongside many of the property’s original trees. History aficionados and garden lovers will appreciate the thorough tour of the property provided by Jennifer on our MoaTours visit.

Day 3: Riverstone Castle – Oamaru Fete – Moeraki – Ranfurly

If you have ever driven down from Christchurch you would have no doubt seen the curiosity that it Riverstone Castle, Dot Smith’s dream since she was a girl. Well, this morning we are wandering its hallowed halls and themed rooms, magnificent views, stone lions and plastic pelicans. This place is something else and really does have to be seen to be believed!

Dot herself has a tinge of pink hair, is elegant and full of the necessary self belief (and a very patient husband) to get a project like this off the ground! The castle is not the only thing at Riverstone. The café is world class too, and we are only 15 minutes north of Oamaru, which gives us time to get back to town for the Oamaru Victorian Fete. We  wander the lanes, check out the activities and admire the locals in full Victorian regalia – they do love to dress up.

On our way out of town we stop for a cuppa and a chat with Ramahia and Robyn Keno at Rockvale Gardens. These formal gardens feature lush, colourful plantings, a pond and sculptures of Oamaru Stone and are often used as a wedding venue.

The description on their social media sums up their desires for this beautiful place: “Using Maramataka (Maori Lunar calendar) principals to evolve an established private garden for events, weddings, garden tours, and to nourish the puku (stomach) and wairua (spirit).”

We stop at Moeraki to visit those famous geological oddities, the Moeraki Boulders before heading inland along Highway 85 following the Shag River to the Art Deco town of Ranfurly for the next two nights and the hospitable Hawkdun Lodge.

Day 4: Ranfurly – Naseby – Clachanburn Station – Ranfurly

The Maniototo sky was made famous by artist Graham Sydney. It’s an elevated plain, hot and dry in summer and harshly cold in winter.

If you haven’t been to Ranfurly before, you will be surprised at its Art Deco feel. Originally booming during the nearby gold rush of the 1860s in Nasbey. The town grew again after the Otago Railway reached it in the 1890s then faded until a new boom in farming in the 1930s resulted in the  milk bar built in the then current Art Deco style.

We visit the antique and Kiwiana stops before we head out to visit Craig Sherson’s wonderful, hillside cottage garden in Naseby and explore this little town.

We then head to Clachanburn where Jane Falconer welcomes our group for a special lunch. A 50-year labour of love for Jane, Clachanburn is a thriving preserve of lush plant life, despite the harsh conditions. Located 487 metres above sea level with just 30-35 cm of annual rainfall and reaching temperatures well below freezing in winter, Clachanburn is high, dry and oh so cold. But thanks to Jane’s dedication, come spring, the 4.5 acre garden throws off its wintery shroud and blooms to life with irises, daffodils and cherry blossoms. Perennials and carefully selected roses join the multi-hued display in summers that can reach 40 degrees Celsius.

The garden features paved and mown walkways, ponds, sculptures and carefully maintained shrub borders. This garden was started from scratch, including the irrigation, and has the indelible mark of its creator over her lifetime, and is justly recognised as a New Zealand Garden of National Significance.

We arrive back in Ranfurly in the late afternoon and enjoy a relaxing meal at Hawkdun Lodge.

Day 5: Ranfurly – The Maniatoto – St Bathans – Poolburn – Queenstown

Our first stop is the historic village of St Bathans, another famous gold mining town The historic Vulcan Hotel is our coffee stop. Over the decades the gold mining turned what was a large hill into a deep lake – the  Blue Lake. The initial gold rush was in the 1860s and mining continued until 1934.

From St Bathans we drive to the Cambrian Common Forest and its champion, the humble and sustainable living local, Bob L de Berry. What a character – planting and nurturing his forest and garden to leave for the next generations. This is certainly a special place, and Bob is a unique chap full of stories. The nearby schoolhouse provides a photo stop.

On to Ophir and lunch at historic Pitches Store. (It seems like every building in these parts is historic.)

Our next stop is Rayleen McNally’s garden in Poolburn. A visit to Rayleen’s garden, deep in the Ida Valley, is a real treat. Arranged artfully around Rayleen’s historic stone house is a magnificent array of plants collected and maintained over many years.

Noted for her extensive collection of perennials, Rayleen has planted the garden to provide an endless display of colour from spring through to autumn. Her abundant old-fashioned roses, brilliant bulbs and pretty perennials stand out alongside hedges of lavender and buxus, all interspersed with artfully arranged historic farming implements, mature trees and a small stream.

Visitors love the views across the sprawling sheep and beef farm, which has been in the McNally family for five generations, to the rolling hills and distant mountain ranges. This stop on our Otago Farmhouse Gardens Tour is a real hidden gem.

We drive through Clyde’s picturesque main street and onto Queenstown for two nights.

Day 6: Queenstown – Wallace Garden – Arrowtown – Chantecler

We start our day with the small, personal sized garden of Penny and David Wallace on Gibbston Highway. The Wallaces have a cute, stone, gold mining era house by the roadside and a multitude of peonies on display. It was rewarding to hear Penny talk about the family history and the house and we were made to feel very welcome.

After lunch at Provisions in the always pretty Arrowtown we visited Chantecler. What started out as a hobby for Mike and Maureen Henry has turned into a sensational garden. Chantecler, is a 16 hectare property, which they bought in 2003 as a holiday home, featuring 4.8 hectares of ever-improving gardens in the stunning, mountain-fringed area between Queenstown and Arrowtown.

Since retiring from their busy Auckland careers and moving permanently to Chantecler, the couple has carefully and cleverly developed the grounds into an array of internationally themed gardens including the English Garden, Tuscan Garden, Oriental Garden, French Garden and New Zealand Native Garden.

With sculptures, water features, an orchard, kitchen garden and bridges nestled among the themed areas, Chantecler promises surprises at every turn, whatever the season. Late spring and early summer bring a profusion of colour and scent to the sprawling grounds as the bulbs burst into flower, joining the hundreds of rhododendrons, azaleas, peonies and camellias.

There are abundant roses in full bloom in the Formal Garden and an aromatic lavender field in the French Garden. Mature trees are another feature with redwood, oak, maple, willow and other exotic varieties planted by the original landowners who farmed here decades ago.

We allow ample time for the 2.5 km walk over a gentle slope, and Mike is very happy to guide us among the many themed areas and the abundance of peonies.

Day 7: Queenstown and home

This morning we meet the head gardener at Stoneridge Estate Garden and Chapel. Like a spring bloom in the sun he soon opens up about the people and the history. He shows us some of the special locations around the property which has a real medieval feel and is a unique experience.

Along the Gibbston Valley we stop for lunch with Annabel and Bruce Russell. We enjoyed amazing food, warm people and a spectacular garden, close to where the first vineyard was planted in Otago. The time flies in this beautiful location and before long it’s time to say our farewells to our fabulous hosts and depart for the airport.

I have enjoyed guiding this tour immensely – everywhere the gardens have been in their full spring bloom and the gardeners so welcoming.

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Otago Farmhouse Gardens & Victorian Fete

Meet the gardeners in Queenstown, the Maniototo and Oamaru and visit historic gems – St Bathans, Naseby and Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct.

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