A small town in the heart of Central Otago, Cromwell is around 45 minutes’ drive from either Queenstown or Wanaka and makes a popular home for locals working in the region.
Meanwhile for travelers, the town services the thoroughfare of tourists en route to the bright lights of Queenstown or the winter delights of the region’s many ski-fields. Cromwell was originally founded by gold prospectors in the nineteenth century. Although today, award-winning vineyards and stone-fruit orchards have come to replace gold as the bread-basket of the local economy.
Cruising through the township in the middle of summer, one notices that the golden-grassed foothills of the mountains gather at the edge of Lake Dunstan to quench their thirst. The lake, which now occupies a tract of the Clutha River, swallowed the Cromwell Gorge along with part of the township after the filling of the Clyde Dam in the early ‘90s. The construction of the dam began in 1977 and as the last of Muldoon’s ‘Think Big’ schemes, was a source of controversy for many years. After all, former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was second only to Jacinda Ardern in his contempt for populist opinion.
While many grieved for the loss of the scenic gorge, today the lake provides the opportunity for recreation, as well as supplying irrigation for orchards, vineyards and pastures nearby. The Clyde Dam continues to be New Zealand’s third largest hydro-electric dam and former controversies about the project seem to have subsided over the years.
In an effort to salvage the history of the area before the flooding of the lower township however, many historical buildings were relocated or rebuilt on the shoreline of the lake. Those buildings are located just a few minutes’ drive from the centre of town and are known as the Cromwell Heritage Precinct, which is one of Central Otago’s hidden treasures.
Approaching the precinct, one is first greeted by the neatly trimmed lawns and gardens of McNulty House, a stone villa built in the 1800’s for John Marsh, the great-great grandfather of former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. In January of each year, the Cromwell Food & Wine Festival is held on these lawns and conference facilities are also available for hire within the historic building.
Beyond the villa and spread upon the banks of the lakeside below is the reconstruction of a nineteenth century village, which is brought to life by local vendors, artisans and merchants. And amidst this vintage marketplace, museum pieces and curated antiquities bring to life the old stables, printing press and wagon workshop. This fusion of historical reconstruction with active participation in the local economy fosters feelings of nostalgia and immersion in the lives of our ancestors.
Strolling through the courtyards, it is tempting to reach out and touch the texture of the schiststoned walls of the historic buildings. At the edge of the lakeside, willow trees drape themselves over the edge of the lake as if they were sipping from the blue waters in the dry heat of summer. And further along the water’s edge, past the jetty and old storefronts are the ruins of a schoolhouse where the old stone foundations are now the boundaries of a pétanque court.
There are plenty of opportunities for exploration within the precinct, with rustic artifacts and beautiful gardens adorning each nook and cranny. There is even a bicycle hire store within the complex, for those keen to embark on the famous Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail, which is a day’s adventure in of itself.
The Cromwell Heritage Precinct is charming at any time of the year, although a fine and sunny day affords the best opportunity for enjoyment at this lakeside attraction, which is free to the public.
For more information about visiting the Cromwell Heritage Precinct, visit the website.