11 Jun // Travel: Bluff, NZ

Booking.com sent me to the Bluff Oyster Festival. This is how it went.

The end of May was when winter in New Zealand really and truly decided to show its face with wind and storms and snow up and down the country. Coincidentally it was exactly the same time I thought it would be a good idea to book an impromptu weekend away to the very bottom of the South Island. The Deep South if you will. I’d never been before; I’d only made it as far as the stunning rolling hills of Central Otago. This trip was not specifically for pinot noir and roaring firesides though, this trip was for oysters.

The Bluff Oyster Festival happens every year in Bluff, with the tag line ‘unsophisticated and proud of it’. I’d heard that last year it was nearly washed out with sideways freezing cold wind and rain. The plan for 2015 included moving venues, providing some cover in the form of a giant open-air warehouse, and increasing the number of fresh off the boat oysters. In preparation, I bought some cut-price merino and a woolly hat, and prepared to eat as many oysters as I possibly could.

My Southern Road trip began with a flight from Auckland to Dunedin. Dunedin is just under three hours northwest of Bluff by car, and since it’s a bigger town with a bigger airport, it’s a lot cheaper to fly into than Invercargill. My mate and I got a cheap rental car, which is pretty much the only good way to travel around NZ, unless you particularly enjoy being confined to a bus filled with people with that long-car-trip smell. Anyway, we drove into Dunedin (a good 25 minutes from the airport) and had decided to stay in St Clair, a beachside suburb about 10 minutes from the city centre. St Clair is beautiful – it’s a moody, cold, grey beach, and was just perfect because I love the beach in winter.

St Clair Boulevard, Dunedin

We stayed at Hotel St Clair, right on the water, and it was clean, modern and really, really nice. We booked through booking.com, the incredibly easy to use accommodation website and app, which hunts out cheap deals on accommodation which you then book, and then you pay when you're there. My friend who came back from Europe earlier this year got me onto it, as she’d used it extensively on her travels and raved about it. I started using it earlier in the year, and it’s great.

Hotel St Clair

The highlight of our eating in Dunedin was definitely the Otago Farmers Market. It’s in the old, and rather spectacular, railway building, and is on every Saturday. Whilst the good people at the fruit stall will let you get cash out, I would advise heading there loaded with cash. I learned the hard way that being hungry and cashless at a Farmers Market is no fun. Rookie Aucklander.

Anyway! I started with a whitebait fritter, pretty good, and then bought some honey, and a couple of apples. I had a coffee, got a fresh juice, had a pumpkin-bread cinnamon scroll, tried my mate’s crepe with the feijoa and the caramel and the custard, which lead to me eating half of it because it was incredible, then got a bacon buttie. The bacon butties at the OFM are infamous – they’re like all different kinds of cured pig – bacon ends, prosciutto maybe, all sorts of crispy goodness, sandwiched between two pieces of bog-standard supermarket white bread with a few onions, and mustard and tomato sauce. It was excellent.

Bacon buttie at the Otago Farmers Market

It was then road trip time. The drive to Bluff was just under three hours, and included the obligatory stop for a photo with the giant trout in Gore. We had booked a B+B just out of Invercargill, and had warned our hosts we’d be overdosing on oysters before our arrival, so we headed straight for the action.

Tickets to the festival are $26, and by the time we got there about midday, it was in full swing. It was also freezing. There’s something about that southerly coming straight off the Antarctic that really chills your bones. It didn’t matter though, within minutes I had a glass of chardonnay and a dozen fresh Bluff oysters in my hand. We started with them the best way they come: raw and on the half shell, with a small squeeze of fresh lemon and a splash of malt vinegar for good measure. GOOD GOD THEY WERE GOOD. So fresh, a little minerally, nice and plump and sweet. I whipped through half a dozen prettttty quickly, before making the most of all the food stalls. We ate: kina (tasted like a rockpool smells), mutton-bird (oily and gamey and fishy and definitely not unpleasant), scallops (should have just had more oysters), crayfish (see comment after scallops), battered oysters (good), more fresh oysters (hearts for eyes), more fresh oysters, and an oyster pie (pastry and oysters, what’s not to like). There was some sweet live music, there’s plenty of good wine and beer, and it’s a really fun, mixed crowd. My favourite festival-goers were the middle-aged ladies in the “shuck me, suck me, eat me raw” t-shirts.

Bluff Oyster Festival

We sat and yarned to a local farmer about rugby, and listened to the MC make four ladies and four men compete to see who could best squawk like a seagull into a microphone. They each won an oyster for participating. It was hilarious.

Another dozen bluffies were downed before they sold out, and before we rugged up and continued on. As we left the music cranked up, and walking down the street saw the three pubs on Bluff’s main street overflowing with people. If you were staying in Bluff you could really make a night of it, but we had booked accommodation just out of Invercargill. Before we left though, we got an obligatory snap at the Bluff sign, and drove up to a lookout to check out Stewart Island.

In the Bluff/Invercargill region, we booked the Bushy Point Fernbirds B&B. It looked like something a bit different, especially compared to the motels on offer in Invers itself, and it appealed because it was eco-friendly too. It was just out of town in Otatara, towards Oreti Beach, and is adjacent to the Bushy Point scenic reserve. Basically, you’re staying in the bush.

Windswept trees at Fernbirds B&B

Hosts Ian and Jenny were extremely welcoming – B&B’s have the potential to be a bit weird and feel like you’re just staying in someone’s spare room, but we had the whole bottom floor basically to ourselves in which to sit by the fire drinking wine, it was totally sweet. Ian and Jenny have owned the property for over 20 years, and for a long time had regular school groups through, searching the rejuvenated scrub and native trees for the elusive fernbird. They’d moved for the quiet; Ian had worked night shift for years and needed a peaceful escape. Staying here included a guided walk around the property, which was great. Breakfast was a highlight – Jenny put on a full table spread with home made bread, porridge, stewed fruit, nuts, yoghurt, organic maple syrup, stovetop espresso, all in front of a large window, that just outside it had about 7 tui and 4 bellbirds dancing around.

BreakfastIan guiding us around the property

Back to the car it was a very grey, wet drive to Queenstown, where we were flying out of, but with old gems en route such as the Lumsden RSA, we were kept entertained. We had an obligatory southern cheese roll in Athol, and it was everything I could have dreamed of, and more.

Southern cheese roll
Lake Wakatipu, from the State Highway heading north towards Queenstown

The sun broke through just as we entered Queenstown, and I reckon their airport must just about win best airport café in the country thanks to airspresso. We had an Emerson’s bookbinder and watched some sport on the couch, and it was just about the perfect way to end a southern roadie, until it started to snow on the runway as our plane took off.