Unless you’ve come especially for the Easter Bunny Hunt or the springtime Blossom Festival and NZ Merino Shearing Championships, the main reason to visit unassuming Alexandra is mountain biking. It's the biggest Central Otago Rail Trail settlement by far, offering more eating and sleeping options than the rest of the one-horse (or fewer) towns on the route.
Lauder, Omakau & Ophir
Separated by 8km of SH85, tiny Lauder (population 12) and larger Omakau (population 250) are good stops if you’re a hungry Rail Trailer with a sore bum and in need of a feed and a bed. However, the area's real gem is adorable Ophir (population 58), 2km from Omakau across the Manuherikia River.
Much more charming than his buddy Alex, 8km down the road, Clyde looks more like a 19th-century gold-rush film set than a real town. Set on the banks of the emerald-green Clutha River, Clyde retains a friendly, small-town feel, even when holidaymakers arrive in numbers over summer. It’s also at one end of the Otago Central Rail Trail.
With the Rock & Pillar Range as an impressive backdrop, the small town of Middlemarch is the terminus of both the Taieri Gorge Railway and the Otago Central Rail Trail. It's famous in NZ for the Middlemarch Singles Ball (held across Easter in odd-numbered years), where southern men gather to entice city gals to the country life.
After a series of fires in the 1930s, Ranfurly was rebuilt in the architectural style of the day, and a few attractive art-deco buildings still line its sleepy main drag. The teensy town is trying hard to cash in on this meagre legacy, calling itself the 'South Island's art deco capital'.
In the heart of the Central Otago fruit bowl, Roxburgh is an oversized village surrounded by apple and stone-fruit orchards. The main attractions for visitors are mountain biking on the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold trails, water sports on Lake Roxburgh and seasonal fruit-picking work.
A worthwhile 17km detour north from SH85 heads into the foothills of the imposing Dunstan Mountains and on to diminutive St Bathans. This once-thriving gold-mining town of 2000 people is now home to only half a dozen permanent residents living amid a cluster of cutesy 19th-century buildings, almost all of which have 'For Sale' signs in front of them.