Like many Kiwis, I have had international travel plans cancelled. Long gone are my dreams of dark-sky star-gazing, snorkelling in some of the world's clearest waters, and relaxing in a tropical climate.

So what did I do instead? I spent the weekend exploring a bit closer to home.

Heading from Wellington over the hill to the Wairarapa for the weekend, Castlepoint had been on my list of places to visit for a long time. This small east coast beach town, just an hour from Masterton, is a wild and strangely therapeutic place to visit.

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The winding Remutaka Hill over from Wellington is the start of the journey, and meandering over the hill with a roadtripping playlist is a great way to start the weekend getaway.

Over the hill and down to Featherston - one of a handful of internationally accredited Booktowns around the world (other official Booktowns include Hay-on-Wye in Wales, Clunes in Victoria, Australia, and Wigtown in Scotland). Booktowns are small rural towns with a good cluster of second-hand and antiquarian bookstores. With seven bookstores and counting, Featherston is the only accredited Booktown in New Zealand.

Greytown is next up with boutique shopping and cafes galore. For the outdoorsy types, a visit to Waiohine Gorge, 18km northwest of here brings bush walks, one of the coldest rivers I have ever swum in, along with swing bridges and waterfalls - perfect for your Instagram shots.

Reflections along Castlepoint Beach in the Wairarapa. Photo / Rosalie Willis
Reflections along Castlepoint Beach in the Wairarapa. Photo / Rosalie Willis

We drive through the more populated towns of Carterton and Masterton, taking our time as we sing along to Hot Potato Band, a Sydney-based group whose tour to New Zealand was cancelled due to Covid-19.

Winding our way through farmland, it's amazing how enjoyable a road trip can be when you have no time limit to reach your destination. The rolling hills speckled with sheep are like a classic New Zealand backcountry postcard. We stop for cattle as they meander across the road, heading out for milking. This is not a trip you want to embark on if you're in a rush.

Reaching Castlepoint township, we head straight for the lighthouse. First lit in 1913, it was one of the last manned lighthouses in New Zealand. Stretching 53m above sea level with the tower 23m high, the light reaches 35km out to sea.

The walkway to the lighthouse starts by crossing the beach, and then up the path that stretches along the shore all the way to a lookout. There are views of the lighthouse, the exposed coast and out to sea – and although you may have escaped Wellington, you haven't escaped the wind.

Fossils are etched into the rocks, visible as we climb down on to the cliffs. The aquamarine blue sea is rough and wild, rumbling below us as we sit and watch. Each time a swell comes in, the white water swirls around, churning like a washing machine before spitting it back out. I could sit here for hours, watching the crashing waves. It's a wonderful feeling to let go and be free.

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Along with the walk to the lighthouse, Castlepoint also offers the Deliverance Cove track, which takes you around the lagoon and up Castle Rock, a walk not for the faint-hearted as it's straight-up cardio.

Then we're back in the car and heading down the coast to Riversdale, another small beach town. This is the perfect place to stay the night. As we take off our shoes and walk across the sandy beach, the surf is pumping and, as the sun begins to set, we find ourselves all alone on the beach.

After checking into an Airbnb, we see the occasional person wandering the streets but the busiest part of the town is the dairy, which sells everything from coffee to fish 'n' chips, along with all your convenience-store items.

We set our alarms for sunrise to make the most of being on the coast. The light is just visible on the horizon as we turn out of the gate and we make it to the beach two minutes later, in time to see the sun peek above the horizon, welcoming in another beautiful autumn day.

It's a great start to the day.

Rewanui Forest Park, Matai Loop track overlooking stunning Wairarapa valleys and farm hills. Photo / Rosalie Willis
Rewanui Forest Park, Matai Loop track overlooking stunning Wairarapa valleys and farm hills. Photo / Rosalie Willis

On our way back to Wellington, we visit Rewanui Forest Park on the road between Castlepoint and Masterton. This 334ha farm with loop tracks, climbs and stunning lookouts is owned by the Montfort Trimble Foundation, an independent organisation dedicated to the growing of trees for the educational, economic and aesthetic benefit of the public.

Starting with the Totara Loop, we walk the first half very quickly, joining the Matai Loop, a slightly longer track. With a lookout very much worth the uphill hike, the views of the Wairarapa valleys and farm hills stretch out as far as the eye can see.

We walk for hours without seeing another person. Just us and the sheep.