Located on the banks of the Arrow River (where it derives its name!) and is approximately 7.5 km off the main highway (nestled away). This picturesque leafy heritage town was a great place to visit.
In Maori the River is called Haihainui (big scratches) and was named by Maori who would visit the area to hunt birds and gather pounamu (greenstone).
And there the story should have ended. An un-spoilt corner of Central Otago region lying in the shadow of the nearby mountains and Coronet Peak. But as with many a corner of the final frontier of European expansion, something shiny was in the water was discovered in 1862.
Before you could say “All that glitters” – Lots of European and Chinese immigrants gold-rushed and a township of 1000+ miners and camp followers sprung up out of nowhere. At its height 7,000 people called the township home before the population declined to under 200 people in the 1960s. Traditional industry evaporated and inhabitants moved on to the next hit on the West Coast and in Southland. Tourism (historic township close to Gibbston Valley Wine Region) led to a boost back up to a population of over 2,500 but you would not feel the growth as strict rules govern the construction of new dwellings to preserve the historic appearance of the town. In fact as we parked the car when we first arrived we noticed a lot of placards complaining against some proposed modern leaf shaped building in the town.
Within the town confines and down by the banks of the Arrow River is the remains of the Chinese Settlement. It has since been restored as an important cultural centre and central to its message is the story of one of the miners – Ah Lum who opened up a store in the settlement and it remains one of the original standing buildings.
The floors were bare, but most of all I can remember the smell, warm, delicious, spicy and mysterious. I can smell it still
Recollections of visiting Ah Lum’s Store
The store contained an emporium of European and asian goods and it acted as an important social centre. Until his death in 1925, he was a well respected leader within the Chinese community and served as the go-between with the European settlers, becoming a local celebrity when he saved the life of a European miner who was drowning in the nearby Shotover River.
Ah Lum, like a majority of the Chinese miners hailed from the Cantonese province of Guangdong in Southern China. Life was tough for them especially with 1 in 7 dying in New Zealand due to harsh mining conditions but had a massive impact on the future development of the local economy with 40% of miners in Central Otago coming from China and accounting for 30% of the Gold Ore dug out of the ground.
One of the features of Arrowtown is that it lies on the northern edge of the best part of the Queenstown Trail that leads all the way down the banks of the Arrow River and to the rich loam farmlands of the Gibbston Valley. And all of there sweet sweet wineries! The trail has two names depending who you ask – “The Gibbston River Trail” or “The only good thing John Keys (former PM) ever did!”
The trail was easily placed in our Top 3 experiences in New Zealand. 20km plus of stunning scenery, an interesting (but challenging) trail that took us over a number of bridges, including the very impressive Edgar Bridge and Kaiwarau Suspension Bridge – Home of AJ Hackett’s and the world’s first Bungee Jump site.
In all we would cross the Kaiwarau river 6 times as we made our way down to the Valley.
It was a really hot day, so hot that our Allen’s Snakes had melted in the bag but was amazing to sit outside at our first stop for lunch – Gibbston Valley Wines. An on-site Cheesery, multiple restaurants and of course wine tasting was all on offer. We enjoyed our cheese plate and cider in the sun before tasting some of the world famous Pinot Noir.
Two Roads Diverge in a Yellow Wood
At this point we had a major choice to make. There was enough here to stick around and enjoy an easy afternoon exploring New Zealand’s largest wine cave, the cycling behind us. Or we could jump on our bikes once more and work our way down the road. More sights and sounds and more wine to explore.
We choose the latter.
A couple of harder kilometres (must have been all that consumed cheese) later and we enter our next winery – Peregrine Wines. Since 1988 the McLachlan family have grown some really nice wine from here. But the main talking point as we took our bicycle helmets and dusted ourselves down was the design of the cellar door. Pointing towards the sky is what appears to be the single wing of a Falco Peregrinus. The non-linear nature of the building immediately stands out yet fits into the surrounding countryside. Inside you are greeted with a scene straight out of the GoldenEye game – concrete floors, metal grated walkways and the various industrial components of winemaking.
Last call was in the nearby Gibbston Tavern. An old coach road hotel that in the past served miners from the nearby Coal Pit and did a decent trade from the nearby Cromwell to Queenstown road once more served as a “grand spot to stop for a drink”. We had some more local wine while we waited for the Cavalry to arrive in the form of our Bike Hire pick-up. Money well spent as we did not fancy the prospect of 25km cycle back to Arrowtown in the failing sunlight.
Besides we were also over the legal limit to cycle – if that is even a thing!
Ready to La Rumbla
There were a lot of bars and restaurants in Arrowtown as well as a healthy dose of shops selling everything from clothes to books and even some postcards designed by cousin Sarah. (Hint: They are in the Off the Wall Gallery)
We found an amazing Tapas Restaurant called La Rumbla on our first evening there. The owners had spent time in Spain and had bottled up a bit of the ‘Cataloina Culture’ and brought it back home to New Zealand with them. The staff were really friendly to the point that we did some shots with the American waitress, #WhenInOtago