Perched on the southern edge of New Zealand’s North Island, this fertile agricultural region is framed by the Pacific Coast to the east and mountain ranges to the west. With its sophisticated country charm, the region is a favourite with foodies, wine connoisseurs, and outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts.
Wairarapa is characterised by spectacular coastlines, big skies, wide valleys and characterful small towns at the heart of the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, a self-guided touring route.
Located only a short train ride or drive from Wellington, the region is a popular weekend getaway for city dwellers. Visitors enjoy the long, hot summers, food and wine events, boutique accommodation and wide open spaces.
Māori settlement of coastal Wairarapa – meaning "land of glistening waters" – goes back at least 800 years. According to legend, the North Island is the fish Te Ika a Maui that Maui hooked from his boat (the South Island). Palliser Bay is the mouth of the fish, and Lake Wairarapa is the eye.
British explorer James Cook sailed around the Wairarapa coast in 1770 and named the southern part after his friend and patron, Sir Hugh Palliser. The first European settlers arrived in 1841.
Food and wine
Renowned for producing award-winning Pinot Noir, the little wine village of Martinborough is at the heart of any Wairarapa wine experience. More than 20 small wineries, most within walking or cycling distance of Martinborough's quaint village square, make for a memorable walk- or cycle-the-vines experience.
Artisan food producers and a vibrant café and dining scene make Martinborough and Greytown popular with foodies. Gourmet bread, designer chocolate, cheese and olive oil are some of the treats on the menu. A country village with metropolitan style, Greytown’s beautifully restored Victorian wooden buildings also house a range of interesting and chic specialty stores.
Nature and wildlife
The Wairarapa’s rural farming landscape, rugged coastline and forest parks set the scene for nature and wildlife attractions. Wildlife enthusiasts can view fur seals at Cape Palliser and visit Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre – a conservation treasure that’s home to an incredibly rare white kiwi, named Manukura, and other native species.
For visitors looking to get off the beaten track, long stretches of beach, expansive forests and hills offer the perfect natural ingredient for great holiday adventures. Castlepoint and Riversdale are popular beaches for surfing and fishing, and the coastal hills are the place for guided coastal walks. Sunrise at Castlepoint, with its lighthouse and towering Castle Rock, is a dramatic coastal experience.
Aorangi, Rimutaka and Tararua Forest Parks and the Lake Wairarapa Moana wetlands have many walking tracks. Cyclists can follow the Rimutaka Cycle Trail – one of the 23 Great Rides on the New Zealand Cycle Trail – travelling from Wellington all the way to Wairarapa and exploring the region’s Māori history and wild coastal landscapes.
A gentle pace of life, natural beauty and indulgent food and wine make the Wairarapa an ideal luxury-stay destination. Accommodation ranges from high-end lodges and luxury or boutique B & Bs to glamping (glamorous camping) and self-catered options. Wharekauhau Country Estate, on a 2,000 hectare (5,000 acre) sheep station overlooking Palliser Bay, is one of New Zealand’s top lodges and has hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
And by the way...
Stonehenge Aotearoa – a full-scale replica of the original stone circle which opened in 2005 – incorporates ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and Indus Valley astronomy, Polynesian navigation, and Celtic and Māori star lore.
British patriot and farmer John Martin designed Martinborough’s central streets in the shape of a Union Jack.
Putangirua Pinnacles – seen in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – are ancient formations, sculpted by heavy rain erosion on soft rocks.
Cape Palliser Lighthouse was named by Lonely Planet as one of the world's "Top 10 flashiest lighthouses".
Tinui, a small village 40 minutes’ drive from Masterton, was the first place in New Zealand to have a memorial service for Anzac Day and an Anzac Day cross.
Wairarapa is a favourite with Hollywood royalty – filmmakers Sir Peter Jackson and James Cameron both own farm properties here.