Weekend in the Wairarapa

Before I begin this post, I should mention that it’s 11:11pm on a Tuesday night, and I just finished reading a book which is going to keep me up a while longer– it’s called N0S4A2. Books don’t normally keep me up, not even horror (I’m not sure this one really qualifies as horror, to be fair), but it’s one of those ones where the ending is just so unexpected and good that the power of the whole thing kind of hits your brain at once and you’re left thinking. I’m going to be thinking for a while yet, so I figured I’d put some of that thought power into good use and write about my weekend.

I worked Victoria Day a while back, so I got to take a day off in lieu of the holiday. I picked last Friday, so I could take the weekend and go out of town. It actually took the better part of the week before that to decide where to go– because of the short notice, most of the cheap flights anywhere were already booked. I considered riding up to Auckland for the weekend on the train (because trains!), but I have no loose ends in Auckland anymore; why backtrack? Finally I narrowed it down to two choices, both easily accessible by trains: Palmerston North, and the Wairarapa. Palmerston North was winning for a while, just on sheer accessibility (also, it’s a city), but then I found good accommodation in Masterton (part of the Wairarapa region) and that was that. Booked.

The Wairarapa is a hilly, grape-and-olive-growing, agriculturally-focused region of the North Island. It’s about 50 minutes north of Wellington. Climate-wise, it’s Wellington without the wind. It actually reminded me very much of Waiheke island (the climate), minus the water. The same industries thrive in both places: olives, wine, cattle, tourism. The unfortunate thing about the Wairarapa is that it’s pretty spread out, so really you can only get the full experience if you drive around (or hire someone to drive you around). Neither was really an option for me, so I decided to settle for the weekend in Masterton and try and see the other parts somehow through day trips.

On Friday, I grabbed the Wairarapa Line train from Wellington (I live up the road from the train station- comes in handy!) and settled in for a good ride. Wellington to Masterton is about an hour and a half by train. It was an uneventful ride– I read, enjoyed the scenery and the train, and relaxed. I’d decided to not take my laptops. It was nice to be “unchained” for a while (quotes are because I still had my phone).

The Masterton train station was about 20 minutes from the motel. The first thing I noticed when I got off the train– it was a beautiful day. I’d forgotten what a nice sunny day could feel like without being blown all over the place by the Wellington wind. I didn’t even need my coat. The motel was spacious and bright, and had tons of room. It was a studio-style motel, which means I essentially had a cabin to myself. You could’ve fit 4 people in there, no problem! (As an aside, this is the second motel I’ve been to now where they gave me a bottle of milk at reception for my tea/coffee. I think it’s a NZ thing).

I spent the rest of the day exploring. Masterton isn’t very big, but it’s big enough when you’re on foot. My goal was to find the i-Site, which is the information centre– and which I never found. Not even the next day, armed with a map. You’d think an information centre would be in the centre of town, no? Eventually I gave up and went to one of the few places which was still open for dinner (it was 6pm on a Friday, but like most small towns, everything had started closing at 5pm).

Walking back to the motel, I realized that the whole town smelled like smoke. The air was hazy with it. I wondered if there were brushfires or something nearby. My studio cabin-thing smelled like it too. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but it’s a bit like sitting around a campfire– eventually it’s all you can breathe and it sticks to your clothes. I had a hard time sleeping that night, even though the bed had an electric blanket (!!!) and the night was quiet.

The next day, I was up and waiting outside for 10am, to go on a Wairarapa wine tour. I figured that was an easy way to get around the region, and taste some good wine in the process (I’d done something similar on Waiheke island). To my great surprise, the tour consisted of… myself. And the driver/tour guide. We had a group joining us after lunch, but the morning was mine. Interesting! We drove through several other Wairarapa towns– Carterton and Greytown– and I was able to spend 15 minutes in the Greytown CBD, which was really cool. They had tons of very historical-looking buildings and cute boutiques– and of course, a good coffeeshop, from which I grabbed a flat white.

Our first winery was Murdoch James. I was, again, the only person at that tasting, and got a chance to really talk with the person running it (owner? sommelier? cellarista?). I’m not a huge fan of red wine, but that winery had a fantastic Pinot Noir. If that had been the first red wine I’ve ever had, they might’ve made a convert out of me :P– but it wasn’t, so they didn’t. We went back into town (Martinborough) and had lunch at a rustic but casual cafe (lunch was included in the tour). I think that’s both the healthiest and most filling lunch I’ve had in a while!

We picked up a group after lunch who were all friends. It seemed they were having a reunion– they live all over the world, and they hadn’t seen each other in a while, so they decided to have this weekend away together. Pretty good idea! We then headed to our next winery, Muirlea Rise. The guy running it was the guy giving the tour, and it was really good– he was funny and honest, but informative as well. We then tried a fair amount of wine. By this time, I’d picked up a few tips on wine tasting:

– Ignore the first sip

– If you don’t like the wine, don’t keep drinking it– there’s a bucket provided to tip your glass into

– If you REALLY don’t like the wine, spit it out into the bucket

– Stick your nose in and smell it first

This is all probably very obvious to people who drink and enjoy wine, but as I think we’ve already established, I’m a beer drinker and don’t know much about the wonderful world of wine tasting. There was an interesting overlap at this winery though– one of his wines (I think it was a Pinot Noir?) used Brettanomyces (I may have spelled that wrong) yeast in it. Brett, as it’s known, is also known in the beer world for being difficult to  brew with– it’s flavourful, but finicky. Too much of its flavour, and you’ll end up with your drink tasting like a barnyard. As it was, the wine was quite good– my favourite of the lot– but did have a bit of an aftertaste of dirt. (I asked him how he felt about the yeast, and what I recall of his answer is that it’s difficult but rewarding to use).

We then moseyed along to the Schuberts’ winery. To be honest, none of the regular wines I had there really stick out in my mind. The emphasis there was on white wine, which was a nice change, and it must’ve been good, but nothing notable to me. The only one which was exceptional was the last wine, a dessert wine. I’d had a dessert wine at Muirlea Rise as well, but it was much too sweet. This one was just right. I have a small bottle of it now, and I have no idea when I’m going to drink it…

I didn’t write down the name of the last winery, and now I can’t remember it, sadly. Again, an emphasis on white wines– the first two were very fruity and really good. The group I was with preferred red wines on the whole, so they were a bit disappointed, but the wineries pick their selections– the tours can’t anticipate what wines will be served on any given day. You get what you get.

We then headed back into town for cheese and coffee. It was a great way to end the day. I mentioned that if the wineries started serving tasters of cheese alongside the wine, they might make double the money during the day :P. On the way back, we drove through one of the other regional towns– Featherston. I noticed that the smell of brushfires had returned as night had fallen, and it was present in Featherston as well, so I asked the driver what it was. She said it was the smell from all of the wood-burning stoves in peoples’ houses. Wood-burning stoves?! Every place has a low-flow, environmentally-friendly toilet, but a wood-burning stove? Seriously? I guess since most houses here don’t seem to have central heating, people have these stoves for warmth. Wow… I was pretty happy that night that the motel had a fancy-newfangled electric heater and an electric blanket, and not a wood-burning stove! I slept better that night, too.

Sunday was uneventful. I packed up, and went into town to read. There wasn’t much to do in the way of exploring, so I just parked myself at a cafe, and then a restaurant (breakfast then lunch) and read books all day. Not a bad way to spend a day, by any means. Although, I then read through the time I’d set to leave the CBD and walk back to the motel (got lost in a book… it happens), and ended up making a panicked dash for the train. If I missed that train, I was outta luck until the next morning! I made it with 10 minutes to spare though. The train ride back was smooth, although it was dark, so I couldn’t see much.

If I ever go back to the Wairarapa, I think I’ll stay in Greytown instead– it’s a little more touristy, but it seems to have a nicer CBD and more things to do. At the very least, they have a good coffeeshop :). Do I regret not going to Palmerston North? No. There are a couple of cities in the North Island which I haven’t been to, and probably won’t at this rate, and I’m ok with Palmerston North being on the list. The last excursion I’ll probably make will be at the end of the month, to Rotorua. That’s the last missing puzzle piece for me for this part of NZ. And then: onto the South Island! (where everyone is assuring me I will freeze my knees off).

This week has been business as usual with work, and I’m glad I had the little mini-holiday to relax and recharge. I think mini-breaks are going to be a much bigger part of my life once I’m back in Canada, too– I’m beginning to see the appeal in having a cottage or cabin on a nice lake somewhere. Just somewhere to go and think about different things for a while. Of course, I’m not likely to own one anytime soon, but I can see why people love them so much in Ontario now (Albertans don’t seem to own cabins in the same kind of volume that Ontarians do). We’ll see what happens when I get back!

Have a great week!


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