The Criterion Hotel : place of tales and stories

In a very Victorian town, there is a very Victorian street;
And in the very Victorian street there is a very Victorian hotel;
And in the very Victorian hotel there is a variety of Victorian tales…


Staycationing or setting off to Ōamaru, home to the most well-preserved Victorian streetscape in New Zealand, should be about more than the typical hotel experience where the white walls all start to look the same. After all, where else in Aotearoa can you don a top hat and tails just because or ride a penny farthing down the street?

Luckily, you can satisfy your need for the Victorian aesthetic throughout your trip by checking into The Criterion. Situated on the corner of Harbour and Tyne streets, the heritage hotel is a gateway to the rest of the Victorian precinct. After being closed for eleven months, The Criterion, re-opened in November just in time for Ōamaru’s Victorian Heritage Celebrations, thanks to new owners Marise and Herbert Martin.

The hotel had been a local for the couple, and when the front doors shut and stayed so the couple mused on the possibilities. “We thought someone has to do it”, Marise said, “and then we thought someone really needs to do it.” A global pandemic was the push they needed. “You tend to re-evaluate what’s important in your life, so we thought hangit’s going to have to be us, and here we are.”

They took over the lease on the second of November, spending their every waking moment painting, carpeting, and redesigning the hotel to suit its storied history in time for heritage week (11th to the 15th of November), “We had lots and lots of waking moments because we knew we needed to get the doors open. The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust were fabulously supportive of us because they wanted us to get those doors open too.”

Goal achieved; The Criterion turned out better than they could ever have imagined. Herbert and Marise injected each unique space with both prestige and playfulness.

If you’ve ever wondered what stepping into the Victorian era was like without having to pretend to like turtle soup, the dining room at The Criterion will give you a good idea. Serving classic British comfort food, Marise and Herbert agree, “People love that they can bring their bangers and mash and their pea, pie and pud into the poshest dining room in town. They just love it.”

The hotel has a temperance room reflecting the time of prohibition in Ōamaru where you can partake of non-alcoholic beverages. There’s an immaculate Gentleman’s Lounge, where yes women are allowed, plush with carpeted floors and leather chesterfield sofas you can easily imagine reclining into with a tiny port glass in hand.

Upstairs, at the end of the hallway on the top floor there is a David Lynch like red curtain. And if you peek behind the curtain? You will see an old stone wall. And behind the old stone wall?
Ten missing bedrooms. Yes, the Criterion Hotel is missing ten bedrooms.

The missing bedrooms are suspected to have been empty and derelict for a long, long time. Marise and Herbert have a long term plan to take over the blocked off turf and return it to its former glory.

During the refurbishment, the original door numbers were uncovered. The original Room 1 is now 22, as a result of these missing rooms. Spookily, there was never a Room 13. There still isn’t.

Marise suspects the mystery behind these bedrooms has helped to fuel the rumours of hauntings at The Criterion. Existing as a hotel since the 1870s, there’s a lot of stories floating around about The Criterion, many of them ghostly. One guest reportedly heard mysterious clomping footsteps that got him out of bed twice while being alone on the premises and others have felt pushes while standing on the top of the stairs.

Chills have been experienced, particularly close to the red curtain at the end of the hallway, but Marise and Herbert have only ever had a good night’s sleep at The Criterion, “Herbert and I firmly believe that the ghosts are pretty happy with what we’ve done with their hotel, so they give us a good night’s sleep.”

There are more tales waiting at The Criterion to be uncovered. Tales under the floorboards and behind every door. Book a Victorian style vacation to Ōamaru—and make it even more intriguing by staying at The Criterion.

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