Rain or shine, Castlepoint has plenty to offer, finds Jacqui Madelin.
A seaside holiday in winter? Yes, our friends thought we were mad too. But it turns out Castlepoint, about an hour's drive from Masterton on the Wairarapa coast, is the perfect spot to entertain yourselves - and a pair of active kids - whatever the weather.
The Castlepoint Holiday camp, which recently won a Qualmark Enviro Gold award, stretches along the beach and on to the hill above it, with our small cabin barely a stone's throw from the sand.
Initially it did seem that wintry weather might defeat us, as strong winds and heavy rain on the first day kept us from the sand, walking tracks and even our bicycles. Instead we drove to the end of the road and on to the beach past the fishing boats, where we parked and watched the massive waves cresting over the rocks that shelter the lagoon. Suddenly the postcard images of spray around the high-mounted lighthouse seemed much less far-fetched.
Legend has it that Kupe landed at Castlepoint for supplies after an epic trip from Hawaii chasing a wheke, or octopus, which hid in a cave in the rocks.
But it was named Castlepoint by Captain Cook when he sailed past in 1770 and thought the rocks looked like battlements.
The area was never heavily settled by Pakeha, though stock arrived in the mid-1800s as farmers made the most of open pasture and the protected bay. Development remained minimal, though, and the area's most famous landmark is still the 23m lighthouse which stands guard from a rocky outcrop.
This was one of New Zealand's last manned lighthouses. The tower was built in England, shipped here and assembled 52m above sea level - offering the first sight of land for ships arriving from the United States and Panama. It was switched on in January 1913 and has flashed ever since, though it's now operated remotely from Wellington.
As soon as the rain eased, we scampered up the concrete path to the lighthouse, clinging tightly to handrails as we peered at the cauldron of ocean surf on one side.
This was once a reef, laid down about two million years ago. We were told the limestone is more than 100m thick, laid over 5 million-year-old siltstone. On less windy days you can also spot visiting seals and dolphins in the water.
Luckily, the next day dawned fine, so we packed cut-down milk containers and gumboots and drove a couple of kilometres up the coast, where long, rocky wrinkles were exposed on the shore - the perfect spot for a morning's rummaging in rock pools.
Worn discs of paua shell were the first treasures we found, but soon the kids' containers were filled with crabs, small fish and even a miniature crayfish, all abandoned by the retreating tide. Even I got caught in the mood and forgot my plan to stroll the art galleries of the Wairarapa. As the tide advanced, our new pets - they'd all been given names - were released back into the water, and we headed for our afternoon date with the sand dunes, just five minutes' walk from our cabin door. Better-prepared visitors came with sleds - we used our backsides, then tested how long we could stay upright while running down the steep, slippy slope.
On day three the rain was back, so we piled into the car to explore the delights of civilisation in Masterton. We started with the Pointon Collection, a large shed packed with vintage cars and period garage paraphernalia. Levers were pulled, doors were opened and the kids were fascinated.
A workshop office is out the back, which holds user manuals for the cars, all of which are operational. The nurse's motorbike looked like hard work - how she managed much compassion after banging over 1920s roads, I'm not sure.
We bought lunch in the compact main street and headed to the delightfully retro cinema after considering visits to the old jubilee firehouse, the art gallery, the Museum of Childhood or Shear Discovery, home of the Golden Shears.
And though my civilised itinerary of art galleries and cafes had bitten the dust, there was one last consolation in the form of a visit to Barry Sears' stained-glass studio. Inside, Sears designs everything from Christmas tree ornaments to church-scale windows. On a light box, a shattered Christ was being restored after a vandal's attack, new designs were strewn over tabletops and above it all hung a huge stained-glass lantern.
It was a great end to a wonderful week - and one that had been very easy on the wallet. We'll be back - there's still surfing, fishing and the nine-hole golf course to try.
IF YOU GO
* Make your first stop at Masterton's visitor centre for ideas: ph (06) 370 0900 or go to wairarapa.com
* Buy a family pass - valid for two adults and two children - which gives access to several local activities, including the swimming pool and hydroslide at Genesis recreation centre. Valued at $100, it costs $60 and is valid for six months.
* Take the art trail, which includes: Barry Sears Glass - stained glass and leadlight windows, 3284 Castlepoint Rd.
* The Pointon Collection of vintage vehicles and automobilia, displays change quarterly. pointoncollection.co.nz