Wairarapa/Martinborough sprawls along the southeast coast. It was one of the first sheep grazing regions in the country and is now a premium wine area especially loved by the locals for its rolling vineyards, quaint towns and untamed coastline. The area is named after Lake Wairarapa which means “glistening waters,” in Maori. The land was once densely forested, requiring early settlers to struggle in creating farms by clearing bush and bringing in sheep from Australia, establishing sheep stations and dairy farms. The rich soil and climate proved to be ideal for growing grapes and wine making became the leading industry of the region. In addition to its wines, this region offers scenic vistas inland and along the rugged coastline.
When to Visit
Remember that the New Zealand seasons are opposite to those in the Northern Hemisphere, winter in the north is summer in New Zealand. This region is located at the southeast tip of the North Island. The climate is mild, resembling the Marlborough area more than Hawke’s Bay. Going during the off seasons of winter (mid-June through August and spring (September through November) one avoids the high season cost and crowds. The other advantage to going off season is that wineries in the region are boutiques with small productions and by the end of the summer high season most of the popular varietals are sold out. Climate-wise the best time to visit is from November through April when the weather is warmest and driest, but there will be more crowds to contend with.
There are five major towns in this area, running from Masterton at the northern end to Wellington in the south. While they vary in size and locale, all offer a delightful range of things to do and see.
The largest town in the region is named after Joseph Masters, the founder of the Small Farm Association whose mission was to place laborers on their own farms. Its claim to fame is the International Golden Sheep Shearing Competition held each year in the first week of March (www.goldenshears.co.nz). The town also has a lovely park named after Queen Elizabeth II with trees as old as the town, a lovely complex of gardens, streams, aviary and deer park.
A small beachside town named by Captain Cook. A must see for local kiwis as well as tourists and well worth the detour. This town is one of the most picturesque locations along the Wairarapa coast. There are a number of walks one can take. You can go to a limestone cave, climb the huge Castle Rock, stroll along the long stretch of beach and visit a sheltered lagoon perfect for fishing, surfing and jet skiing. You can cross the bridge on a short boardwalk to the old Castlepoint lighthouse built in 1913 and the last manned lighthouse to be built in New Zealand. Besides people, Castlepoint is also visited by several species of dolphins and fur seals. There is a store, tearoom and restaurant.
This is a favorite weekend destination for local Wellingtonians as well as tourists. This town was founded in 1854 and named after Governor Sir George Grey, who was known for his efforts in addressing the Maori problem of land rights. New Zealand’s first planned inland town, it sits among mature trees with wonderful examples of classic Victorian architecture. Many of these houses contain art galleries, antique shops and charming cafes.
This is the most popular destination for weekenders from Wellington so weekdays are the best time to enjoy the town and wineries while avoiding the weekend local crowds. Named after local merchant Sir John Martin who designed the town’s streets in the form of the Union Jack with eight streets radiating from the central square. The streets are named after places he visited during a world tour. With more than 30 wineries surrounding Martinborough it is the center of wine tasting activity in the area and famous for its Pinot Noir.
The main activity for the Martinborough area is wine tasting, but Wellington is only one and one-half hours away by car. One local described this city as the San Francisco of New Zealand, with its huge harbor, steep hills and windy weather. It is the arts capital of the country as well as its seat of government. Home to the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and a number of professional theater groups. The city is compact and very walkable, with excellent shops, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and a lively jazz scene. Wellington is also a major transportation hub and a departure port for ferries to the South Island.