A friendly farmstand in Greytown, New Zealand. Kurt Jacobson photos. New Zealand’s Wairarapa: A Food and Wine Hotspot on the South Island
By Kurt Jacobson
Cape Palliser view.
If you have been waiting for a reason to visit New Zealand consider the exchange rate has dropped over 25% in the last eighteen months! Now the fun part is deciding where to go. New Zealand has fifteen wine regions and all of them are worth seeing. I recommend the Wairarapa region on the southern end of the North Island. Here is my report from my eighth trip to the land of Kiwis.First stop was wonderful, windy, Wellington for a little sight-seeing and getting used to the time zone change. To make this voyage of discovery a car rental was reserved from Pegasus and picked up at Wellington’s airport. I pointed out the bald left front tire and said I didn’t think that would do. I negotiated a day’s charge removed from the bill, a ride to our Wellington hotel, a new tire and they delivered the car to our hotel the next day.
Creatures from the Hobbit movies in Wellington airport. Always look over your rental car before leaving the facility; something that is not so easy to do after flying twelve or more hours.
After taking delivery the trusty Toyota propelled us over the steep and forested Rimutaka Range on a sunny Thursday morning. Screeching through hair raising hairpin turns we coasted onto the green Wairarapa Valley at Featherston.
Martinborough, Wine Central
We checked into Aylstone Boutique Cottages, walking distance to several Martinbouough wineries and restaurants. The new owners are doing extensive landscaping and flower planting that will no doubt make it even more appealing than it already is.
Our cottage had all the bells and whistles for a luxurious stay. It looked out over a vineyard and had a lovely patio to enjoy the view with a glass of wine close at hand. Aylstone puts you in walking distance to Ata Rangi, Margrain, and other popular vineyards. Poppie’s Restaurant and winery is less than ten minutes’ walk and features excellent wine and a lunch platter not to be missed.
To pace ourselves we only hit three of the twenty-four Martinborough wineries in the first day. Murdoch James was one. At Murdoch James, plan on tasting their excellent wines first, then have lunch at their restaurant-Bloom. My favorite wines were the Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, and the Riesling. It was a warm day perfect for dining out on the deck overlooking the gardens with the Rimutaka Range in the distance. We ordered the hot bread, local olive oil, and a truffle Mascarpone cheese spread.
The Truffle Mascarpone was one of the best things I have ever put on bread! With grLake Ferry Hotel cafe in southern Wairarapa. eat wine, and an excellent starter dish it was a sublime beginning. Next up we ordered a local fish called Tarhiki with potatoes and broccoli. If angels descended from heaven to serve this meal I don’t think it could have been better!
There are some excellent restaurants in Martinborough comparable to any wine region around serving local fare with a creative flair. Since I was the driver a Begging Kaka at Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre second glass of wine was not ordered, but I sure wanted another. When driving New Zealand it pays to drive sober, and have a navigator to keep repeating, “left side”.
A new kind of circus
On our first day in Martinborough I stopped at the Bank of New Zealand to set up an appointment to go over our account. One of the tellers was especially interested in telling us about the area and said the town had an excellent movie theater, called Circus.
I don’t know about you but when I think of small town movie theaters I envision a single out-of-date movie playing in an old beat-up theater.
The teller was positively animated describing Circus so we decided to take a look. The front of the building was nothing special to look at: just a plain white exterior and windows that didn’t expose much of the inside.
First surprise was Instead of just one movie they had six recent films showing. We took mental notes of the films and continued exploring the area for the day. That night we didn’t have dinner plans and ventured to the theater to take a better look.
Inside Circus is a completely different building than the outside portrays. There were black and white movie photos of The Godfather, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Laurel and Hardy decorating the walls. The dining room had a real fireplace and designer touches that made it feel both trendy and homey. The menu was not big, but featured local lamb, seafood, veggies, pizzas, and more.
We ordered the Eggplant Stack entree and the Seafood Chowder with wines by the glass. Everything was excellent, including the service! We decided to stay for a movie and were told we could take food and wine into the theater. They have two theaters; one with thirty-three seats and the other has forty-nine. Plush reclining seats give
Wine at Circus restaurant.
movie goers a tray/wine glass holder to provide comfortable and efficient seating. We deemed it the best movie theater we have ever been to!
More than just wine
On our third day we headed to Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre north of Masterton, about an hour long drive from Martinborough. On the way Greytown tempted us with its artisanal French Baker and Shoc Choc shops on the main drag, highway 2. This very cute, tiny town had the best looking main drag of the trip. The White Swan Hotel welcomed us in for a look.
They answered my questions about its origins while showing us around. This old railway workshop administration building from Lower Hutt was cut into six pieces and trucked over the Rimutaka Range, reassembled and renovated into a fine looking hotel, restaurant and bar. During the delivery, one of the six pieces nearly slid completely off the truck and down the mountain before being coaxed back on with a winch.
Down the road from the White Swan we walked by one gorgeous front yard garden after another before reaching Shoc Choc. This is the most interesting chocolate shop I ever seen. It’s not just their mind blowing assortment of quality chocolates but the story of the owner that grabbed us.
Margrain’s winemaker Strat Canning Martinborough. Murray Langham, was a former chef, restaurant owner and hypnotherapist before starting up his own chocolate shop in Greytown. With dozens of creative chocolate bars, truffles, chocolate shoes, and free samples this is a must-see shop.
After tasting five or so samples we bought two bars and some truffles then headed north to Masterton to pick up picnic supplies at Kingsmeade Cheese and the Pak’nSave grocery store.
Into the wild
At Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre we had our lunch in the picnic area by the creek before attending the eel feeding at 1:30. About twenty tourists had gathered to watch several large eels and a few big trout swirl about the creek in anticipation of a feeding that has been going on for almost forty years.
Some eels were four feet long and were eating food from a long-handled spoon given to them by two tourist volunteers. It was fun to watch, but the best was yet to come. After our tour of the aviaries and the famous white Kiwi it was time for the Kaka circus.
Fur seal at Cape Palliser The Kaka is a native parrot of New Zealand and quite a character.
These smart and curious birds gather at three o’clock for feeding that turns into a circus. Our guide took us into the building where the bucket of food was prepared and as soon as we exited several Kakas appeared out of nowhere.
They flew all around us on the five minute walk to the feeding area where several more were waiting impatiently. They would land on the bucket, and on our tour guide all the way to the feeding area. Some would dive into the bucket and steal food before we even got to their feeding place.
Imagine thirty or so fairly large parrots flying about, landing on tourist’s heads and shoulders. It was like the “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs bird on steroids, and lots of them.
The Wairarapa holds some of the best New Zealand has to offer. Whether you come for the wild coastline like Cape Palliser, the Tora Coastal Walk, country road bicycling, or world-class food and wine, it delivers. Best time to come is in April, May, October or November to take advantage of good weather, less tourists, and lower prices. With the exchange rate low, now is the time to go.
Margrain’s vineyard cafe in Martinborough
Wairarapa Region Travel Details
Martinborough i-Site address: 18 Kitchener Street (Highway 53)
Phone from outside NZ: 64 6 306 5010
Aylstone Boutique Cottages address: 19 Huangarua Road
Phone from outside NZ: 64 6 306 9505
Pegasus Rental Cars address: 127 Park Road, Miramar, Wellington
Phone from outside NZ: 64 4 380 3040
There is train service from Wellington to Featherston, and beyond for those who don’t want to drive this mountain road. If going to Martinborough by train, a bus meets the train on most days at Featherston for the fifteen minute drive, or Rimutaka shuttles can get you there when the bus doesn’t run.
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.