Hidden Gems off Highway 1

Hampden beach
Hampden beach

We’re all finding the ‘best-kept secret’ cliché a little stale these days, yet there are some spots that can still lay claim to it. What’s even more surprising is that some of these hidden hideaways are literally a minute off the highway, and so disguised that if you didn’t know about them, you’d simply drive right past. North Otago has two that it doesn’t pay to miss.

Hampden beach
Hampden beach

Happy in Hampden

For years, I thought Hampden, 33 kilometres south of Oamaru, was nothing more than a single-depth line of houses strung out along an uninspiring stretch of highway; the sort of place you might stop to fuel up before carrying on to somewhere more interesting. How wrong could I be! Recently encouraged by the friend I was travelling with, I stopped at Hampden’s Vanessa’s Cottage Café.

The delightful little house boasts indoor seating, or you can take the quaint option of sitting on the deck with a view onto the prettiest cottage garden. Wherever you choose to sit, be sure to check out the interior of the café because it boasts the most fabulous collection of salt and pepper shakers, and the cutest touch for the locals – a stitched loyalty card holder at the end of the countertop! My friend opted for a crispy filo-topped chicken pie but I couldn’t resist the tray-baked sultana scones!

Instead of heading back to the highway, we took a side street right beside the café, and found ourselves in the sweetest little settlement. Holly hocks and marigolds to die for, and after a crossing the railway line and negotiating a steep descent, we found ourselves in wonderland. It turns out that Hampden is actually a seaside village!

Salt and pepper anyone?
Salt and pepper anyone?

An old fashioned camping ground with well-maintained cabins (including one which appears to be perched on the edge of the village green) fronts onto the beach which is strewn with the kind of twisty, contorted driftwood that you straight away want to have in your garden! A short wander along the picnicking site, and we were wishing we’d brought our tennis rackets. Like something out of my childhood, an old, roughly painted weatherboard shed was acting as the club rooms, and the courts were well maintained.

Hampden is just the spot to set up the deck chair for the day or park the caravan for week. When you do decide to head for this retro little hamlet, it may pay to book your cottage or campsite in advance. Something tells us it won’t be long before everyone else discovers it, too!

Shy Shag Point

Sixteen kilometres south of Hampden is the turnoff to Shag Point, a quiet little settlement that hugs the cliff edge along the coast. Apart from the occasional new build, the sleepy cottages are a step back in time. Arrive in late summer, and the invasive (but very delicious) wild banana passion fruit are hanging like lanterns from their vines, and so close to the road edge that it’s possible to reach out your car window and pick them! We also came across wild apple trees, and couldn’t resist a little scrumping.

The road is a no exit one, but past the tiny recreation ground, there is plenty of turning space at the far end where the Department of Conservation reserve takes over. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the car park is a sight not to be missed – a colony of seals basking in the sun, and so close there’s no need to pack the binoculars in order to enjoy them.

Vanessa's Cottage Cafe
Vanessa’s Cottage Cafe

Take your time to look around, and muse over the slightly creepy history of this little known place – because Shag Point once housed a very unusual coal mine. Beginning on land, the mine actually extended out into the ocean, where the miners claimed they could hear the noise of ships’ propellers as they passed overhead!

As with all little gems, Shag Point is going to become more popular – so exercise care on the narrow (but sealed) road that takes you there.