I originally wrote this article when I was back on a brief 2-month jaunt in my hometown, the sexy provincial service town of Masterton. Now several years later, after almost 6 years living overseas, I’m back. For good. This has elicited some eye rolls from the haters who have failed to see the true, hidden gem quality, of in this valley tucked behind the Remutakas.
It can be hard to come home after time spent overseas. You’ve been, you’ve seen and you’ve had experiences that have changed the way you see the world. It’s scary to feel like you might be backsliding or wandering a bit aimless after your adventures.
You want to share your experiences, but you also want to avoid sounding like a preachy douchebag just because you’ve ‘found yourself’ after a year of wearing fisherman pants, blacking out at a full moon party and riding an elephant. Pashing a white dude with dreads doesn’t make you a more interesting person to the people from home, or to anyone for that matter.
Now that I’m home, I’m updating this piece, and including some ‘Special Mentions’ because so much has changed since I left. The Wairarapa is a valley with beautiful beaches, swimmable rivers and easily accessed mountains, packed into a relatively small space so you can visit all three in a day. There are five towns: Masterton, Carterton, Greytown, Martinborough and Featherston (yes they’re basically all named after the old white men who set up the European settlements). Masterton or Whakaoriori is the biggest with around 25,000 people but it is still small enough that every teenage misdemeanour is quickly makes its way back to your parents.
I want to share some of the local highlights with you in the hope that you might run the gauntlet of the Remutaka Hill road and pay us a visit.
So What is there to do in the Wairarapa if you’re visiting like a local?
1. If you’re hungry and it’s Friday your first stop should be Bolle’s or Norfolk Road Pizza, officially known as the Watermill Bakery. You know somewhere is good if they don’t advertise, have no website, are located at the end of a gravel road, and are full every Friday. You have to ring them on a landline (+64 06 370 1129) to order the number of bases you will want for the evening and tell them what time you will be coming. From 5pm onward you head out to Blake’s Road at the base of the Tararua Ranges where you will find a log cabin centred around a pizza oven. They only take cash and they don’t sell drinks so you will need to take your own or help yourself to a glass of water from the tap. Kids are free to roam, play in the creek or muck about with new friends while the adults share large tables, a beer and a chat. The pizza is delicious and the surroundings are so laid back they’re horizontal, this is the perfect setting for a super chilled evening. In Summer they book up fast so get in by Wednesday to make sure you can get a spot.
2. The Tararua Ranges that sit behind the log cabin are another attraction for keen and not-so-keen outdoors people. There’s a range of walks, well-maintained tracks and tidy huts for those that want to go a-wandering. Mount Holdsworth is the highest peak and about a 4 hour walk to the top. Powell Hut sits just below the apex to house you for the night, or if the moon is full you could do a midnight jaunt around to Jumbo Hut as we have previously done. You will need to pay hut fees if you stay which is generally run on an honesty box system so take cash. Mitre Hut and Totara Flats are some of my other favourites, you can wade the river from Totara Flats to investigate Sayer’s Hut, a solid wooden slab hut with the entire mountain range drawn on the windowsill in permanent marker. Remember to take layers of woollen clothing, extra food and your wits, the weather can always catch you out up here. Over-prepare so Search and Rescue don’t have to come and save you or you might want up on a Hunt for the Wilderpeople style adventure. If you don’t want to overnight there are lots of great day walks into Rocky Lookout, Atiwhakutu Hut, Donnolleys Flat and lots of others.
3. If the coast is more your thing then head to Castlepoint, they have one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in the country, a ‘grouse’ surf break at ‘The Gap’, a shop that does fish and chips and a pub down the road with cheap pool. If you want something a bit more rugged you can’t go past Glenburn Station. Cell phones don’t work out here and it’s entirely possible that you won’t meet a single other vehicle on the drive out. I spent my childhood at this beach, collecting paua, crayfish, fishing for blue cod and building bonfires on the beach. Diving with the seal colony that lives on Kahu Rock is always spectacular, on a good day you just can’t beat Glenburn. There is no shop here so you have to be self-sufficient, all that is required is wine, books and cards to truly unwind and let go of that nagging urge to check who liked the wordplay in your Instagram caption. You can rent accommodation on the station so give them a google or book a bach.
4. If you’re a vino fan then the Harvest Festival is the best wine event in the region. Toast Martinborough may be the most well known, but having been to both, my firm favourite is Harvest. Set by the river, this festival brings all of the vineyards and restaurants to one site along with a line up of great bands. Not having to travel between vineyards means you can scamper off the dance floor for a refill and an arancini ball and head back into the fray without missing a beat. By the end of the night the crowd on the dancefloor looks like they’ve been slipped a powerful muscle relaxant and are doing their best to stay upright. Usually happening in early March you will need to buy tickets as soon as they’re released or stalk Facebook in the week before to snap up any spares.
5. With land, sea, food and drink covered what else is left? Well the air of course…if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush or just a great present for someone you love then look no further than Greytown Soaring Centre. The club operates just out of Greytown in South Wairarapa and runs accompanied glider flights over Jury Hill. My Sister and I both had the opportunity to have a go at this slightly terrifying sport. Gliders don’t operate under power like a plane does, they use the thermals rising from land formations to gain height and then ‘glide’ down, a bit like a bird. I was nervous about this because you are sitting in what feels like a paper plane but it was so magical I fully intend to go back one day and do my solo pilot training. My raving glinty-eyed look when I came down was so convincing that even my Mother, who is afraid of heights, had a go. I’m happy to report that she loved it.
So those are just 5 things you could do when you come to visit the Wairarapa Valley. There is every chance that I will be exiled for telling you about Bolle’s pizza. All I can say is, come and discover it for yourself, explore this magical valley just an hour away from Wellington and with so much to offer.
Special Mentions – as promised.
- Martinborough Wine Village
You probably know all about it, it’s kind of a big deal these days but for good reason – you can pitch up, hire some bikes, ride them to the various vineyards and do wine tastings at the cellar door accompanied by beautiful food at their restaurants. They also hold a giant fair every February and March so check those dates because the whole square will be completely taken over 40,000 people waiting in the line for potato rosti (also made by Bolle as mentioned above).
This wee town has long been considered the dowdy cousin of the valley but now it’s barely affordable for first home buyers so you know something is happening. If you’re passing through on your way to or from Wellington it’s well worth popping into C’est Cheese to buy some pricey but fantastic dairy-based goods and other accoutrements. If you’re stopping for lunch then try Brac & Bow, it’s named after the owner’s dogs so you know they’re good people.
3. Pukaha Mount Bruce
If you fancy yourself a bit of a conservationist then stop here and get the chance to see our national bird up close. They have a Kiwi breeding programme that has produced the world’s only albino Kiwi as well as lots of other native flora and fauna. It is set in a piece of bush that is the last remaining part of the 90 mile bush that once spanned the whole valley until we got here and buggered it up, their cultural tour will give you all the details.
4. Mountain Biking
If you have no fear of your own mortality you might want to hurtle down a hill at a million miles an hour at RivenRock MTB Park. This is on the road out to the Tararua Ranges, just down from Bolle’s so you could theoretically go for a bush walk, skip over and do a couple of runs at RivenRock and then stop at Bolle’s for dinner on the way home.
5. Cape Palliser
If you have time and fancy a bit of a drive you could head out to Cape Palliser where you can find the only other lighthouse in the region as well as a fur seal colony. Walk the Putangirua pinnacles which look like they’ve come straight out of Lord of the Rings or head to the Patuna Chasm and do the stunning swim/walk through the canyon (you need to book ahead for this). There is also a fun wee cafe called The Land Girl out this way for refreshments.