One of the wonderful things about living on the road is that if you don’t get to explore a place fully first-time round, you can always go back. Such was the case with Winton recently.
Ever since stopping there briefly once before, I’d been rather taken with the place and nagged Gareth mercilessly until he agreed we could go again, properly. It’s one of those places which is too nice to simply pass through.
Admittedly, at first glance I didn’t think there was much to it. But, as it turns out, it’s a peaceful, attractive place where boutique and farming meet, and a lovely spot where motorhomers can come and spend an entire day, or even a night.
A peek at the past
For starters, Winton has a rich and proud history. The town, on the main highway between Invercargill and Queenstown, was established in 1861 and first came to prominence during the gold rush. On learning of the town’s Heritage Trail, I was keen to check out every one of the 14 historical stops.
You can drive the 5km route in around 15 minutes, but since it’s an easy track and well maintained, we opted to do the trail on foot. The sun shone as Gareth, his mum Christina and I parked the van behind the iconic town bandstand, and we made our way to our first stop, the old post office. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it was from here our well-laid plans began to go awry. Normally, Heritage Trail maps are available from the local library in the town centre, but we arrived to discover it was closed.
All of a sudden, we found we were winging it and our much-anticipated trail abruptly became more of a trial. Round and around we went, up and down and back on ourselves, not really knowing what we were meant to be looking for or where we were heading!
A Cuppa and a browse
Aside from the fact we were getting nowhere, there was no denying Winton is a pretty place to get lost in. Our trail took us through the residential area, which is a real credit to the town, with its well-cared for homes and gardens. We also enjoyed wandering through the Ivy Russell Reserve.
This loved local track is full of kowhai and rimu trees and the abundant fantails make the forest delightfully noisy. We particularly liked the cute, interactive touches courtesy of the local kindergarten, such as adding sticks to their Kindy Castle and making a wish at the wishing stone.
Once we emerged from the forest, however, we were back to going round in circles again. Eventually, there was nothing left but to admit defeat and find a place to rest our weary feet and enjoy a spot of lunch.
The Magnolia Tree cafe in the main street is a popular hangout for locals and visitors alike, with good reason. They have an extensive menu, friendly staff and a pleasant garden to sit and watch the world go by. Even without the full Heritage Trail experience, there are lots of lovely character buildings to admire from the 1800s.
These days, Winton is also famous for being the home of some of the best op shops in the country, and we couldn’t leave without paying a visit. The Salvation Army and Hospice shops are enormous; you could easily spend all day in these alone. Here was a place I was more than happy to get lost in!
An infamous character
Eventually, it was time to go, but not without checking out one more Heritage Trail site – the Winton Cemetery, which is home to the town’s most infamous resident. Minnie Dean was the first – and only – woman ever to be hanged in New Zealand, in 1895 for the alleged murder of an infant in her care.
Her story is both sad and fascinating – during a time in which infant mortality was high – and for more than a century she was buried in an unmarked grave. She had one mysteriously bestowed upon her, however, in 2009 and, having learned of her story, I was curious to find her resting place.
Not wishing to send Gareth and Christina on yet another wild goose chase, particularly one around a graveyard, I first Googled the information so we knew what we were looking for.
We all took off in our separate directions and I figured it would be no time before one of us found it. I did find one early on, which I deduced may have been a relation, but try as we might, Minnie Dean’s gravestone proved impossible to find. Up and down we traipsed, once, twice, three times and more, until in the end the others had had enough.
“I don’t understand. It should be easy!” I said, resorting to the internet on my phone again. And it was easy, if only I’d had the right information from the start. Well, how was I to know Minnie’s gravestone from 2009 had been replaced with another, in 2011?
One which marked the burial of a Charles Dean and his wife, Williamina McCulloch. This gravestone was inscribed with the wife’s maiden name, in line with Scottish tradition, and was indeed that of Minnie Dean. It was the very same ‘relation’ I’d found right at the start.
After almost a whole day spent walking round in circles, I wasn’t too popular, I can tell you! It may have been an eventful day for all the wrong reasons, but it still hasn’t put us off Winton.
It’s a friendly town, with a nice atmosphere, plenty of Southern charm and unique shops and cafes to wander round or sit awhile. It’s a wee gem of a place you’ll want to stop in again and again – if you do it right…
Enjoy the friendly hospitality of one of the South's oldest inland towns
- Free camping for all vehicles There is an enormous free camping area in the centre of town, directly behind the bandstand on the main street. While the outlook may not be the most scenic, it is close to everything and there are clean, modern, 24-hour toilets just across the road. The dump station is also conveniently next door and free wi-fi is available at New World, the library and the BNZ bank. Reviews on the CamperMate app are all very favourable and speak highly of the spacious, flat land with plenty of room for large vehicles and turning. The area is also used for truck parking at times, but they park across the other side from motorhomers.
- Something for everyone Whether you’re an active type or prefer something a bit more leisurely, Winton has got it covered. You can go hiking, climbing and hunting nearby and the Oreti River is 3km away for trout fishing. The Golf Club provides an 18-hole course set among mature trees and, during summer, a covered heated swimming pool is open to the public, set within the Central Southland College grounds. Take a wander down the main street and see what Winton has to offer, including beautiful gardens and some great eateries and bars. For more information, visit winton.co.nz.