Wellington to Martinborough Road Trip with a side trip to Cape Palliser

Tararua Ranges

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!”

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.