What To Do In The Wairarapa: Stay At Luxury Lodge Wharekauhau & Sip Wine At The Runholder

By Julia Gessler
Wharekauhau Country Estate is perched between Palliser Bay and the Remutaka Ranges.

A splurge-worthy stay at a lodge perched in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and a visit to its sibling cellar-door restaurant make a weekend away in the Wairarapa essential.

Where To Stay

There’s a moment before you cross the Wharepapa River when Wharekauhau Country , dwarfed by the middle distance, looks unreachable. A castle with a gurgling ravine for a moat. A house at the edge of the world.

But then you wind down one ridge and up another and reach a sign that says “Watch out for pheasants crossing”. The birds, you’ll find out, are prolific.

Through a corridor of tall stately trees, down a long gravel road, the Wairarapa luxury lodge, a 90-minute drive from Wellington (or 15-minute helicopter ride, in lodge parlance), comes into focus: an Arts and Crafts-style homestead, all exposed beams, strong posts and eave overhangs. Designed by Queenstown architect Fred van Brandenburg, who was also the principal designer on Taupō's Huka Lodge, it’s a building concerned with form but not at the expense of clarity of feeling.

It was obvious from the moment my partner and I arrived for our two-night stay that it’s a feeling most explicitly of a specific type of opulence (the kind where your bags magically appear in your room and your request for a remixed Lobster Newburg feels entirely doable) but also of intermission: this is a place to rest, a caesura between where the clifftops of Palliser Bay go high and the peaks of the Remutaka Ranges go higher. The chimneys mirror their rise and fall.

The Wharekauhau main lodge is replete with antique furnishings, which decorate its library, games room, dining room and private spaces.
The Wharekauhau main lodge is replete with antique furnishings, which decorate its library, games room, dining room and private spaces.

We walked into the main lodge, with its creams and candles and ribbons of herringbone brick — the work of interior designer Virginia Fisher — and the airy lightness of bifold doors. The antique furniture that fills its two storeys both settles into and lifts from the backdrop.

On one side of the building, a manicured courtyard is flanked by a croquet lawn. On the other, there’s a bigger lawn, a wetland, the Pacific; an extremely beautiful view that’s hard to turn from.

A sheep station in the 1840s, the estate is now owned by Bill Foley — American businessman, vintner, billionaire — and his wife, Carol, who bought the property in 2010 from another Bill (Shaw) and his wife Annette, as something of a love-at-first-sight passion project, filling a local stable that now includes Grove Mill, Lighthouse Gin, Te Kairanga, Martinborough Vineyard, Mt Difficulty, Vavasour and Foley Hospitality (formerly Nourish Group), who oversee Auckland’s Jervois Steak House, Somm wine bar, Viaduct beacon Soul and the Italian-inflected Andiamo.

Stay in either a Wetland or Stomwatch cottage.
Stay in either a Wetland or Stomwatch cottage.

Our cottage, a few minutes walk down a private pathway, skews open-plan and romantic.

There’s a four-post bed with curtains you can pull all the way around, a gas fireplace in the living area, hot water bottles and outdoor blankets for when it gets cold — or when you want to stargaze under the country’s newest and largest dark sky reserve from the porch.

A jar of freshly baked shortbread is just the way it should be — melt-in-your-mouth soft and dusted in caster sugar.

A walk-in wardrobe leads to a minibar and a bathroom with underfloor heating and his-and-hers sinks.

The tub, which looks out to the sea, has a menu: Classic Bubble Bath (an ensemble cast of rubber duck, chocolate brownie and glass of milk, for kids), Relaxation Soak (aromatherapy candles, chamomile tea, herbal bath salts, for adults), and Romantic Soak (strewn lavender, a chilled bottle of Billecart-Salmon Champagne, and a fresh fruit platter, for couples).

So do the pillows.

The cottages are light and warm, with exposed beams and diaphanous curtains.
The cottages are light and warm, with exposed beams and diaphanous curtains.

Alternatively, you can stay in the three-bedroom owner’s cottage, known as the Foley Villa, as Prince William, Princess Kate and Prince George did during their 2014 New Zealand tour. It combines the charm of a 4500sq m stand-alone Hamptons-like hideaway with the no-expenses-spared price tag of one, including an Ōamaru sandstone staircase, private chef and heated infinity pool.

Here, there’s a keen attention to chameleonic interests. Our first activity is ATV quad biking. My partner is a natural; his four-wheeling is smooth, like he’s back on his parents’ lifestyle block or steering a shopping trolley. But the two-and-a-half-hour route — through some of the roughly 1295ha of the working sheep and beef farm, woodland and brook crossings — lends itself to a beginner’s scrappiness too. We rush past cattle and Romney and Texel crosses, stop and feed eels off a pond dock, then descend to the black sand of Ocean Beach.

If you’re sport-inclined, there’s also clay target shooting, e-bike coastal tours and archery available, plus an on-site tennis court, a 22m-long indoor pool heated to 28C and a gym.

The Hauora Spa caters to those who prefer the oily, the unknotting, the clarifying. Opt for a full-body mānuka honey wrap, a deep-tissue massage, the therapeutic heat of volcanic stones, or a detoxifying active charcoal peel, among other restorative treatments.

Wharekauhau executive chef Norka Mella Munoz in the garden.
Wharekauhau executive chef Norka Mella Munoz in the garden.

The Chef in the Wild experience, which treats the outdoors as a veritable dining table and suggests that eating in the wild doesn’t mean abandoning one’s own vanity as you’re whisked to a remote location via Land Rover for a professional picnic, is just one example of how serious Wharekauhau is about food.

Dinner is a whirl under the direction of executive chef Norka Mella Munoz, who champions a seasonal, farm-to-table menu. The eggs come from the chicken coop (Cluckingham Palace) in the property’s vegetable garden. An orchard grows crab apples and pears, figs and plums. A Meyer lemon tree planted in 1963 supplies citrus. Native mint, wild sage, seaweed and fennel pollen come from the coast, while kawakawa, horopito and elderflowers are foraged from the hills.

The tasting menu on our first night was a real revelation. A whitebait fritter was a perfect semicircle of tiny, chewy kaimoana that disappeared immediately. As did the crisp Scotch egg, the golden orb of quail sitting in a pool of buttery spinach and shaves of pecorino.

The main course, confit hāpuku, came with a brown-butter hummus that French restaurant manager Nicolas Simonucci said would probably change our lives — with such fizz and assuredness that would suggest that the staff are the lodge’s greatest replenishing resource, personalities that have been strung through the haute impulses of high-end hospitality and have remained themselves, still ebullient and warm.

We finished with “drunken pineapple”, the sweet fruit soaked in rum and plated with vanilla yoghurt and a wonderfully headstrong ginger granita (“You have to taste it on its own,” insisted Nicolas of the flavoured ice crystals).

It all came with wine pairings ranging from a 2014 Frenchmans Hill Estate Rock Earth Syrah to a 2019 Urlar Late Harvest Riesling, pulled from the labyrinthine wine cellar that houses more than 2500 bottles.

Have breakfast in the main lodge’s country kitchen.
Have breakfast in the main lodge’s country kitchen.

To be sure, breakfast is a simpler affair, still executed with a great deal of care. An acoustic version of Justin Timberlake’s What Goes Around Comes Around circulated in the country kitchen as we dined on egg-white omelettes as light as a cloudburst and the sheer revivifying pleasure of a weekend together, away.

Where To Play

If you plan on palate counterprogramming, leaving Wharekauhau’s food and wine for other food and wine, take a half-an-hour drive to Martinborough for The Runholder, a cellar-door restaurant that’s phased opened since August.

It is poised to be what Amisfield is to Queenstown, what Craggy Range is to Hawke’s Bay, a destination for when what you really want is to understand wine at a molecular level — the sanctity of the tannins and the barrels that bore them — in a building that traces a relationship with the earth.

Designed by Christchurch’s Nott Architects and owned by Foley Wines, whose parent company owns Wharekauhau, it’s home to Martinborough Vineyard, Lighthouse Gin and Te Kairanga, the property sitting among the latter’s precise, coiling vines on the edge of the Martinborough Terrace’s alluvial gravel.

It has the angular appearance of a wool shed — slatted wood and steel converge into triangular points — executed with a sophistication that has all but ensured its foothold in the region.

The Runholder tasting room offers a way to discover Martinborough’s pioneering wineries.
The Runholder tasting room offers a way to discover Martinborough’s pioneering wineries.

Wine tastings should be considered non-negotiable. “For people visiting, you get a different story about how we look at our place,” says John Kavanagh, chief winemaker at Te Kairanga, on the experience that takes a maximum of 12 guests per session. As should gin ones, taken in front of a 700-litre Carl copper pot still custom-made in Germany. Its onion head column looks as though Wonka made landfall in the foothills of South Wairarapa.

Afterwards, browse the expansive barrel hall and the rare, new-release and library wines before stepping into the 100-seat restaurant, which makes a case that the most local of preparations can be the most satisfying. Tora Collective, a catch-to-order run by husband-and-wife Troy Bramley and Claire Edwards, find its kahawai off the nearby coast. Sourdough, cut into warm thick slices, is courtesy of Clareville Bakery, just outside Carterton.

The open dining room looks out to Te Kairanga’s sprawling vineyard.
The open dining room looks out to Te Kairanga’s sprawling vineyard.

The space is generous and elegant, with ceramics from The Alchemist’s Table and the gentle vernacular of round-back chairs.

The menu is plural. Eat in the formal Martin Lounge for an a la carte showcase of tomahawk steak and whole fish that has “full traceability,” says head chef Tim Smith, former executive chef of Wharekauhau and Bali’s resort meets beach club Potato Head, or stay for the more relaxed sharing menu in the open dining room.

There, the smoked lamb ribs arrive sticky and satisfying, with harissa and sheep’s milk labneh, and the fries, Pomme Anna-style, are a millie feuille of Agria potato with hits from tomato relish.

The woodfired pizza oven has pride of place in the kitchen.
The woodfired pizza oven has pride of place in the kitchen.

Tim takes us into the kitchen to see the Tauranga-made grill comprising compressed bricks, which can reach up to 600C, and to the other important source of heat: a woodfired pizza oven.

He is, by all metrics, a pizza purist. Big cans of Solania tomatoes sit above eye level. The dough is naturally leavened for 72 hours and reaches 68 per cent hydration (the key to making them “super crunchy but airy”). The selection reads of classics: Margherita, spinach bechamel, salami and prosciutto, green olive tapenade. There’s no pineapple, at least not yet.

All of this might be a way of pointing out that time moves slower here: you arrive, you sip, you linger on blistered carbs.

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