A trip to Wairarapa

For a relatively compact place, the Wairarapa district is brimming with charm. Snug between the Remutaka and Tararua Ranges and bordered by the rugged southern coast, you can be as busy or as idle as you fancy, with cycling, surfing, hiking, and shopping all on the menu.

Or perhaps you’d prefer to taste your way around the district because wine and food are something of a speciality in these parts.

Exploring the seashore

Lighthouse at Cape Palliser

As for those bracing beaches, from Cape Palliser to Castlepoint, exploring the seashore is bound to blow out the cobwebs. With swags of convivial places to stay—among them a plethora of colonial B&Bs—this region is also welcoming to motorhomes, and the adventurous campervan captain can seek out some remarkable spots to park up and put on the billy.

To come to grips with what makes the Wairarapa so captivating, hop aboard a Cape Palliser Explorer Tour with Joe Howells from Green Jersey.


View from the Cape Palliser Lighthouse

Catering to small groups, Joe’s knowledge of geology, the natural world, Maori history, and the impact of colonial settlers makes for an enlightening outing, plus, he can manoeuvre his vehicle into a few spots you mightn’t risk in your camper.

Joe is a third generation Wairarapa-ite and he companionably shares his years of accumulated knowledge as he navigates the blustery coastal roads. One of my favourite historical characters was John Martin who arrived in New Zealand a penniless Irish orphan.


But, thanks to his hardworking, frugal nature, he made a fortune, which allowed him to do fabulously eccentric things such as take a big group of friends and family on a tour of Europe aboard one of his own steamships.

And when he designed Martinborough—with the streets radiating out from the town square like the stripes of a Union Jack—he named those streets for some of the places he’d visited on that journey, from Dublin to Naples, Panama to Texas, even New York and Venice; must’ve been one heck of a tour.

Seal pup

As we drove through the countryside, Joe pointed out a remnant podicarp forest while explaining the mind-boggling business of geology, and how an extraordinary rate of uplift was responsible for creating the giant white cliffs that border the ocean today.

At Lake Ferry, we stopped to admire the remarkable shoreline, strewn with the bleached bones of driftwood. As we continued along the rugged rocky coast, sturdy little shacks clung fast to the land and less sturdy tracts of road appeared to be in danger of subsiding into the tide.

Elisabeth Easther and Joe Howells stride along the shores of Lake Ferry

The fur seal colony at Cape Palliser is a delight for wildlife photographers, but don’t get too close, for all their cute whiskers and button eyes, they are wild animals and can be very territorial, especially when protecting their young.

Bulldozer Hulks at Ngawi

The novel wee hamlet of Ngawi is also worth braking for, with its rusting old graveyard of bulldozer hulks. And if you’ve got your clubs on-board, stop to play a round at the windblown Have-A-Hit nine-hole golf course where one tee can be found beneath a 100,000-gallon water tank.

Friskier visitors will want to stretch their legs with a walk up to the towering Putangirua Pinnacles. The Lookout Walk takes 90 minutes while the longer Loop Track is closer to four hours.

The Pinnacles Riverbed

Reminiscent of Turkey’s fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, the landscape is utterly eerie and interpretation panels help put the looming pillars, known as hoodoos, into perspective. Sharp-eyed Peter Jackson fans will recognise them as having stood in for the Paths of the Dead in The Return of the King.

And the piece-de-resistance—the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. Two hundred and forty-nine steps to the base by my reckoning, and your efforts will be rewarded with majestic views, the deafening roar of the wind, and the calling of seabirds as they settle down for the evening. It’s quite the cacophony.

The stairs leading up to Cape Palliser Lighthouse

Then, with your head full of tales of shipwrecks and rocks, of pioneers and nature’s authority, set a course for Lake Ferry and, either settle in at the historic Lake Ferry Hotel for fish and chips, or get cosy inside your strategically parked motorhome and marvel as the sky lights go up and the sun goes down.

Wairarapa wineries

Premium wines can be tasted at Poppies Martinborough

The Wairarapa is also renowned for viticulture and there are numerous ways to explore the world of wine. One of the region’s smallest vineyards, Stonecutter Estate makes an excellent place to begin your education.

Vintner Nicola Belsham offers lessons among the vines with her Tips & Tricks tutorial. Learn how the great growing conditions are thanks to the limestone cliffs, deep draining alluvial soils, and a low rainfall. These elements combine to cause the grapes to suffer, which is apparently what they like. Rather them than me.

Nicola Belsham of Stonecutter Estates in Martinborough

With just four hectares of vines that are all harvested by hand, Nicola is a bona fide wine whisperer and, as part of her field studies, her students are taught how to taste and how to extract maximum aroma and flavour from a glass, so as to create a tasting note library in the mind.

And because memory and smell are such close neighbours in our brains, sipping wine is often accompanied by an emotional response. And the wine in your glass, it’s not just a convivial tipple, it’s also an expression of the time and place it was made.

Another favourite on the Martinborough wine-tasting scene, Poppies is bustling year round. Named for Poppy Hammond, this vivacious fresh-faced temptress is eager to share her enthusiasm for all things viticultural.

Poppy and Shayne Hammond

With platters designed to match her wines, Poppy’s enthusiasm is as appealing as the victuals themselves and her various vintages have become so popular, the only place you can buy them is at the cellar door.

“Vines,” Poppy explains, “are like people, and they get wiser and more interesting with age.” I think most of us will drink to that and, aside from grapes and hard slog, one of the things that make Poppy’s wines so popular is the generous helping of love that goes into each bottle.

Upon reflection, I’m not sure what tickled my fancy most about the Wairarapa. Was it all the things I could do? All the things I could see and learn? Or all the things I could eat
and drink? It’s really quite the conundrum. Although in reality, it surely boils down
to the amiable locals who call the place home.

Cape Palliser Coastal Explorer Tour

  • Run by Green Jersey Explorer Tours, all Cape Palliser Explorer Tours include a picnic or pub lunch and the services of an engaging, informative guide; greenjersey.co.nz
  • Stonecutter Wine Tips and Tricks Tours Join Nicola as she shares her knowledge of wine among the wines; stonecutter.co.nz
  • Poppies, Martinborough Enjoy a lively lunch in Poppy’s elegant tasting emporium; poppiesmartinborough.co.nz

Superb places to park the camper

The Wairarapa welcomes motorhomes, and, aside from the Department of Conservation campgrounds where campers can park, here are some top spots to park up. There are also a number of freedom camping sites dotted along Palliser Bay.

  • Lake Ferry Holiday Park—lakeferryholidaypark.co.nz
  • Waimeha Camping village—waimehacamping.co.nz
  • Castlepoint Holiday Park—castlepoint.co.nz
  • Martinborough Top Ten Holiday Park—martinboroughholidaypark.com
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