Central Otago: An introduction

Central Otago has a colourful gold-mining past, a continental climate, wide open spaces and terrain that produces gold medal-winning wines.

Located further from the sea than anywhere else in New Zealand, Central Otago has New Zealand’s hottest, coldest and driest climate. Once crowded with gold-rush fortune seekers, the region is less populated today but still characterised by its geography and a different kind of gold – the fine Pinot Noir wine that is now its number one claim to fame.

Central Otago can be divided into five sub-regions – Cromwell, Alexandra, Manuherikia, Roxburgh and Maniototo – each with distinctive characteristics and attractions. With one of New Zealand’s lowest population densities, of 1.7 people per square kilometre, the landscape is unencumbered by human activity and the unhurried lifestyle invites visitors to explore the region's geography, history and award-winning vineyards.

The region is also known as a cycling destination. The multi-day Otago Central Rail Trail is popular with leisure cyclists and two new trails – the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold cycling and walking trails – have added considerably to the opportunities to explore Central Otago.

Heritage

Māori visited the Central Otago region on their way to collect pounamu (greenstone or nephrite jade) from the rivers on the west coast. They also came on hunting trips, building rafts to use on the Clutha River for transporting moa (now-extinct giant birds) and other game back to the east coast.

Māori called the river Mata-au, which means "surfaced current". According to legend, a giant named Kopuwai and his pack of two-headed dogs lived above the Mata-au on the Old Man range behind Alexandra. Old Man Range is also known as Kopuwai.

Gold, discovered at Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, brought the first influx of Europeans to Central Otago. The gold rush spread quickly through Central Otago, creating boom towns and a flush of activity. Relics of Otago’s pioneering and gold-mining past are found at historic sites throughout the region. 

Food and wine

Central Otago, part of the world’s southern most-wine growing region, is New Zealand’s fastest-developing wine region.

The relatively small Central Otago wine region has a growing international reputation for Pinot Noir. About 70 per cent of vineyards grow Pinot Noir, producing wine that is renowned for its vibrant, spicy flavour and velvety texture. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer make up the remaining 30 per cent.

Wine tours and wine trails take visitors to vineyards and wineries, and around one of New Zealand’s most scenic wine regions. 

Cromwell is the stone fruit-growing capital of New Zealand. The region's subalpine climate of long, hot summers and crisp, cold winters helps produce some of the world's best apricots, nectarines, peaches, cherries, plums, pears and apples. Local products include apple cider, premium fruit juices and dried fruits.

Adventure / outdoors

Central Otago’s open spaces, rugged terrain and climate provide superb conditions for outdoor adventures like walking and mountain biking, curling, ice luging and other ice sports.

Otago Central Rail Trail takes cyclists and hikers through 150 kilometres (93 miles) of memorable scenery and gold mining history. The route, along an old railway line, has no steep hills and many welcoming stop-offs where cyclists can soak in southern hospitality and scenery. Local tour operators organise accommodation, bike hire and bag transfers. 

The 34 kilometre (21 mile) Roxburgh Gorge Trail provides a spectacular one-day ride between Alexandra and the Roxburgh Dam, following the Clutha Mata-au River. The two-day Clutha Gold Trail, from Lake Roxburgh Dam to Lawrence, offers a unique heritage experience showcasing the area’s history of early Maori moa hunters, Chinese gold miners, and European pastoral farming, mining and rail.

Naseby – New Zealand’s ice sports hub – has the southern hemisphere’s only Olympic-standard curling facility and natural luge track. Visitors can learn how to curl with a 60-minute "have-a-go" session, or play a full two-hour game. The 360 metre (1,181 foot) natural luge track can produce speeds of up to 70 kilometres (43 miles) an hour, but caters for all levels of thrill-seekers. 

Seasonal highlights

Central Otago is a year-round destination with four distinct seasons and a landscape that goes through the dramatic seasonal changes produced by New Zealand’s hottest and coldest temperatures.

A winter of snow, ice and hoar frosts creates perfect conditions for winter sports – skiing, ice skating, curling and luging – earning Central Otago the title of ice sport capital of New Zealand.

Early Scottish immigrants introduced the sport of curling to Central Otago’s frozen natural ponds and miners’ dams, and traditions associated with curling have become part of the region's culture. There are outdoor curling rinks in Alexandra and on the Maniototo Plains, as well as Naseby’s year-round Olympic-standard indoor ice rink.

And by the way...

  • Central Otago is New Zealand’s most inland region.
  • Central Otago is the hottest, coldest and driest part of New Zealand.
  • Clutha River was named after the Clyde River in Scotland. (Clutha is Gaelic for Clyde.) 
  • The region covers 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 square miles), but has only 17,000 permanent residents.
  • Central Otago is the world’s southernmost wine production area.

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