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Why Bluff is the Surprising New Hot Spot you must Visit

New Zealand Herald

11 Feb 2024

The town known for those fat juicy you-know-whats, and the place where every New Zealand fundraising ride / walk / tour seems to end, is having a modern-day renaissance. Bluff is one of the oldest settlements in New Zealand but rather than resting on its oyster laurels its quickly becoming a destination of its own.

So grab some cheese rolls, chase away the seagulls, start rolling your rrrs, and make plans to visit the most innovative town in Southland…


The Bluffies

“The demand never ceases to amaze me,” says Graeme White of Barnes Oysters, with a wry smile. Operating a number of Bluff’s oyster fleet, he’s already gearing up for what promises to be a busy season. Sustainability and health of the wild fishery is always top of mind, so scientific testing is regularly taking place. This year’s harvest is expected to outshine the last three. “The thing we hear the most from visitors? ‘These are the best I’ve tasted in the world’”.


After a three year hiatus the iconic Bluff Oyster & Food Festival is back, having undergone somewhat of a revival. Expect to see those plump, succulent raw oysters freshly shucked by a pro, with just a squeeze of lemon or dab of vinegar added before being passed to eager hands. Once you reach peak oyster (can one even do that?), there’s all things oyster-adjacent to chow down on. The one day festival is scheduled for 25th May with tickets likely to be snapped up as soon as they go on sale. Don’t forget to pack a warm coat, hat and scarf, along with a decent appetite, and get that smooth, briny sweetness inside you.


Kai with a twist

Kaimoana from Te Ara a Kiwa / Foveaux Strait has been appreciated by local Ngāi Tahu long before the arrival of sealers, whalers and traders. Today Bluff is one of the few places where you can experience Māori cuisine with a contemporary twist. “We use sustainable indigenous ingredients all the time – I picked these this morning.” Haylee-Chanel Simeon was holding out bright pikopiko shoots that she’d foraged from Motupōhue / Bluff Hill just hours ago. Better known as Hayz, her eponymous restaurant Hayz @ The Anchorage is a full immersion experience. “We can tell you where the food came from, who brought it to us, and when they harvested it. It’s all about manaakitanga, treating those who come here with respect for sharing our love of the kai.” I looked at the menu. It was a toss-up between the tītī / mutton birds – a rich, gamey-flavoured delicacy only harvested in Rakiura / Stewart Island – and the blue cod. “If you don’t want to get food envy, this is the one to go for,” Hayz pointed helpfully. I didn’t want to get food envy. The Bluffie Board platter was spectacular: creamy pāua filling in a crispy wonton(!), salted tītī on toasted bruschetta with blueberry and balsamic glaze, freshwater whitebait fritters sourced from southland rivers, steamed Rakiura green-lipped mussels in a garlic sauce, the fresh beer-battered blue cod, all topped with those green pikopiko shoots.


Gin Time

A little further up the road is Ocean Beach, home to the country’s newest gin distillery and producer of Bluff Gin. The brainchild of local food entrepreneurs with the support of the wider community, it was officially opened by Sir Tipene O’Regan. Distiller Chris Fraser was there to meet me. Reaching behind the copper and stainless steel still, he handed me one of their signature bottles: a buoy-shaped cut-glass aqua-tinted vessel. “It’s a classic London Dry. Can you smell the juniper forward and citrus and spice? Goes best with East Imperial tonic. Plus it doesn’t have any seaweed or oysters!” he laughed. “We’re having it available here first ‘cause it’s all about Bluff, and then it’ll be available online and at your flash Auckland bars!” The distillery is the centrepiece of what will be a new hospitality venue looking out to Ocean Beach’s pounding surf and the silhouette of Rakiura – a bonus view as you take another sip of Bluff with a wedge of lime.


Tours with bite

Beyond that pounding surf lies the Northern Tītī Islands, their waters home to the great white shark. Foveaux Strait is one of only five places in the world where you can go cage diving to see these majestic predators close up, and Bluff’s Shark Experience is New Zealand’s sole shark cage diving operator. Never dived before? Not a problem says Shark Experience’s Nikki Ladd. “We’re not just for experienced divers – 90% of the people on our boat today are novices.” All the dive gear is provided and if you’re new to the underwater world you can learn how to use a regulator as part of a training session, so by the time the boat anchors you’re ready to go. You can even hire a GoPro to earn those Insta likes. Great whites are the most common sharks they see, with Mako and Blues joining in as well. So, what attracts these protected white pointers to the area? “We call it ‘amorous activites’,” says Nikki with air quotes and a broad smile. As we were leaving another two tourists came in and added their names to the waitlist, mesmerised by the close-up photos decorating the walls.


Not your usual farm

Bluff’s newest tourist attraction is a farm, but not the type you’d expect. Based out of the former Ocean Beach Freezing Works, Foveaux Pāua’s farm tour is a fascinating insight into Bluff’s land-based aquaculture industry. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the tour from Foveaux Pāua director Blair Wolfgram. “This is the only place in the world you can tour a 100 year old meat works that’s been turned into a pāua, whitebait and seaweed farm!”, he grinned. The tour starts by paying homage to the site’s past life, passing through the old Working Men’s tunnel and walking by faded signs of stock kill numbers. On the mezzanine level, Blair patiently explained what was happening in each of the pāua tanks, from larvae through to fully grown adults. No question seemed too dumb and as we reached the ‘touch tank’ he spoke of the importance of pāua to not only Māori but also other indigenous peoples who know it as abalone. The best thing about the tour launching soon? At the end of it you can buy some pāua to take home to eat.


The Heritage

While the old freezing works is more recent history, it’s been 200 years since the first European was granted permission from local Māori to settle at Motupōhue / Bluff Hill - a man by the name of James Spencer who was a veteran of Waterloo (the Napoleonic one, not the ABBA one) and a survivor of two New Zealand shipwrecks. Of course, Motupōhue / Bluff Hill has always held a special place for Ngai Tahu, which was recognised with a statutory acknowledgement in the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act and also granted Tōpuni status (a legal recognition of its importance) in 2020.


From the top of the hill you can look down to another slice of history – ‘Rotten Row’. This ships graveyard is accessible from SH1 via a 15 minute walk along a palm-fringed boardwalk to Green Point, where at low tide you can see the remains of scuttled ships left to rot on the mudflats. Former Norwegian, New Zealand, Samoan and Australian ships of the Bluff oyster fleet rest there, with viewing panel descriptions such as ‘accidentally sunk by explosives’ and ‘known for its uncomfortable crossings’.


Made for walking

Most people know that Bluff’s Stirling Point is the start – or end – of New Zealand’s 3000km Te Araroa trail, but lesser known are the short walks, bush walks, coastal walks, and hill walks throughout the surrounding area. After you’ve got your mandatory photo of the Stirling Point sign (all directions, all the time), why not give the coastal track a go? It’s a good 50-60 minutes one way but an easy grade with coastal scenery. If you’re after something more challenging take the Tōpuni Track – a little steeper so wear good hiking shoes – and make your way up to the 360° panoramic view at the top. With a little luck you’ll come across kereru and tui amongst the native rimu and rata.


History bluffs (see what I did there) will be drawn to the Bluff Heritage Trail centred around historic sites associated with the town’s most famous son, former Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward. Along the way you’ll learn about the role whaling, oystering and farming played in the development of the township. The full trail is 20km long but if you’ve got easily-distracted kids you can do it in bite-size chunks. Take in Morrison Beach on the way to the Bluff-granite War Memorial, before venturing to the Bluff Maritime Museum, and visiting the statue dedicated to the messenger boy who became Prime Minister.


Street Art

When you think ‘Bluff’, art might not be the first thing that comes to mind – but it will be the first thing you see. Bright, lively, site-specific murals have given the town a ‘glow up’ thanks to South Sea Spray, Southland’s mural and street art movement. Street artist Deow is the creative mind behind the community initiative and his Kaua e mate wheke, mate ururoa (Don’t die like the octopus, die like a shark) is one of the most vibrant sights on Gore St. The whole collection of aerosol artworks is stunning: works by Flox & TrustMe, Dcypher and Shane Walker, and my personal favourite, Bring the History to the Future by artist Koryu, featuring an old fisherman looking out past a rusty whaling ship to his next destination.


The Pace

The next destination for over 20 international cruise ships this season has been… Bluff. Now that the secret is out the town is more than just a day trip from Invercargill. Accommodation options have increased recently with new Air BnBs joining the line-up of holiday homes, local hotels, the camping ground, and the Bluff Lodge backpackers - run by the indomitable Kay Cowper. “Why wouldn’t you want to stay if you’ve come all the way to Bluff?!” she exclaims with mock indignation. It’s an enthusiasm shared by others. “There’s no need to rush your visit,” Tammi Topi of the Bluff Community Board told me, “We’re all about the people, the place and the pace. You can really slow down and enjoy it here.” It’s true that staying overnight gives you a great insight into the community, and enough time to meet some of the town’s unique characters. Thanks to Great South, there’ll soon be Bluff Ambassadors in place to welcome you and share insider knowledge of the must do’s and must see’s - no matter how long you decide to slow down for.


Do it for Burt

Speed more your thing? Legendary racing motorcyclist Burt Munro, whose record-breaking exploits were celebrated in The World’s Fastest Indian, is honoured every February with the classic Bluff Hill climb. Part of Southland Motorcycle Club’s five day Burt Munro Challenge, riders from all over the country race for the honour of lifting the Fastest Time Trophy. They need to be quick though: this year’s winner took out the 1.4km climb in 44.09 seconds. The crowd certainly gets behind them (and the safety barriers) as the bikes roar round the bends, weaving their way to the top. At $20 a spectator ticket it’s a bargain for some only-in-Bluff high-octane cheering.


MTBing

It’s not just motorbikes that love Motupōhue / Bluff Hill. Long popular with members of the Southland Mountain Bike Club, and past venue of the National MTB Event Series, the hill is about to become even more of an MTB mecca. Work is currently underway to create new trails as well as upgrade the existing ones, and when the new Bluff Hill Motupōhue Active Recreation Precinct opens in July it’ll consist of 11km of world class mountain biking trails. Catering to total beginners like me (Grade 2) up to the super experienced pros (Grade 4 and 5), there’ll be enough squiggly lines to keep any rider happy no matter what your age, skill or fitness level is. On ya bike then!

Details

Bluff is 25km southeast of Invercargill on State Highway 1 by self-drive/ride. Air New Zealand operates non-stop flights to Invercargill from Auckland (2 hours), Wellington and Christchurch.


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Original publication: New Zealand Herald

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