Wairarapa wonders holiday ramble

Castlepoint Lighthouse
Twelve months ago HELEN PERRY spent three nights in the charming village of Greytown. It wasn’t long enough! A second visit was called for so she and husband returned during the recent Christmas break to explore further.

My initial short visit to Wairarapa set up a determination to see more of this lovely part of New Zealand. As soon as Covid lockdowns permitted, we began planning a return trip. Then, when a family wedding in Whanganui was set down for a few days after Christmas, it seemed the ideal opportunity to keep travelling.

This time we booked a five-night stay at Margrain Vineyard Villas, ($215 per night) walking distance to Martinborough village and also boasting its own tasting room and popular café.

Our daughter and her family came too although they opted for a camping ground cabin at Greytown, about 10-15 minutes drive away. They soon agreed with us that the region was special.

Being an outdoor family the ‘kids’ were keen to explore local walking trails and subsequently took in tracks at the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre on SH2 north of Masterton (the bird sanctuary is a ‘must see’), Waiohine Gorge, Cape Palliser Lighthouse and the spectacular Putangirua Pinnacles.

I’m ashamed to say I was not that energetic although I was disappointed not to visit the gorge with its very long, somewhat frightening but amazing suspension bridge plus beautiful falls. Instead, on that day we opted to visit Castlepoint.

At nearly 110 kilometres from Martinborough (a round trip of about three hours driving), the Castlepoint journey was not as successful as expected. The drive was pretty but on arrival, the shoreline was packed with cars, worse than anything I’ve encountered around Auckland’s waterfront, Maraetai or even Mt Maunganui on a sun-drenched day.

There was absolutely nowhere to park so we spent only a short time admiring the ocean and the lighthouse before turning around and driving back to nearby Whakataki Hotel, (also known as the Castlepoint Hotel & Guesthouse).

This old-style country pub soon revealed a shaded garden bar, cool dining room and a family-friendly menu. We were soon tucking into a generous corn and bacon stack accompanied by a very cold and very welcome beer – the temperature that day reached a humid 32 degrees celsius!

Beautiful as Castlepoint was I felt I would rather have seen it when less well populated, perhaps on a clear autumn day! Nevertheless, we enjoyed the drive.

On the other hand, our journey next day to Cape Palliser, and then Lake Ferry, was a treat. There was little traffic on the road and I was soon taken by the stunning Cape Palliser coastline – rugged and unspoilt. The sky was cloudless, the sea, deep, deep blue; we could see all the way across the water to ranges in the South Island. If I win Lotto I’m buying a bach there… and a helicopter!

Arriving in the small fishing village of Ngawi, our family headed to Cape Palliser Lighthouse, which has stood on the cliffs since 1897. However, I wasn’t going to climb the 253 steps to see her up close! Instead the nearby seal colony kept me fascinated for some good time.

By parking on the roadside reserve, visitors had many vantage points from where they could watch the seals and their young just metres away on rocky outcrops – fascinating and surely a thrill for city-siders who seldom venture beyond their urban surrounds.

We did note sightseers were asked not to approach or feed the seals and everyone appeared most respectful of these breeding families.

Finally, we left our seal watching and headed back along the coast down to the Lake Ferry while our adventurous family set off to see the Putangirua Pinnacles and its incredible rock formations which had a starring role in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Indeed, like many others, they were awed by the grandeur but suggested those making the hike should do so in the morning and not the heat of the day – stout shoes are called for!

While they were experiencing new heights, husband and I were sitting down for lunch at Lake Ferry Hotel. The water views were lovely but, in my mind, did not compare to that wonderful Cape Palliser coastline.

Our burger and fries proved generous and the setting pleasant although, unfortunately, the whitebait fritters and scallops both appeared on the menu after we had eaten. I asked why and was told that to relieve pressure on the kitchen these meals had been taken off during the busiest service period. Very disappointing.

After two relatively long days of sightseeing (and driving) we opted to follow up with a leisurely day of wine tasting in Martinborough and, naturally, took up a complimentary wine tasting at Margrain Vineyard where we had previously enjoyed the café’s outdoor setting and lunch menu.

As a result we came away with five bottles of wine – all white which, for we red wine drinkers, was a coup for the vineyard. We especially enjoyed the Margrain riesling, off-dry, minimal sweetness and boasting a meld of aromas – perfect with summer salads and lashings of smoky salmon.

I was also surprised by a wine I had never sampled but which I happily popped into my suitcase. The medium-dry, grüner veltliner, with a mere hint of sweetness, really appealed as did Margrain’s crisp pinot gris. Both to be enjoyed as summer’s heat puts my penchant for shiraz on the back burner.

Wine tasting aside, no holiday is complete without dining at local restaurants. On New Year’s Eve we celebrated at the most accommodating Cool Change Restaurant & Bar in the heart of Martinborough village.

As we had young children we opted for an early dinner. Service and food were excellent and that’s when we enjoyed our first sampling of local wines. In particular, I, who is not a big pinot noir fan, really enjoyed the Te Tera Pinot Noir from the Martinborough vineyard.

Another venue I recommend is Tonic – casual, indoor/outdoor flow and a simple, inexpensive menu for those on a budget (like us). We dined there twice at night and once for breakfast.

Initially, a bit sceptical about the limited menu, any doubts, were soon dispelled. Strangely, it was the pork belly – a dish I usually avoid – which won favour with us all.

Thinly sliced, served on a bed of sautéed cabbage with a side of crispy roast potatoes it was neither fatty or too much. Likewise, the chicken breast with seasonal veggies was given the thumbs up.

We dined out most nights but quickly realised it paid to book if staying in Martinborough or Greytown. Not all restaurants were open at night, and very few vineyards cafes offered evening dining. It would have been easy to end up with takeaways instead of relaxing on a terrace enjoying, good food, company and perhaps music.

While I could keep on about the Wairarapa and its many attractions, space is limited but I must mention Stonehenge Aotearoa. New Zealand’s only open-air observatory, built to resemble Stonehenge in England, it is architecturally intriguing by day and it is also possible to experience a star safari at night.

In addition, there are an abundance of popular biking trails, various museums covering the likes of art, history, rail and our rural heritage or our colonial past, not to mention tours of the Tui Brewery at Mangatainoka near Paihiatua as well as interesting shopping.

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to Martinborough and all its charm, let alone miss out on Wairarapa’s many other attractions. That’s why I know another journey south is on the cards. When? I’m not sure; I’m just hoping it will be soon!