Wild, rugged and tasty

Martinborough may be home to a mere 1,700 permanent residents but its population seems to triple on warm days when the town awakes from its sleepy rural slumber to the sound of cyclists peddling between wineries.

This remote farming town has been transformed into a wine village and it’s the driest place in the North Island so it makes for an idyllic summer holiday, en route to majestic Castlepoint, the sunny Hawke’s Bay or as a destination in its own right. There is plenty to do and bicycles aplenty from several local hire companies on the main street. Blink and you can’t miss seeing a cycle when driving into this small and charming village. 

The hot summers, bone-chillingly cold winters and semi-continental climate have transformed Martinborough from a dusty farming town to one of the country’s top wine regions. Volumes of Martinborough wine are small and regularly from such minuscule bunches of grapes that it’s hard to imagine any juice being squeezed from them, let alone enough to make a wine industry, but the low volumes equate to high quality. 

Martinborough is the heart and soul of the Wairarapa. The east and south coasts are both relatively close, as are the Tararua Ranges; home to walks that last for one day or several. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Wellington city to the Wairarapa.

The gateway to the region is Featherston, the first stop at the bottom of the steep Remutuka Hill Road. It will come as a pleasant surprise to arrive in Featherston, which is now the country’s only official book town and it is shedding its somewhat dowdy profile of the past.

The number of bookstores per head in this town means it qualifies as a member of the International Organisation of Booktowns (IOB). It’s a big feather in this town’s cap, if you’ll excuse the pun. The bookstores have sparked a local organisation called Booktown which has events through the year. 

Featherston’s once-dilapidated Royal Hotel has been spectacularly renovated, steam-punk style, and is a great place for brunch, lunch, dinner and drinks. 

From there, the Wairarapa is your oyster. It’s a 10-minute drive to Greytown with its shop-lined main street and great bakery, or a 15 to 20 minute car journey to Martinborough. Both are cycle friendly. 

Martinborough is a logical place to start because its back roads make a spectacular journey north after enjoying its village charms. The high-quality pinot noirs from there encapsulate everything that great wine regions stands for. Small wineries dotted around the village are nearly all within walking distance and the quirky range of bikes (single, tandems, bikes for over five people on one vehicle and “croc” bikes) all make peddling more of a team event than a solo journey.  

Stonehenge Aotearora (often referred to as “clone-henge”) is a 20-minute drive away. The south coast and east coast are both about an hour’s drive away through rolling hillside, notable for the absence of human touch, in parts. 

Martinborough was born in the 1870s when Irish immigrant John Martin bought 13,800 hectares of land in the area. He divided the land into smaller portions in the hope of selling it to early settlers, but uptake was slow and by 1898, there were still just 75 people living there. Despite the tiny population then, and today, cultural shift has been profound since the late 1970s when vineyards were planted. 

The region’s first wines were made in 1984 by Ata Rangi, Chifney Wines, Dry River Wines and Martinborough Vineyards, three of which remain. There is also wine made further north at Gladstone in the central Wairarapa, a 30-minute drive north and near to Greytown. 

East coast settlements of Castlepoint and Riversdale offer an idyllic snapshot of a former era, calling to mind 1950s New Zealand and making for beautiful coastal holiday spots. Or you could head to the south coast, home to both modern AirBnB accommodation and camping grounds as well as the fishing village of Ngawi, the pinnacles walkway and Cape Palliser lighthouse. 

A drive to the south coast takes about an hour from Martinborough and one of the best activities there is the walk to the Putangirua Pinnacles. These featured in the Paths of the Dead scene in The Return of the King in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This walk is part of the Aorangi Forest Park and is suitable for all members of the family because it can take minutes or hours – which seems like an apt analogy of the region itself: it’s remote, rural and off the radar but with something to suit everyone from young families to couples and from cyclists to walkers and wine-lovers.

Top tips in the Wairarapa

  • Aratoi: Modern art space with regular exhibitions of both Māori artefacts and modern art, in the centre of Masterton.

  • Castlepoint: Dramatic rock formations make this stunning seaside village worth the winding drive and there is accommodation with great views over the sea. 

  • Cycle the Remutuka Cycle Trail: The trail follows the old railway line up a gentle incline, taking in history along the way. DIY or take a guided tour from one day to five days, which can begin in Wellington or Upper Hutt.

  • Palliser Vineyard & Nara food: Open seven days for cellar door tastings and five days for lunch, Palliser Estate is the first winery on the left on the drive into Martinborough and is now home to Lucy and Dan’s outstanding food truck, Nara. 

  • Gin at Reid + Reid: A new distillery founded by two brothers who formerly made their high-quality gin in a small room. This new distillery opened between lockdowns is now open several days a week for tastings and to purchase gin.

  • White Rock: Surfers’ paradise on the wild east coast, about an hour from Martinborough and, yes, there is a white rock.

  • Stonehenge Aotearoa: Night sky viewings can be booked and visitors can also drive in without booking to see the man-made formation.
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