We are always looking for a little weekend getaway to escape the predictable rhythms of life at home. For a quick and easy escape, we wind over Rimutaka Hill, crossing the Tararua Ranges to the Wairarapa Region. Only an hours drive from the Wellington CBD, we are greeted by warm sunshine and expansive views of the flat plains on the dry side of the ranges. Wairarapa, meaning glistening waters in Māori, is a rural region known for its wine, olive oil, and sheep and beef cattle production, boutique towns, and a rugged and remote coastline.
Whether you want to hike through the goblin beech trees or climb to the alpine tussocks of Tararua Ranges, walk along the black sand beaches and quirky geologic formations of the isolated coastline, or tool around on single speed bicycles between wine tasting, the Wairarapa has a lot to offer. Here are some of my favorites.
Castlepoint is in the far north of the Wairarapa region. It is one of the furtherest to reach areas from Wellington and is arguably the most scenic. Flanked by dramatic steep cliffs to the south and north, a rocky promontory encloses a lagoon that produces a ridable surf break along a sandy shoreline forming the area known as Castlepoint. Each area has its own distinct personality. It seems that every time we day trip out this way, we explore them in the same order.
I am always drawn to the steep grassy rock promontory that rises like a fin from the southern edge, so we always seem to start there. We follow a gently rising track that follows the same arc as the sandy beach below. The track begins to climb at the base of the fin until reaching a stunning overlook over the lagoon.
A narrow arm of the cliff extends into the sea appearing as though it is reaching for the the lower rocks below to close the gap in the sweeping arc between the two. Despite a small fear that this delicate arm will collapse from under me, I am can’t resist heading out to the edge to enjoy the view.
A narrow track running along the edge of the fin climbs further to endless views of the southern Wairarapa coastline. This area is sparsely settled, consisting of mainly large farm stations and bach settlements near swimmable beaches. Looking north, there is a similar, but less intimate view of the lagoon below.
Descending the fin along the same track, a small rocky shortcut through flax leads to the surf beach. The beach is long and flat and is accessible by car if you have the right style vehicle. Surfers bob in the flat sea until randomly a perfect wave extends the length of the arc guiding them to shore. This area is a great place to spend the day with a picnic lunch between swims. The water always feels so much warmer than the frigid Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington Harbour.
It is a completely different experience exploring the northern cliffs of the Castle Rock to the north. A paved track through coastal flaxes and sedges leads to the light house that sits near the top of an eroded limestone block known as Castle Rock.
This area gets battered by prevailing northerly storms that erode these calcareous limestone and marble cliffs. Rock indentations collect water from waves that pummel this area. If the sea is raging stay away from this area, many have been swept away by powerful waves.
On a fine day it is fun to climb down to explore the reef that is jam packed with fossil fragments that were once part of the sea bed before this area was uplifted. While there are various areas with small ladder access, the patterns of erosion create excellent handholds that allow you to climb down from pretty much anywhere. This area is a popular place for surfcasting. During one of our visits, the fishermen let Brian give it try.
The day always ends with my favorite view that captures the entirety of Castlepoint.
The other gem of Wairarapa is Cape Palliser located on the south coast. A single road hugs the dramatic coastline leading to Māori occupation sites, a candy cane striped lighthouse and largest fur seal colony on Te Ika a Maui north island. Don’t expect to do much swimming swimming here. The sea is generally treacherous even on calm days where the currents can sweep you out. Erosion on this coastline is significant, with homes hanging from cliff edges within in only a few years of being hundreds of feet inland.
On the way to the Cape, check out the small quirky fishing village of Ngawihi. Walk amongst the colorful dozers with painted faces that pull the fishing boats in and out of the water or enjoy a bite to eat at the little food truck, Captains Tail, overlooking the sea.
Up next, the fur seal colony. This cove is the ultimate playground for the seal pups while their parents are off hunting. They belly flop off the rocks to swim and roll in the turquoise waters. I wish I could jump in and join them, they are just so darn cute. Make sure to give wildlife their space here, every year someone gets injured from getting too close. These little ones are surprisingly quick on land. I must admit, I have accidentally gotten too close on an occasion as they blend so well with the surrounding rocks. I now walk with caution when I visit here.
Like many places in NZ, this area is reachable by one long single dead end road, ending at the lighthouse. The Cape Palliser lighthouse was constructed in 1897 and was one of the last to lose its keeper and become automated in 1986. Get ready for a bun burning climb up the roughly 250 steps to the top.
Upon reaching the top, you will be greeted with sweeping views of the colorful bay below.
Mountains and Forests
Not feeling the coast? There are plenty of forested tracks to check out and we still have a lot left to explore. One notably absent destination in this post is Pukaha Mount Bruce, a 940 hectare unfenced wildlife sanctuary in northern Wairarapa. I can’t believe we haven’t made the effort to check out this place yet!
The Tararua Ranges – Mount Holdsworth
As avid trail runners we have made several trips to the Mount Holdsworth (1470 m), running the 24 km Mt Holdsworth – Jumbo circuit just outside the town of Masterton. This is one of the classic tramps in the Tararuas and is nontechnical and fairly straightforward. The track climbs through beech-podocarp forest, before a series of stairs leads to alpine tussocks. I love any track through alpine veg above treeline. We always seem to find our way here at times when the clouds cover the tips of the peaks creating a bit of mystery until they expose sneak peeks of the sunny valley below.
Once reaching the tussocks you are nearly to the highly popular Powell Hut and the summit of mountain. If you are planning an overnight trip, plan on staying at the Powell Hut as the Jumbo Hut is and has been closed for some time. While this hut is packed in the warmer months (so I hear), it is fairly quiet in the winter when storms and treacherous winds sweep through this area.
We recently made an early September trip here and experienced sun, rain, hail and snow in a period of only three hours. The rainbow and views overlooking the valley made the slushy slog up the mountain all worth it. Check out that fine weather below!
The Putangirua Pinnacles are a spectacular geologic feature within the Aorangi Ranges located on the road out to the Palliser lighthouse. You may recognize these towering spires from the movie Lord of the Rings.
These hoodoos were formed between 7 – 9 million years ago when the mountains eroded scree and gravel that washed down to the coast. The Putangirua Streams exposed the ancient layer of gravel with some of the sediments remaining concreted together to form the pinnacles.
There are several walking tracks that weave through these features. Just be cautious as chunks of gravel still fall from the tips of the hoodoos. Be sure to check out one of the tracks that expose views of the feature from above. While they don’t compare to the hoodoos in Utah or the pinnacles of the Coromandel, they are certainly worth the stop.
Martinborough is a charming little town in Central Wairarapa famous for its 20 something vineyards that specialize in Pinot Noir…my favorite wine! The central square is filled with architectural charm and host of yummy cafes that serve up the best brunches and coffee in the region. I guess we were eating light the day I took this picture at Cafe Medici, only muffins? For a really good breakfast, I personally recommend heading across the street to OMG. It gets mixed reviews, but they were one their game the day we visited.
With such a flat landscape, this area is best explored by bike, which can be rented complete with side pouches for all of your wine purchases from Green Jersey Bike Hire. However, with wineries in such close proximity to town and each other it seems as though you are only taking a few peddle strokes before reaching the next destination.
I consider myself more of simple wine enjoyer. I am definitely not a connoisseur so my wine recommendations are often about the atmosphere just as much as the taste. I don’t care how fabulous your wine is…if the tasting room feels corporate, I probably won’t be a returning customer. Schubert Wines Limited makes my very favorite wine so no trip to Martinborough would be complete without stopping there. I also highly recommend the wine at Poppies, Cabbage Tree Vineyard, and Tirohana Estate. Check out this rainbow spanning Tirohana, clearly their wine must be fantastic!
However, since I am all about the experience I can’t leave Vynfields Estate and Muirlea Rise off of my list. Wine tasting at Vynfields Estate is a little bit different. Rather than a tasting room, they serve a flight of wine that you can enjoy in a lovely garden or on the porch of the historic house. I quite like the change of pace and beautiful scenery here, though the wine is mediocre at best.
Muirlea Rise is tiny little vineyard owned and operated by Shawn who is such a character. Shawn doesn’t really care about making the same wine every year, he experiments and serves up both his successes and failures without apologies. I mainly go here just to hang out with Shawn, but we always come home with a bottle or two.
If you are hungry or you just need some food to soak up all of your wine tasting, both Poppies and Tirohana are popular lunch destinations. However, you might get stuck sitting inside there so we often head to the Vineyard Cafe. Here you can sit outside and overlook the vines while soaking up the Wairarapa sunshine. They also have pretty yummy food and serve up some decent wine.
Off The Beaten Path
Exploring beyond the usual suspects, we found a few hidden gems worth noting.
It is no secret that NZ borrows everything from the motherland, even Stonehenge! Yes folks, in the middle of nowhere Wairarapa there is a full-scale working adaptation of Stonehenge. This open-sky observatory is not a replica of the ancient moment, but a modern interpretation, built specifically for its location in the Wairarapa.
Twenty-four pillars form a 30 meter diameter circle complete with gigantic clock, calendar, and the seven sisters which show where Matariki rises. This place is bizarre in the best kind of way.
Honeycomb Rocks is an outcrop of rocks named for its cell-like weathered pattern that looks just like a honeycomb. Apparently there is little know about the process of this type of weathering, it is unlike anything I have ever seen.
The journey to the rocks is a bizarre one. The entire walking track is within the privately-owned Glenburn Station. While the track has views of the coast along the route, most of the hike is through paddocks where you will need to dodge cows and their waste of course. Make sure to watch where you are walking.
While it is ‘a thing’ to hike through paddocks here, I am not a fan. But then just as I was seriously regretting choosing this destination we arrived at the rock surrounded only by a seal colony basking in the sun. The rock is pretty impressive, well worth the time in the paddocks.
White Rock is a random metamorphic rock that rises out the surrounding sandy beach. Located about an hour east of Martinborough, the journey out to White Rock takes you through a narrow valley, passing NZ’s first commercial windfarm at Hau Nui, before traveling through White Rock Station. Although most of the station is grazed there are considerable mānuka-kānuka stands used to raise bees for honey.
I have seen countless pictures of this rock and it is in fact white. However, during a rain storm on a gloomy day, the rock looks more like it should be named Grey Rock. It must have simply been trying to fit in with the sand and sky.
The remoteness of the beach, the solitude of the rock, and rough sea crashing against it makes this very wild and scenic. I imagine that a day spent here enjoying the sunshine while watching surfers would be incredible. However, the wind on this day made our trip here rather short. We walked the beach, checked out the rock, and challenged ourselves to see how far we could lean into the wind. My partner is achieving a pretty impressive angle in the picture below.