The Wairarapa – a Maori name meaning ‘glistening waters’ and a reference mainly to the region’s beautiful lake – is a rather lovely but often overlooked corner of New Zealand. The good news is that the Wairarapa vineyards are easily reached by rail or an hour’s drive from Wellington. They are close enough to the capital to be included in day trips and side visits from the city but it has more than enough to make it a destination in its own right. Stunning coast, wonderful walks, plenty of history and highly protected but easily accessible wildlife in a variety of natural settings – it’s all here.
Planted at the heart of the New Zealand Classic Wine Trail, this area is perhaps best known for its vineyards of which there are more than 50. There are plenty of cellar doors to check out and many of the wineries have cafes and restaurants attached where the lovely views tend to come as a standard inclusion.
When the sun is shining touring the vineyards and olive groves of the Martinborough area by bike is a great way to spend a few hours – no super fitness required. The country lanes around here tend to be of the flat, minimum-pedal-power-needed variety. However if you do relish 2-wheel challenges you might like to consider biking the Rimutaka Cycle Trail which runs for 115 km to and through some of the best bits of the Wairarapa from Petone in Wellington.
The little oasis of tranquillity which is Lake Wairarapa itself – just a little smaller than Lake Rotorua – is a place where many simply come just to be; enough in itself when the scenery is as lovely as this. If you want to be more active however you can kayak or walk the network of trails with every possibility you won’t see another soul, if that’s the way you like it.
Those interested in history are going to have plenty to keep them occupied in this region. Gems are dotted everywhere and include the famous Martinborough Hotel dating from 1882; Featherstone’s WWII POW camp which is today the site of a memorial garden; Fell Engine Museum and the picturesque Carterton Railway Station. For a concentration of times-past type experiences head to Greytown with its entire Victorian main street. At the height of summer the very real business folk behind these old-style shop fronts don period costume to truly bring the bygone age to life.
Should you be of a certain age, it will prove impossible to browse the many antique and Aladdins Cave-like curio shops without finding yourself saying ‘oh I used to have one of those’.
If you still haven’t had your historical fix you can head to the Cobblestones Museum where the re-sited but original buildings include church, hospital, wool-shed and early settler cottage – among other delights – all set out exactly as they would have been in the age in which they hail from.
Those looking to escape into nature are going to be somewhat spoiled in an area which has hardly any people but huge wide open spaces; all this on the doorstep of Wellington but feeling a million miles away from anything urban-related.
There is some truly stunning coastline around here and environments suitable for all kinds of outdoor fun and beach time. There is the sweeping sandy bay of Castlepoint where you can swim, fish or take a walk to the lighthouse; there is the scenic drama of Palliser Bay, which also has a pretty lighthouse, bracing cliff-top walks, the curiously sculpted Putangirua Pinnacles and seals aplenty at the permanent colony on Cape Palliser. If this kind of thing floats your boat and you’re happy to play at explorer there are all kinds of treasures of the natural type to be discovered – all you need is a schedule-free day and your own transport.
An absolutely not-to-be-missed experience for nature buffs is the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre, at the region’s border with the Hawke’s Bay area – an establishment laying claim to the country’s most successful breeding centre title. Rare and wonderful are the species protected here including the tuatara with its ancient lineage, the iconic kiwi and other flightless birds. Additionally there are a range of talks and guided tours available including the ever-popular nocturnal tour complete with glow worm sites and the chance of spotting a kiwi if you’re super lucky.
And there’s actually lots more. Come to the Wairarapa for a few hours and end up spending a few days……you wouldn’t be the first.
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