Lisa Jansen visits Cromwell in Central Otago and finds gold – literally and figuratively.
For many travellers, Otago is synonymous with either Queenstown and Wanaka inland, or Dunedin and the coast on either side of the city. However, Central Otago can easily keep up with its more famous neighbours in terms of scenery and attractions.
In western Central Otago, less than an hour from Queenstown and Wanaka, you find the small town of Cromwell. Anyone who has travelled from Queenstown to Wanaka via the long, less steep and winding road has driven past Cromwell – and might have even stopped to take a photo of the iconic fruit sculpture at the entrance to the town. However, there is much more to do and see in this town than giant fruit.
About 10,000 people call Cromwell home, and the town provides all the services RVers need for an enjoyable stay. There are two large supermarkets, several shops, restaurants and cafes, a dump station and several camping options. And while the gold rush might be a thing of the past, there are still golden days to be had in Cromwell.
Step back in time
A visit to the idyllic Heritage Precinct on the shores of Lake Dunstan takes you back in time to the days of the Central Otago gold rush. Interestingly, while the precinct looks old, and many of the buildings are, the area as we see it today is fairly new. When the Clyde Dam was completed in 1990, it created Lake Dunstan – which flooded parts of Cromwell, including its main street. Luckily, several historic buildings from the gold rush era were saved or rebuilt on higher ground, creating what is now the Cromwell Heritage Precinct.
It’s a scenic place to visit. Go for a stroll through the shops, learn about the history of the area and buildings from the display boards and refuel at one of the cafés or restaurants, all while enjoying views over Lake Dunstan.
Adventure on two wheels
The newest main attraction in Cromwell is the Lake Dunstan Cycling Trail, which opened in 2021. Many have been raving about this trail since it opened, and it certainly lives up to the hype. The total route covers 55km, however, it’s the 37km from Cromwell’s Heritage Precinct to Clyde that everyone talks about.
From Cromwell, the first half of the trail is a leisurely ride along the scenic lakefront. After about 19km, you get to the famous floating café and burger bar, which are well worth a stop. Who doesn’t like a barista-made coffee halfway through a long bike ride? However, the floating café is not operating every day, so make sure you check before you go to avoid disappointment.
After this refuelling stop, the ride gets more challenging. There are two decent hills before reaching Clyde, and the trail is narrow and winding in parts. While e-bikes make the uphill sections doable for most, a certain skill level and cycling experience is highly recommended. While the second half of the track is certainly more demanding, the views and the excitement of cycling along narrow pathways and bridges attached to steep cliffs make it more than worth it.
Those who don’t have their own bikes can hire high-quality e-bikes or push bikes from Cromwell Heritage Precinct (CHP) Bike Rentals or one of several stores in Clyde. Most rental places also offer transport either to Cromwell in the morning or back from Clyde in the afternoon. Not a cyclist? The route is also available to walkers, with trail sections ranging from the 6km Cromwell Heritage Project to Bannockburn Bridge, to the 25km Cornish Point to Clyde for the intrepid ambulator!
Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail is open all year round; while you’re less likely to get burned to a crisp or frozen into an icicle in autumn and spring, bear in mind that temperatures can fluctuate, so prepare for all weathers when planning your trip.
Get a taste of the good stuff
Central Otago is the world’s southernmost commercial wine-growing region. As such, winery and vineyard lovers are spoiled for choice. Pinot Noir is most popular in the area, but several varieties of white wine are also common.
Misha’s Vineyard Tasting Room and Wooing Tree Vineyard are popular choices within walking distance from town. Mt Difficulty Wines Cellar Door is an excellent option in the Bannockburn area, easily reached by bike via the cycle trails or by car. However, there are many more options. Have a look online or chat with some of the locals, and you’re sure to find the right winery or vineyard to visit.
Follow in the footsteps of the gold miners
Like many parts of Central Otago, Cromwell has a rich gold mining history. After Australian Gabriel Read found gold in Gabriel’s Gully near Lawrence in 1861, miners from all over the world flocked to Central Otago, hoping to strike gold. As the gold rush moved inland, it eventually reached the area around Cromwell, including a site known as Gee’s Flat, which is where the Goldfields Mining Centre can now be found.
For any history buff, the mining centre located 8km from Cromwell on the way to Queenstown is a must-see. But even those who might not get giddy with excitement at the prospect of learning about Central Otago’s gold mining history will likely enjoy a visit. While you can wander around on your own and admire the well-preserved Chinese Village and mining tools, joining a tour not only provides an opportunity to learn more about how the gold was won and what life would have been like at the time, you also get the chance to try gold panning yourself. While millions of dollars worth of gold was taken from the area during the gold rush, there still is much left to be found. So, you never know, you might walk away wealthy.
Another excellent (and free) option to learn about the area’s golden history is the Bannockburn sluicings. The Bannockburn loop track takes about 1½ hours, leading visitors through Pipeclay Gully, where alluvial gold was found around 1862. Several display boards provide an opportunity to learn more about the story, and the stunning scenery will make it worth it even for those not all that interested in history.
While the gold rush days might be over, Cromwell continues to provide treasures, now in the form of beautiful fresh fruit. The distinctive landscapes, light schist soils and free-draining terra offer the perfect growing environment for fruit trees. The result is what many regard as among the world’s best, most intensely flavoured fruit. Apricots, apples, cherries, plums, peaches and nectarines all thrive in this climate, and no visit to Cromwell would be complete without tasting some of this goodness. The importance of fruit to the area is honoured with the iconic fruit sculpture at the entrance to town – a must-do photo stop.
To get your hands on some of the delicious local fruits, stop at one of the stalls on SH6 either side of town. To get your fill of local cheeses, oils, teas, baking, meats and preserves too, visit the Cromwell Farmers & Craft Market, which is held at the Heritage Precinct most Sundays until after Easter Sunday. Those who want to learn more about fruit growing in the area can join an Orchard Tour with Jackson Orchards.
Where to stay
While neighbouring Queenstown and Wanaka are known for high-end holiday parks and a lack of freedom camping options, the situation is almost the opposite in Cromwell. There are several designated freedom camps along Lake Dunstan, two NZMCA parks and a few POPs.
Visit centralotagonz.com/tracks-and-trails-lake-dunstan-trail for more on the trail, as well as options on where to stay and how to plan your bike trail. There are several bike hire options available in the area, including e-bike hire. Most local hire companies include bike hire, shuttles and luggage transfers in the package.
Jackson Orchard Tours are available in all seasons. Book via jacksonorchard.co.nz or call 03 4450596.