Wairarapa's attractions range from discoveries on our doorstep, to wonders out of this world, writes Belinda Craigie
"Are you ready?", my friend and walking companion asks as we approach the section of the Patuna Chasm walk that calls for stepping into the cool waters of the Ruakokoputuna River. We wade in, gulping at the considerable change in temperature. But the cold and soggy shoes are soon forgotten as we walk upstream toward a waterfall and take in the scenery.
The chasm appears otherworldly; bright-green moss covers the limestone rock that rises up around us and we are surrounded by a dense forest of native ferns, shrubbery and trees. Water gently flows down the rockface, nature's soothing chorus. As we navigate downstream, feet now firmly acclimatised, we spot fossils and stalactites. We find that some areas of rock are more slippery than others and some parts of the river are deeper than anticipated — we are at one point up to our hips, another brief shock to the system. It is all part of the adventure.
Despite growing up in this country that is so often celebrated as one of the most beautiful on the planet, it is still exciting to discover these remarkable places on our own doorstep.
At the end of the journey, we bathe in the sunshine in an attempt to dry our wet clothes, warm our feet and await our ride aboard a converted passenger trailer back to home base. Towing us with his 4WD is local farmer Alan Wilkinson, who has been operating the chasm walk since 1997. It is accessed from Patuna Farm, which he owns with wife Alison Tipler and is located just outside of the small town of Martinborough. Despite the pandemic, Alan says that bookings for Patuna Chasm are up on last year, which he largely attributes to word-of-mouth and social media.
The chasm walk is one of the many activities on offer in the Wairarapa region, which lies in the southeast corner of the North Island, just over an hour from Wellington. With its rolling hills, rugged coastlines, quaint towns, and diverse natural attractions, the area is ideal for those seeking a day trip or weekend away. Many Wellingtonians spend weekends touring Martinborough's wineries, or cycling the Remutaka Cycle Trail, which runs from Petone over the Remutaka Mountain Range through to South Wairarapa. And with only New Zealanders now travelling within the borders, the region is experiencing an uptick in domestic tourism.
Touring Martinborough's vineyards on a sunny Saturday, there's certainly no shortage of visitors. Martinborough is known for producing renowned Burgundy-style pinot noir and chardonnay, which were pioneered in the region by wineries such as Ata Rangi and Palliser Estate. The town's wineries form part of the 380km Classic New Zealand Wine Trail and, thanks to its accessible size, it is perfect for cellar-door hopping, with local bike hire a popular choice for getting around.
Toast Martinborough, an annual sell-out wine festival, which this year is scheduled for November 21, has further bolstered the reputation of the region. Festivalgoers now have a range of options for accommodation, including the historic Martinborough Hotel, vineyard-adjacent Peppers Parehua and off-grid options such as Whitimanuka Retreat or River's Edge Retreat.
At the foot of the Remutaka Range, a chain of mountains home to the winding road that connects Wairarapa to Wellington, Featherston has largely functioned as a quick stopover for tourists en route to other destinations. Several enterprises are aiming to put Featherston more firmly on the tourist trail and they include The Royal Hotel, established in 1868. The two-storey property was extensively renovated before being sold last year and is now under the management of local couple John Richards and Theo Wijnsma, who want to make Featherston just as desirable a place to visit as Martinborough and nearby Greytown, a popular shopping destination.
Despite the renovation, the hotel's regally inspired heritage has been retained, with original features such as the intricate floral details on the ceilings, a feature staircase in the lobby and antique furnishings. Each of the rooms is thoughtfully decorated with restored vintage typewriters, sewing machines and clocks.
John and Theo come from hospitality backgrounds and ran the popular restaurant Brac & Bow across the road. They have since moved the restaurant, which is named for their beloved dogs, inside the hotel.
Brac & Bow offers both indoor and outdoor dining as well as a more relaxed area for drinks. The couple wanted the menu to appeal to a multi-generational clientele which, they say, represents the fabric of Featherston. There's a mixture of small plates and modern bistro fare, with a handful of dishes inspired by Theo's Dutch heritage such as bitterballen (Dutch meatballs) and Oma's Dutch apple pie. There's a nostalgic element for John, too, who grew up in the area and recalls a photo with his grandmother at The Royal when he was 3 years old. "It's always been a local's place. There are certain buildings that represent the heart of the town."
As well as being a base for seeing the rest of the Wairarapa, Featherston's attractions include several bookshops (it is an official world Book Town, a designation that recognises a concentration of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops) and C'est Cheese, an artisanal cheese shop with a wide selection of handmade cheeses, cured meats and preserves.
About an hour south of Featherston, Cape Palliser Rd takes in the high-contrast scenery of the Wairarapa's south coast. Along this route is the Pūtangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve, an example of New Zealand's geological diversity with its towering rock formations created over thousands of years. There are several walking routes to view the pinnacles from differing vantage points, each taking between two to four hours round-trip. Camping enthusiasts can pitch their tents at the pinnacles campsite and the Lake Ferry Hotel is less than 15 minutes away.
Perched on a steep, rocky hill at the end of Cape Palliser Rd, a historic red-and-white-striped lighthouse is a Wairarapa landmark dating to 1897. Ascending the 253 steps to the lighthouse's observation deck offers views back to the cape, the road out of the small fishing village of Ngawi and across the Cook Strait to the South Island. This rugged coastline is also home to the North Island's largest fur seal colony, which can be spotted lounging on the rocks and frolicking in the surf between the lighthouse and the ten-minute drive from Ngawi.
Heading north, there's a different expedition that makes the most of the Wairarapa's expansive night sky. Star Safari has been operating for just over a year out of Stonehenge Aotearoa — an open-air astronomical observatory a 10-minute drive from Carterton, in Gladstone. Science communicators and space enthusiasts Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske devote their Friday and Saturday nights to guided tours of the henge and Wairarapa's night sky, educating visitors about space and the effects of light pollution. A new permanent Mars exhibition was created by Hari to share with visitors all there is to know about the intriguing Red Planet.
Cloudy weather one Friday night in February threatened to undermine my star-gazing experience. But I went along to check out the henge and speak to Hari and Sam — labelled on their matching black boilersuits — about their love for space. Betweeen them they have more than four decades of experience in the field; Hari interned at Nasa and trained for Mars in Utah, and Sam is working toward his Masters in Astrophysics.
The clouds kindly parted for long enough that we were able to roll out their 16-inch telescope and spot some stars. Sam pointed the telescope so that I could peer at Betlegeuse, Rigel with its tiny companion, and Canopus, the navigator star that Hari, who is originally from Romania, came to New Zealand to view 16 years ago.
The pair embody what it means to be passionate about what you do and their excitement to share what they know is infectious. They particularly love educating children about the night sky and cite the inquisitive nature of kids as one of their favourite aspects of the job. Children aged 12 and under can access the Star Safari tours for free, a part of their quest to make space more accessible for all.
Dark sky tourism in the Wairarapa is likely to grow as an application is underway for the region to be accredited as an international Dark Sky Reserve. If approved, Wairarapa would be the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world, all but ensuring more cosmic attractions that make the most of the area's expansive skies.
Being confronted with the awesomeness of nature is a sentiment most New Zealanders can appreciate. But as I stood beneath the blanket of stars, I wasn't confronted with the usual feeling of insignificance. Instead, I felt lucky. At a time when many around the world are more physically disconnected than ever, these experiences feel increasingly meaningful. As Sam says, "that's what's amazing, thinking about the stars. They connect everybody."
Featherston, Greytown and Martinborough are less than 90 minutes' drive from central Wellington, or can be reached via public transport. For schedules and fares, see metlink.org.nz