Cromwell is a lakeside service town that grew with the discovery of gold in 1862. Originally located at the intersection of rivers Clutha and Kawaru, the town had to relocate to higher banks as a result of the Clyde Dam’s construction which flooded its main streets.
Today, it is fruits rather than gold that springs forth from Cromwell’s grounds, but the town remains as vibrant as it was 150 years ago. Here, we show you where to find the history, produce, and entertainment that flourishes in Cromwell.
1. Cromwell Heritage Precinct
In 1982, construction of Clyde Dam began to meet the region’s burgeoning demand for energy. Faced with imminent destruction of their beloved main street, a group of Cromwell residents sought to shift some of the original buildings to higher grounds to preserve a piece of their heritage. Their painstaking efforts laid the foundation for the Cromwell Heritage Precinct.
Strolling past the stone-hewn structures and wood-planked shopfronts, you might hear the occasional clip and rattle of a horse-drawn wagon. Galleries, artisanal boutiques, and cafes are housed in many of these Victorian-style buildings today, injecting life once more into the old structures. Between October and March, this vitality spills onto the streets in the form of the Central Otago Farmers & Craft Market, held every Sunday.
Cromwell Heritage Precinct
Address: Melmore Terrace, Cromwell 9310, New Zealand
Website: Cromwell Heritage Precinct
2. Cromwell Museum
To understand Cromwell’s vivid history in detail, the Cromwell museum is a must-visit. The museum offers insight to how the town grew from its heady gold-rush days in the 1800s, into the quintessential Victorian town of farmers and orchardists. Clyde Dam’s construction as well as the town’s disgruntlement preceding it are also well documented here.
Do check out the intriguing collection of artifacts unearthed by the dam builders on display. From agricultural machineries to Maori bones, gold mining tools to Chinese relics, the exhibits at the Cromwell Museum prove that there is more than meets the eye in this tranquil town.
Address: 47 Cromwell Service Centre, Cromwell 9310, New Zealand
Website: Cromwell Museum
3. Lake Dunstan
The magnificent Lake Dunstan was formed as a consequence of Clyde Dam. It is synonymous with Cromwell for good reason. Because Cromwell is the most landlocked settlement in the country, the lake was designed from the start to provide plenty of recreational opportunities for the townsfolk.
Lake Dunstan is an azure oasis for all sorts of water activities, such as skiing, boating and swimming. As one of the safest lakes in New Zealand, you can expect a constant stream of locals and vacationers milling around its banks all year round. In summer especially, the vitality around the area is doubled. Be it fishermen casting their line far into the lake’s depths or families picnicking along the lake front, these are all part of the everyday scenery. A beautifully restored 1929 wooden motor boat is also available for cruises on the lake.
Website: Lake Dunstan
4. Mrs Jones Orchard
Perhaps it is the patches upon patches of orchards bursting with produce, or perhaps it is the giant fruit sculptures greeting you as you enter the town centre; whatever it is, Cromwell’s reputation as the ‘fruit bowl of New Zealand’ is hard to miss.
Mrs Jones is a stalwart of Cromwell’s fruit-growing community. Her roadside shop is stocked with tantalizing produce all year round, and is a popular stopover for those traveling to and from Queenstown. Depending on the season, you can find peaches and nectarines dense with syrup, berries ripe with saccharine juice, and of course kiwifruits revealing glorious greens and golds.
If you have time, book an orchard tour to learn about farming in Cromwell and have a go at harvesting your own fruits. A real-fruit ice cream cone is highly recommended at the end!
Mrs Jones Orchard Tour
Address: 489 Kawarau Gorge Road, Cromwell 9384
Website: Mrs Jones Orchard
5. Aurum Wines Tour
For the wine connoisseurs, Cromwell appeals for a different reason. The region boasts the most plots of vines within Central Otago, and is one of NZ’s key wine producing region. Viticulture thrives in the Cromwell basin because of its favorable climate, comparable to wine meccas of the world such as Burgundy in France (which so happens to be where Aurum’s current owners met!).
Aurum Wines is managed by the Lawrence family who first planted their grapes on the Pisa Flats 20 years ago. As one of the preeminent Pinot makers in the region, the winery is committed to using only organic methods to ensure the sustainability and quality of their vines.
A Winemaker Tour at Aurum’s lets you sample some of the sweet notes unique to Central Otago, accompanied by a platter of beautifully aged cheese. Following which, you will be led on a private tour of the estate where you might get a glimpse of the snow-capped Pisa Mountains in the distance.
Aurum Wines Tour
Address: 140 State Highway 6, Cromwell 9384, New Zealand
Website: Aurum Wines Tour
6. Highlands Motorsport Park
If you think Cromwell is a sedated town, think again. Drop by Highlands Motorsport Park to experience the pure power of a reverberating engine. Make your mark on the go-kart leader board, or kick the adrenaline up a notch on the production-grade race cars. Hard-core car junkies might even want to splurge on the once in a lifetime chance of riding in an Aston Martin Vulcan with Tony Quinn, and feel the purr of the mechanic beast tamed at the hands of the motorsport legend.
For the kids, Highlands also has a Jurassic Forest Safari Tour where the little ones can get close to creatures looming out of the prehistoric age. And just when you think the day is over, a quirky car-sculpture park next to the tracks is the perfect way to wind down after all the excitement.
Highlands Motorsport Park
Address: SH6 & Sandflat Road, Cromwell 9342, New Zealand
Website: Highlands Motorsport Park
7. Goldfields Jet Tour
The Goldfields Jet Tour is another one for the thrill seekers. The experience begins with a steep descend down to the river edge, before you are strapped in for a rip-roaring 40min ride through the crystalline rapids of the Kawarau River. Be prepared for the cool shock of water with each expert manoeuvre past towering boulders and jagged cliff edges. Even as a spectator from the bridge, Kawarau’s surge of raw hydropower is palpable.
More than just a joyride, the jet tour also provides an animated commentary on the region’s rich gold mining history. Kawarau was the epicentre of the Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s. Remnants of miner’s cottages are visible on either side of the gushing river, as are the precarious pulley systems used to haul goods and people across the canyons. Those with keener eyes might just be able to pick out the entrance of the mine shafts set amongst the rugged terrain.
Goldfields Jet Tour
Address: Kawarau Gorge SH6, Cromwell, New Zealand
Website: Goldfields Jet Tour
8. Bannockburn Sluicings
For a closer inspection of how gold mining has altered the landscape, strap on your boots for a tramp through the Bannockburn Sluicings. The sluicings were once a network of water rivulets that sliced through the gold field to feed the various prospecting sites. While it has been nearly a decade since the mines fell silent, you can still see haunting traces of the dams, mud houses, and tunnels scattered around the rocky hills.
The Bannockburn Sluicings are connected by loop tracks of varying difficulties. It also branches off the Central Otago cycle trail so bikers can challenge themselves on the undulating terrain, even as they admire relics from the region’s fascinating history.
Website: Bannockburn Sluicings
Cromwell's hidden charms
At Cromwell, orchards brim with succulent fruits, vines produce internationally-acclaimed nectar, and the past is faithfully preserved for future generations. For its food, history, and attractions, Cromwell deserves to be more than a gas stop between Queenstown and Wanaka. Treat yourself to a leisurely day by Lake Dunstan, or indulge in a tasting of fruit and wine at the local orchards. These are after all quintessential kiwi experiences.
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