Taking one for the collective team (all five million of us), Peter Dragicevich embarks on a series of classic Kiwi road trips, seeking out the best places for a break. In Featherston he finds more than just a convenient stop to appease the car sick.
Ah, the family road trip. It's perhaps a little surprising that I have such fond memories of the annual expeditions of my childhood, given that they inevitably resulted in me begging for Dad to stop the car along the way so that I could get out and vomit. I naively thought I'd kicked my car sickness until a few years back when I joined a group of friends for a drive to a bach in Hahei, along sinuous SH25. It turns out that I hadn't grown out of it after all – it's just that adults don't often have to endure the dreaded back seat.
If you, too, have a back-seat barfer in your household, the Rimutaka Hill can spell all kinds of hell. It's generally not a lot of fun for the driver, either, what with the alternating incline crawlers and habitual tailgaters. So, if you're heading north from Wellington on SH2 bound for the Wairarapa or Hawke's Bay, chances are you're going to want to look out for the first decent opportunity to stop on the other side. Hello Featherston!
Built near the site of a kainga called Paetūmōkai, this small Wairarapa town (population 2680) was founded in 1856 and named after Dr Isaac Featherston, the first superintendent of the Wellington Province. However the esteemed doctor has a far more interesting claim to fame: in 1847 he took part in a duel with William Wakefield, the controversial coloniser of Wellington. Featherston shot first and missed, at which point Wakefield is said to have shot into the air, declaring that he couldn't possibly kill a man with seven daughters. All of which makes for a great story with which to distract your queasy passengers as you pull into town.
The best Featherston ports of call are all in the first section of Fitzherbert St (the main drag). Let's get the most obvious one out of the way first: the almost-famous C'est Cheese. One of the best cheese shops in the country, it stocks artisanal cheese from all over Aotearoa and the world alongside its own Rimutaka Pass Cheesery brand. You can try before you buy and then sit down at a table to tuck into a cheese scone and a coffee.
Right next door, Mr Feather's Den is another must-visit locale, full of books and oddball objects – everything from quirky taxidermy to creepy dolls' heads trapped in glass jars.
Across the road, the historic Royal Hotel has been lovingly restored and now looks suitably palatial, from the royal coat of arms on its pediment right down to its burnished wooden floors. The hotel's street-level Brac & Bow restaurant is an atmospheric spot for a meal. However, if you'd rather grab a tasty treat to eat on the go, continue along Fitzherbert St to the succinctly named Baker for a chocolate brioche or a beef-and-blue-cheese pie – if your stomach is up to it.
If you're worried about running short of reading material for your holiday, don't fret. In 2018 Featherston became a full member of the International Organisation of Book Towns, the only New Zealand entry on the list alongside such famously book-obsessed destinations as Hay-on-Wye in Wales. Featherston's book-town status manifests itself in the form of a festival each May and more bookshops than is entirely reasonable for such a small town. On Fitzherbert St there's the aforementioned Mr Feather's Den, The Featherston Ferret, Loco Coffee & Books and For the Love of Books, while around the corner in and around Fox Street there's Chicken & Frog, The Dickensian Bookshop and military-history specialists Messines Bookshop.
If military history is your thing, you probably already know that Featherston was famously the site of a vast WWI training camp. A staggering 60,000 men passed through it during the last three years of the war. Just as that horror was drawing to an end, the camp was pummelled by the influenza pandemic, suffering 163 fatalities. For the next world war, the facility was converted into a prisoner-of-war camp. In February 1943 it was again the site of tragedy when guards opened fire on Japanese prisoners, resulting in 49 deaths.
The WWI camp is commemorated by a sculpture on the main street composed of nine bronze columns decorated with bas reliefs. Little remains of the original complex, which was located just east of the township on SH2. Pull in at the layby opposite the site where there's a memorial, information board and a Japanese remembrance garden.
With a bellyful of cheese, a boot full of books and some sombre history to ponder, buckle up for a drive that is fairly straight from here on.
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