New Zealand may only be the size of the state of Colorado but it hides several gems within its two main islands. On the south end of the North Island is a sleepy, former sheep ranching center that is just begging to be visited for the food and wine scene. You will still see sheep ranchers drive around with a happy sheep herding dog in the back of their pickup truck, but you will also see a lot wine industry presence. With New Zealand boasting thirteen wine regions the Martinborough/Wairarapa area could easily get missed. Residents of Wellington have known about Martinborough for several years, due to its proximity. Now foreign tourists are increasingly being drawn to this small town of many earthly pleasures. Wine is the main attraction, but the food is also excellent.
Up and over the Rimutaka Range
A scenic drive brings you over the precipitous Rimutaka Range on State Highway 2, right into Featherston. Here is where you take the right fork in the road onto Highway 58 landing in Martinborough’s town center some fifteen minutes later, passing by vineyards on the west side of town. The local i-Site (visitor center) is on the left as you enter town. It is the place to get maps, information and directions. The best way to see the town is by foot or bicycle and Green Jersey Bicycle Tours, are located just steps away from i-Site on Highway 58. If you don’t want to take a bicycle tour, several local businesses rent bikes for around 35 NZD / 23.93 USD per day. Vehicle traffic is typically light and makes for an enjoyable ride. Most bikes come with handlebar baskets for bringing back wine, olive oil, or farm fresh produce you might find on your ride.
Great food choices
The core of downtown is chock full of excellent eating establishments that can hold their own with Wellington restaurants of similar price point. For milkshakes, meat pies, sandwiches and coffee, try The Bach on Jellicoe Street during breakfast and lunch time. Across Jelicoe Street from The Bach is the town’s grocery store, Pain and Kershaw, featuring most items you will need if cooking in your vacation rental kitchen. Started by George Pain, who walked over the Rimutaka hills with his goods in a wheelbarrow, this store is still going strong since 1873!
Other popular food choices are Café Medici on Highway 58 in the center of town where their Smokey and the Lambit sandwich is excellent and filling with its side of fried polenta sticks. The rest of the brunch, lunch and dinner menu is enticing with a mix of steaks, lamb, seafood, and a vegetarian option.
Grand dame of the town
Overlooking the town square, it’s hard to miss the grand old Martinborough Hotel offering rooms and suites for the discerning traveler. Catering to traveler’s needs and wants since 1882, this hangout has seen a lot of action. Their rooms start at around 180 NZD/ 123 USD and go up to 410 NZD / 280 USD for an elegant suite. Even if you are not staying here, this is a good choice for a drink and nibbles in the bar and grill situated on the main floor. Try a local, well respected pinot noir with an order of garlic flatbread, or a crisp glass of Riesling with their grilled calamari salad while you watch the world roll by on the main drag. It is also a great place to watch a rugby or soccer game with a beer or two, especially if the All Blacks rugby team is playing.
A famous platter
Poppie’s on the north edge of town is of interest on several counts. One is that Poppy, a lovely woman, is the winemaker, and a darn good one at that. In an industry that is dominated by male winemakers, Poppy has made an impression on wine enthusiasts. Her wines sell out often so don’t be surprised if their crisp, fragrant Rosè is gone when you get there.
Even though your favorite wine might be sold out, you can bet their bountiful tasting platter will be there to make it all good. The platter built for two includes pork belly, capsicum, olives, tapenade, stuffed grape leaves, grilled veggies and more to go with your wine of choice. Will you get this platter of plenty? If you make reservations, your chances improve substantially.
Cottage, vacation rental or campervan site?
Lodging choices are numerous and scattered about the town. On the southwest side is a typical campervan/holiday park. Here you will find Top Ten Holiday Park’s budget lodging with their cabins costing around 84 NZD / 57.43 USD, or a self-contained studio that costs around 139 NZD / 95 USD. The biggest difference between the two choices is the cabin doesn’t come with a kitchen.
Top Ten also has campervan, (48 NZD / 33 USD) and tent sites starting at 44 NZD / 30.80 USD. In the summer, splash about in the pool on a hot day to cool off after a day of bicycling and wine touring. More luxurious accommodations can be found on the north side of town. Margrain Vineyard has whimsical colored cottages on the edge of the vineyard, or just south of their location is Peppers Parehua with rooms featuring fireplaces, deluxe bathrooms, pool, and an onsite restaurant.
For an intimate and luxurious cottage, Aylstone is one of the best. Their location is tops, and amenities like free Wi-Fi, super king beds, in-room fridge, robes, Dilmah gourmet teas, Nespresso coffee, and in-floor radiant heat will provide the luxury you deserve. You can walk to Ata Rangi vineyard, Poppies, Margain and a few others in less than ten minutes from this peaceful corner of Martinborough. The rooms are so quiet and comfortable it will cajole you into lingering a bit longer over a cup of in-room tea before setting out on your explorations. When you return, pop the cork on one of your liquid treasures and enjoy a glass sitting at your bistro table out back watching the setting sun. Some of the rooms look out over the vineyards immersing you in this wine country splendor.
In town entertainment
When night falls, there is no better place to go than the Circus! Only this one holds no animals. What you will find at this Circus is one of the best cinema, restaurant, and bar combinations anywhere in the world. Tim Martin owns this trio of delights and has transformed it into a great entertainment venue. The food is top notch and offers dishes like seafood chowder, pizzas, and local standards like lamb or seafood main dishes. Elisa Romani is the manager and makes sure everything runs smoothly in the three rings of food and fun. In the summer, bask in the southern hemisphere warmth on their patio area out back sipping a cool glass of rosè.
Great place to enjoy local wine and a meal
Local vineyard’s wines are featured on Circus’s wine list you won’t easily find outside of the Martinborough area. Try a glass from Tim’s Vineyard “Boulders”, like the Prosecco style Riesling then move on to Ata Rangi Celebre, a spicy red blend. When your meal is over, collect your wine, and dessert if you like and head into one of two theaters showing current movies in plush seating. All seats come with suitable wine glass parking and some space left over if you brought dessert. They usually have five or more current movies to choose from throughout the day. Tim hopes to have a new wine documentary finished and ready to view sometime in 2016, explaining the local wine scene past and present.
Will the word get out?
Martinborough may be small in size but it packs a big hit with tourists. There are many other top sites to visit within an hour’s drive after you have been properly spoiled in town. Once again, the local i-Site will help you make the most of your visit. Most visitors should plan on spending three to five days in this region. When you get back home, consider keeping this lesser-known hot spot to yourself. You wouldn’t want it to get overrun by too many tourists, would you?