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A small town in the heart of Central Otago, Cromwell is around 45 minutes’ drive from either Queenstown or Wanaka and makes a popular home for locals working in the Queenstown Lakes District.
And for travelers, the town offers a pleasant respite upon arrival or departure from a region that is otherwise known as New Zealand’s adventure capital.
Rich in History
Founded by gold prospectors in the nineteenth century, Cromwell is rich in history and although it is certainly quieter than the bright lights of Queenstown, it is no less beautiful.
On the outskirts of the town, grapes bask on the vine in the warmth of summer and apricots ripen beneath blue skies. And while come winter the surrounding peaks will be frosted white with snow, today they are golden.
Just a few minutes’ drive from the center of town, the Cromwell Heritage Precinct is perched on the edge of Lake Dunstan and is one of Central Otago’s hidden treasures.
The lake, which now occupies a tract of the Clutha River, swallowed the Cromwell Gorge along with part of the town after the filling of the Clyde Dam in the early ‘90s. Controversial at the time, the dam project began in 1977 and was the last of the interventionist Think Big schemes, which were intended by the government to stimulate economic growth in the country.
While many grieved for the loss of the scenic gorge, today the lake provides the opportunity for recreation, as well as supplying irrigation for orchards, vineyards and pastures nearby. The Clyde Dam is also New Zealand’s third largest hydro-electric dam.
In an effort to salvage the history of the region before the flooding of the lower township, many historical buildings were relocated or rebuilt on the shoreline of the lake, which is known today as the Cromwell Heritage Precinct.
Approaching the precinct from the roadside, one is first greeted by McNulty House, a stone villa built in the 1800’s for John Marsh, the great-great grandfather of former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. With ongoing restorations, this heritage building is also home to conference facilities for use by the public.
And for those planning their travel in advance, the Cromwell Food & Wine Festival is held in January each year on the lawns of McNulty House, with a modest entry fee.
Cromwell Historical Precinct
Spread upon the banks of the lakeside below McNulty House, the interior of the Cromwell Historical Precinct is not visible from the roadside. Beyond the neatly trimmed lawns and gardens of the villa however, the sight of the precinct invites one to venture further.
Old rustic artifacts and information plaques decorate each nook and cranny of the complex and old wagon wheels and flower gardens lend character to the atmosphere. Straying through this historical portrait, the schist-stoned walls of the buildings are a texture for the eyes and are tempting to touch.
Curiously, many of these historical buildings have been brought to life by vendors and artisans who have transformed the precinct into a living village. Venturing through each storefront one finds artwork, gifts and souvenirs being sold by boutique retailers, while cafes offer refreshments.
Amidst this vintage marketplace, museum pieces and curated antiquities bring to life the old stables, printing press and wagon workshop. This fusion of historical reconstruction with an active economy fosters a feeling of participation in village life for those visiting the precinct.
There is even a bicycle hire store here, for those keen to embark on the famous Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail – a day’s adventure in of itself.
As one strolls through the lower part of the precinct, willow trees drape themselves over the edge of the lake as if they were sipping from the blue waters in the dry heat of summer.
The Central Otago Landscape
The colors of the Central Otago landscape throughout the seasons are fascinating and are more than adequate for those seeking artistic inspiration. As such, it is unsurprising to find local artists at the Hullabaloo Art Space, which occupies the old Cromwell Bakery building.
Further along the lakeside, past the jetty and old storefronts are the ruins of a schoolhouse where the old stone foundations are now the boundaries of a pétanque court. Lovely red flowers are growing in pots along the edges. As with the local shops of the precinct, the simple inclusion of the pétanque court invites one’s participation in this site of historical significance.
The Cromwell Heritage Precinct is charming at any time of the year, although a fine and sunny day affords the most opportunity for enjoyment at this lakeside attraction, which is free to enter.
The Central Otago region has much to offer travelers of any kind and is an essential destination for those visiting the South Island.
IF YOU GO:
For those flying to the region, Queenstown Airport is less than an hour away, although driving from further afield offers an immersive experience in the surrounding countryside as well. Many international flights arrive in Christchurch, about half a day’s drive away.
Car rentals are available from Queenstown airport and accommodation and dining options to suit many budgets are available throughout the region, which is known for its hospitality. There are also several high-quality restaurants in the centre of Cromwell, for those visiting the township.
For more information about visiting the Cromwell Heritage Precinct, visit:
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Author Bio: Thomas Shepherd is a New Zealand-based writer with a love of history, culture, wide open spaces and forgotten trails. Fortunately, adventure lives on his doorstep and is never too far away.