Sustainable seafood, top drops and luxury lodges – Wairarapa’s utterly charming wine country and stunning coastlines make for a wild and wonderful weekend away.
Words Josie Steenhart
On the day we roll into town, Martinborough looks exactly like I imagined – swathes of green, rolling hills, neat rows of vines, characterful buildings both historic and contemporary. It’s a delight from the outset.
We head straight to The Runholder, a cool new complex of tasting, making, distilling, eating, drinking and chilling – the first of its kind in the area – which we’ve been recommended as the region’s hottest must-visit destination.
Starting in the barn-like (but, like, the chicest barn ever) tasting room, we’re given a warm welcome by both the staff and the beautifully considered space.
Designed by Christchurch’s Nott Architects, the light-filled building is all delightful angles, wide windows and lashings of pale wood, and cleverly incorporates a restaurant, tasting room, private dining room, barrel hall and gin distillery.
No less than the chief winemakers from Te Kairanga (John Kavanagh) and Martinborough Vineyard (Paul Mason) are there with bottles and tasting glasses at the ready, and when we’re finished swilling, sipping (and regretfully, as the driver, occasionally spitting), we’re allowed to take a peek downstairs at the incredible custom-built winemaking facilities, before moving through to the restaurant to sample what renowned head chef Tim Smith has put together.
Celebrating the best local produce from “the farm, vine and beyond”, there are sharing platters, pizzas and charcuterie boards for those after a casual meal, and come summer, the offering will extend to include more a la carte, bistro-style dishes – think prime cuts like tomahawk steaks and wagyu, whole fish and lamb ribs. All matched with gorgeous wines, naturally.
A highlight of the menu is the inclusion of sustainable seafood from Tora Collective, the brainchild of fisherfolk Troy Bramley and Claire Edwards, who advocate for, hand-catch and supply a cornucopia of locally sourced ‘coast to plate’ kaimoana (think crayfish, pāua, kina, octopus, fish and more).
Happily sated, we head back to the tasting room to meet the wonderful Rachel Hall, head distiller for Lighthouse Gin, for whom a gigantic, gleaming copper still has been freshly installed on site (and which you can view her at work on through internal windows).
Named for the nearby Cape Palliser lighthouse, Lighthouse Gin produces heavenly small batch gin with a unique blend of nine botanicals and consistently gains accolades from around the globe.
The country’s oldest craft distillery, Rachel came onboard with the brand in 2010 and in 2014 became New Zealand’s first female head distiller. She’s lovely, and has great chat about all things gin and all things Martinborough, and I hope I kept my fangirling in check.
After finally prising ourselves away from The Runholder, we pass through the elegant town square, eyeing an array of artisanal shops to return to, before hitting the open road once again towards our (much anticipated) accommodation for the night – Wharekauhau Country Estate.
The luxury lodge is set on a plateau between the foothills of the Remutaka mountain range and the clifftops of Palliser Bay – a location that can only be described as literally breathtaking – and brings new meaning to the words ‘farm stay’.
Here our first welcome is from a paddock full of sheepy mums with their adorably loud new lambs. Our second is more formal but no less delightful, a valet to whip the car away, a grand entranceway (complete with a plethora of Red Band gumboots for guest use), and a glass of bubbles served in one of the lodge’s impeccably stylish country-chic lounges.
Accommodation at Wharekauhau comes in the form of two clusters of cottages set a short stroll from the main building, each suite complete with fireplaces, bathtubs, cushy couches, four-poster beds and private terraces overlooking the ocean.
It’s hard to pry ourselves away, but for me a decadent massage at the Hauora Spa (set behind the magnificent glass-encased heated pool) beckons, for him it’s a tour of the impressively vast, richly stocked wine cellar and the incredible gardens that executive chef Norka Mella Munoz has access to when creating her menus, followed by a bubble bath.
Both refreshed and rejuvenated, it’s time to begin eating and drinking once again, starting with moreish canapes and a seriously fabulous fizz before sitting down to a private multi-course dinner of vibrant dishes showcasing the aforementioned onsite produce, paired with some very special wines.
Adventure awaits us in the morning (along with some suitably wild weather), as we gear up in head-to-toe waterproofs before taking to the trails in one of the lodge’s ATVs (that’s ‘all-terrain vehicles’ for those like me not in the know).
Wharekauhau sits on 3000 acres of private land including working sheep farm, ancient forest, tranquil lakes, less tranquil rivers and a not-tranquil-at-all but romantically rugged coastline, and hooning across it all on a quad bike is a ridiculously fun, occasionally adrenaline-inducing, way to see it.
After hot showers, coffee and homemade cookies we say fond farewells, including to my beloved baby lamb friends in the front field, still grinning like little kids, and promising to return to this magical region ASAP.