Alexia Santamaria takes a back seat on a tour of Wairapapa's foodie gems.
It's always a treat to go on a train ride when you don't routinely use one for commuting purposes, and the one-hour journey from Wellington to Featherston station is just long enough to relax and take in the gorgeous lower North Island scenery on the way to the Wairarapa wine region. A great start to a wonderful Wellington side trip.
Dropping bags at the Martinborough hotel, we head out with Stuart, from Green Jersey Cycle Tours, on a vineyard discovery.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry when we're presented with a tandem — talk about a marriage tester.
Once we've established that if I want to stop pedalling, I probably first need to tell my husband, things go much better. Our first stop is actually an olive grove, Olivo, where we do a wonderful tasting of oils after a stroll through the trees.We're guided by Helen Meehan, who saves the flavoured ones for last and as a final treat brings out some vanilla icecream to have with the lemon-infused oil and a pinch of sea salt — a trick we'll definitely be trotting out at home.
Our first vineyard stop, Poppies, is for lunch as well as a tasting and we fall in love with the enigmatic Pip, who pours and talks and gushes over these wines she's clearly passionate about. We sit outside for a platter in the sun with a glass of their stunning rose and can't quite imagine that we were at Auckland airport rushing around a little more than three hours earlier.
Martinborough is pretty unique in that the vineyards all fall into a compact area. It's a five-minute cycle from place to place and we love our stops at Cambridge Road for natural organic bio-farmed wines, Martinborough Vineyard for their internationally-award winning pinot noir and chardonnay (and great tasting of locally distilled Lighthouse gins) and finish things off in style at the beautiful Palliser Estate, with their vibrant methode traditionnelle The Griffin. Heading back to Green Jersey with our tandem, our marriage is — mostly intact — .
Back at the Martinborough Hotel, we meet Jacinda Cole, who, with husband Tim, has just bought into the business after living in London for 10 years. The building dominates the town centre, as it has for more than 135 years — a grand old balconied beauty whose walls undoubtedly have some excellent tales to tell.
In the bar, I'm delighted to find a construct-your-own-perfect-gin menu. You choose your glass, your gin — from an impressive list including local favourites Reid and Reid, and Lighthouse — then your tonic (more variations than I realised were available) and an adornment — could be a fruit or vegetable like cucumber or passionfruit or lime, or could be a syrup. I'm thrilled with my choice of Reid and Reid in a "bowl" with yuzu tonic and elderflower syrup.
We chat to Nicola, one half of the dynamic duo behind the Martinborough Hotel's new restaurant, Union Square. Theirs was the classic waitress-meets-chef story (her husband Adam has worked at Claridge's and for the famous Roux brothers, as well as other Michelin establishments but they met in Japan). Nearly 20 years later their collective experience — overseas and at Zibibbo, which they ran in Wellington — has been poured into this. The fitout is gorgeous and the food just as impressive. It's whitebait season and we voraciously devour the biggest, fattest, tastiest fritters.. The rest of the meal is equally stunning and after all our day's efforts we sleep like 4 year olds after a big day on the monkey bars.
After a leisurely breakfast, we stroll around Martinborough, past the shops and cafes heaving with locals and Wellingtonians up for the weekend. It's such a great vibe.
After checking out, we make our way to Greytown. Initially it seems like a tiny run-of-the-mill Kiwi village but as we progress down the street we find gift shops and clothing boutiques in beautiful buildings that wouldn't be out of place in any of New Zealand's larger shopping hubs.
I'm surprised at how much damage to a credit card one person can do in a town that has as many shops as my suburb in Auckland.
Post lunch we head to Schoc chocolate for a Willy Wonka-esque tasting experience, minus the oompa loompas. Murray Langham is a genius when it comes to blending flavours and we taste everything from more traditional flavours such as milk, dark, ginger and tangerine to more exotic ones like lemon and pepper, carrot and coriander and one that really shouldn't work at all, but is actually delicious — curry and poppadoms.
There's time for one last afternoon drink in the sun at the White Swan before we reluctantly head towards Woodside station to return to Wellington.
We'll definitely be back to check out all the other great Wairarapa attractions we've heard about from locals on our too-brief stay in this pretty part of the North Island.
Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly direct from Auckland to Wellington.
For train services to Featherston, see