The scenery of the southern Wairarapa is ruggedly dramatic: rolling tablelands end abruptly and form high textured cliffs which plummet to meet the seaweed and driftwood-strewn coastline; the Rimutaka Ranges cast shadows over the shimmering expanse of Lake Wairarapa; and to the north the Tararua Ranges tower over fertile plains. At the centre of all this wonderful scenery is Martinborough, a town dubbed NZ’s pinot noir capital and one that is well known not only for its quality wines, but also for its top winemakers who have earned international recognition for their award-winning pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. We take two days to explore the region and visit Cape Palliser lighthouse, meet seals on the beach, dine on crayfish and delicious green-lipped mussels, call into the cellars of several of Martinborough’s top vineyards, follow the local arts trail and take an unforgettable quad bike ride on Lachie McLeod’s farm.
We leave Wellington in the early morning and reach Featherston, the gateway to the Wairarapa, by 9.30 am. Breakfast – stacks of Vogel’s toast washed down with copious cups of tea – is enjoyed in a good old fashioned kiwi tearoom on the main street. “Have you seen the Fell engine?” enquires our waitress when she delivers a fresh pot of steaming tea to our table, “It’s the only one left in the world.”
We decide to stretch our legs around the museum after breakfast and discover that it houses not only the fell engine, the sole survivor of the rolling stock of the Rimutaka Incline, but also an incline brake van and many other items of railroad memorabilia.
From Featherston we head south, skimming the shores of Lake Wairarapa - the largest wetlands in the lower North Island and home to both native and migratory birds - before crossing the Ruamahanga River to Lake Ferry.
This small settlement has views overlooking the pounding waves of Palliser Bay and across the tranquil waters of Lake Onoke. The lake is fed with fresh water from the Ruamahanga River and is sheltered from the ocean by a narrow sandy spit. Bob and I kick off our shoes and walk the length of the spit - the contrast between the two is quite astounding.
Before we leave town Bob, ever mindful of his stomach, makes a note that the hotel serves steamed green-lipped mussels, “Let’s come back for lunch,” he says.
We drive slightly inland before meeting the coast again at the Putangirua Pinnacles, where we hike upstream to these huge, organ pipe-like columns which were formed over the past 120,000 years by heavy rain washing away silt and sand to expose the underlying bedrock. Bob takes several photos and on the return we notice that there’s also a small amount of erosion on the rocks above the car park – they provide an ideal glimpse for visitors who are unable to hike in to see the pinnacles.
In Ngawi, a picturesque fishing village located at the base of the towering Aorangi Range, we’re greeted by rows of rusty, brightly-painted bulldozers parked on the beach. We watch the fishermen as they haul sturdy fishing boats ashore using the bulldozers and then stack crayfish pots in neat piles around the village.
“The seafood looks promising,” remarks Bob, as we pass wooden houses surrounded by wire fences which are draped with strings of faded buoys.
Shortly before Cape Palliser Lighthouse Bob spots some seals lazing on the rocky shore and we stop to admire these beautiful beasts, making certain that we keep the recommended ten metre gap between us and them.
“They’re a lot bigger than I’d imagined,” says Bob, cautiously pulling out his camera as a seal raises his head and warily opens one eye to see who his visitors are.
Above the beach, high on the edge of a weather beaten cliff, the lighthouse stands sentry. It was constructed in 1896 from materials brought here by boat, as there was no road for many years.
We hike the 258 extremely steep steps to the top from where, at the southernmost point of the North Island, we gain magnificent views across the wide boiling expanse of Cook Strait to the snow-capped mountains of Kaikoura. Thunderous surf crashes onto the rocks below and sends sheets of salt-laden spray flying. As we gaze across the windswept horseshoe of Palliser Bay, it’s hard to believe that these shores provided the principle point of access for early European settlers to the region.
“It’s rugged but breathtaking,” says Bob, as we watch the spaghetti-like kelp weave a never-ending pattern.
We return along the coast enjoying reverse views of the picturesque coastline and stop in for a late lunch at the hotel in Lake Ferry. Bob chooses the crayfish while I have the deliciously fresh, steamed green-lipped mussels before we drive inland to Martinborough, a peaceful town where life revolves around a leafy town square. There are many notable buildings built around the square which have been restored to their former glory, including the landmark Martinborough Hotel. We check into stylish rooms and then head across the road to the Martinborough Wine Centre, a good first stop in this town for those planning to discover local wines. Here we learn that the district’s dry alluvial river terraces provide ideal conditions for growing healthy vines. This combined with low rainfall and a temperate climate - hot summer days and reliable dry autumns - encourages winemakers to hang their grapes later and results in a more intense flavour with no obvious loss in acidity.
We sample wine styles from a variety of local vineyards, choose our favourites then head out to explore - armed with a copy of the Martinborough wine trail map.
Our journey begins at Te Kairanga vineyard. The site upon which this vineyard stands was the first place in Martinborough to be planted in vines. The cellar door is positioned in sheltered gardens and here we meet Catherine Hannagan, who guides us through our tasting. A local through and through she tells us that she was in Martinborough before the vineyards started. Impressed with their Pinot Noir - not to mention Catherine’s friendly manner - Bob purchases a couple of bottles.
Then we call into Ata Rangi and Chifney vineyards where we enjoy a tasting, and on to Martinborough Vineyard where we strike it lucky and delight in a relaxed conversation with winemaker, Claire Mulholland. She tells us that she has spent several vintages overseas – three in France, two harvests in the US and one in Australia. “You learn something from every harvest,” she says, going on to explain how vine age influences the depth of structure in wine. “Our vineyards in NZ are still very young compared to anything in Europe,” she says.
We pass Benfield and Delamare where workers are busy ‘tucking in’ the vines and then at Winslow we strike a rapport with Jenny, who, as well as producing wine with her husband Steve, works as an artist and is well known for her mixed media masks. ‘Petra’, a stunning mask on the wall behind the tasting bar features on their Cabernet label. “Steve and I bought the property 20 years ago,” she says, “Three paddocks and a couple of cows. It’s been a lot of work. Our wines must be exceptional to compete with the big wine makers.” But as Bob notes from reading a brochure, even Martinborough’s largest producer, Palliser Estate, began production on a small scale and grew as demand increased, today exporting their wine around the world.
Our wine-tasting tour complete for the day – thank goodness, because as the driver I’m thoroughly tired of tasting and spitting and I feel like I’ve earned a glass of wine – we head to The Martinborough Hotel’s corner Settlers Bar for a pre-dinner drink. Locals have told us that this is the place to rub shoulders with well-known winemakers. Instead we meet a happy-go-lucky group of mud-splattered Wellingtonians who have apparently just returned from quad biking at Wairarapa Quad Bikes. “Haven’t you heard about the tours?” they ask when we enquire, “It’s the best ride in town by far!”
Over a light supper of seafood chowder – fresh fish, mussels, prawns, calamari and summer vegetables bound in a light veloute – in the hotel’s stylish Bistro we decide that quad biking is simply a must-do.
I’m keen to see the magical views described by the group, while Bob, who learnt to ride a quad bike on our West Auckland sojourn, wants to put his new skills to the test, and so we make a double booking for the next afternoon before retiring to our rooms.
After breakfasting on crumpets in-house we decide to spend the morning discovering Martinborough’s boutique stores and arts. We begin with a visit to Artrageous, which has displays of contemporary NZ art and sculpture by local and national artists. Here we admire Scott Tulloch’s wildlife studies and landscapes, but it’s his cartoon series “A Vineyard Year at the Frolicking Pig Estate” that tickles Bob’s fancy and before we leave he purchases a print of a hilarious looking pig pushing a wheelbarrow.
Then we pop into the Barbara A. Ross Studio which specialises in traditional Maori weaving and displays a range of textile art, before calling into Barrows Gallery where there’s further contemporary NZ artworks on display.
A quick visit to the information centre proves there’s no shortage of fun in Martinborough. You can take a spin in a jet boat up the mighty Ruamahanga River with WetnWild, kayak, trek with llamas (if you have a few days up your sleeve), and play golf or golf cross – a revolutionary new game similar to golf but played with an oval ball and goal posts rather than holes to score in!
But for Bob and me, like many other holiday makers, the perfect vacation activity involves the simple act of teaming a good bottle of vino with gourmet food – and in Martinborough it’s unlikely that you will be disappointed. The town boasts a number of fine cafes and restaurants, among them the Flying Fish Café, The Vines on the Square and La Mousse, but if you wish to dine in a vineyard setting there is only one place to go and that’s to Murdoch James Estate. It’s situated on an elevated slope overlooking Martinborough township, the Dry River, and the Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges. It’s a family operation, owned and operated by Jill and Roger Fraser and their son, Carl.
“When we saw the property we realised that we wanted to do more than just have a vineyard,” says Roger when Bob and I turn up for an early lunch.
We sit on a terrace table watching children splash in the sparkling river below. The menu is extensive but centres around fresh seasonal local fare which is organic whenever possible. I try the spinach and goats cheese ravioli with a walnut beurre noir, while Bob goes for the cold smoked salmon with pink grapefruit salad and mandarin yoghurt. Both dishes are divine and the setting is so relaxing we’d be happy to stay all day.
But quad biking calls so we take our leave and drive the short distance to the Martinborough Hotel to join our farm tour with Wairarapa Quad Bikes. Here we’re provided with a helmet, leggings and gumboots and Bob gets me to take several shots of his pristine outfit before we start.
After the training and confidence building course (where Bob gets to show off all he learned in West Auckland) we leave in a convoy, following out across the massive Blue Creek Farm sheep station. The tour follows a stunning steep sided limestone valley up to the very edge of the Aorangi State Forest Park. We then stop for a fun rifle shooting competition, which Bob manages to master, before heading back down the valley for a tour of the spectacular Blue Creek Farm glow worm caves. The day is capped off with some light refreshments before we return to Martinborough.
“That was great fun,” Bob says standing with his hands on his hips smiling at our group of muddy quad bikers.
“How’d you hear ‘bout us?” our tour leader asks Bob, grinning.
“Oh you know,” says Bob about to wipe a dirty smudge from his face then quite clearly deciding against it. “Through the grapevine...”
Please Note: Due to lambing activities on the farms during winter and early spring, Wairarapa Quad Bike tours are unavailable from 1 July to mid-October. Contact them for further details and to check availability.