As the darling buds of spring start to reveal their colours, and our famed vineyards exhibit green shoots of seasonal promise, it’s a refreshing time for road-tripping the Wairarapa. I pointed the car north from Wellington, traversing the dramatic and intimidating slopes of the Rimutaka Ranges. From Featherston, turn off State Highway 2 onto State Highway 53.
Martinborough beckons with the bucolic sight of South Wairarapa’s broad expanse of farmland, lush and golden in the late afternoon sunlight. Within minutes, the wide verandah-lined main street signals your arrival into the bountiful township, that is one of New Zealand’s booming “minibreak” meccas. Encircled by boutique vineyards, this elegant and historic village is a gourmand’s delight with a vast palette of wining and dining possibilities.
Martinborough’s street design, struck me as an attraction in its own right. Look carefully, and you’ll notice that eight streets converge on the town square, deliberately laid out to form a Union Jack. (No flag-inspired street revamps are pending, here.) Immigrant John Martin was responsible for this masterly design in 1879, and many of the streets were named in honour of his favourite international destinations, including New York, Venice, Cork and Panama.
The Martinborough Hotel
The township’s showpiece property is the cream-coloured grand dame, the Martinborough Hotel. This grand hostelry was built in 1882 and has been extensively restored to its former glory. The property celebrates its rich history with sumptuous antique furnishings and a wonderful collection of sketches of local personalities from over the decades, adorning its walls. 16 individually designed rooms open out onto the wide verandah or flower-filled courtyard. This boutique hotel is synonymous with old-school comfort, with luxurious fabrics and linens, plump in-room armchairs and bathrooms loaded with all the indulgent touches.
Whether you’re a resident guest or not, pop into the hotel’s fabulous bar to meet the locals and sample the nerve-centre of Martinborough social life.
The cosy open fire, antique oak table, wine barrels, posh pub nosh and local wines all help deliver an enchanting experience. A more extensive and fine dining menu is available in the chandeliered-setting of the hotel’s refined formal restaurant.
Martinborough Wine Trails
Across the road, the leafy town square is a tranquil little sanctuary, ideally located for a cheeky nap and chance to soak up the village vibe. “Boutique” encapsulates the life and soul of Martinborough. And over the past few decades the region has firmly made its mark on the world wine map, largely due to its exquisite Pinot Noir.
With around 50 wineries pepper-potting the region, the most striking feature of the wineries is their compact nature. Many are family-owned, and some are so “boutique”, that they could be housed on your front lawn.
Start your wine trail with an introductory tasting at the Martinborough Wine Centre. Housed in what was once the largest single span building in Australasia, this fabulous gabled structure showcases a panoply of varieties. If you don’t have a nose for Pinot Noir – don’t despair, Martinborough also produces excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Bordeaux blends. Around 30 wineries are within walking distance of the main street, a novelty of exceptional appeal. For those a little further out of town there is a great variety of winery tours which means everyone can enjoy the wines.
Alternatively, pedaling your way from winery to winery is an increasingly popular pursuit, and you can choose between guided and self-guided cycling tours. With an overwhelming number of wineries to choose from, time could well be your biggest enemy. Here are my pet picks from the vine.
Martinborough Vineyard, one of the original producers, is very close to town and specialises in pinot noir. Palliser Estate Wines is one of the nation’s most successful global-players, and their superb winery is centrally located in Kitchener St.
Te Kairanga Wines
Te Kairanga Wines has a gorgeous 130 year old workers’ cottage, and you can picnic under the trees. And the family owned Tirohana Estate is a divine boutique winery with fabulous gardens.
Further out on the horizon, on the first Saturday of February and March, the square is commandeered by a cast of thousands for the acclaimed Martinborough Fair, which has wowed the crowds for well over 30 years. An extraordinary array of local arts, crafts and gourmet produce are lustily displayed and sold from the hundreds of stalls.
Martinborough is also the perfect launch-pad to survey the rugged splendour of the Wairarapa coastline ( immortalised in Lord of the Rings), the Cape Palliser lighthouse and the burgeoning seal colony. A thirty minute drive west brings you to cottage-laden Greytown- the former centre of the Wairarapa. This photogenic town is home to Cobblestones pioneer museum, a truly exceptional assemblage of historic buildings and antique machinery. And don’t miss Greytown’s sumptuous temptation, Schoc Chocolate, which creates radically creative sweets to rock your taste-buds. Be sure to try their lime-chilli choccies!
Treat yourself to self-drive escape into the heart of the Wairapa. Thrifty Car Rental offers exceptionally good deals, with handy locations in the capital, from the airport, ferry terminal or CBD .