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The Wairarapa

Panorama from the top of Rimutaka Hill (Upper Hill, New Zealand)

View from the summit towards Wellington. Rimutaka Hill Road is winding road (State Highway 2) climbing to the 555m summit and linking Wellington and the Wairarapa. At the summit is a lookout point. The Rimutaka Ranges run southwest-northeast for 55 kilometres from Turakirae Head at the eastern end of Palliser Bay to the upper reaches of the Hutt Valley where it joins the southern end of the Tararua Range.

The Wairarapa

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

The Wairarapa

By Marco Stojanovik

The Wairarapa, known by Māori as the “Land of Glistening Waters”, is a region in New Zealand’s North Island filled with a spectacular landscape of rugged coastlines, wide valleys, lush forested mountains, and quaint colonial townships. Located about an hour’s drive or train ride from the capital Wellington, it is the perfect relaxing city escape known for its hot, languid summers, fine wine, and gourmet food.

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of the Wairarapa as part of our small group tour of New Zealand’s North Island for mature and senior travellers. Odyssey specialises in offering small group tours  limited to 12 people, a mix of couples and solo travellers, partnering with local guides chosen for their local knowledge. Amongst activities in the Wairarapa we enjoy a visit to a Martinborough winery, an organised guided walking tour around the town, and a visit to the impressive collection at the Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton. This article explores the history and attractions of the Wairarapa to assist your guided tour.

Dry brown burnt rolling hills on a massive sheep and beef farm in the rural agricultural heartland of New Zealand

History of Settlement in the Wairarapa

The Wairarapa has a long history of Māori inhabitancy with Archaeological research showing that it was first settled on the coast at Palliser Bay in the late 1300s. Evidence suggests that about 300 people lived in six separate communities on the eastern side of the bay. However, by 1600 these settlements had left, most likely due to a rising population and falling food supplies caused by over-hunting, a cooling climate, and lower soil fertility.

Eventually the Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu tribes moved into the region where they still live today. The two tribes lived peacefully amongst each other, fought off invading tribes, and often intermarried.

A Maori canoe manned with warriors – stock illustration

The first Europeans arrived in the Wairarapa in 1770 when the British explorer James Cook sailed along the coast and named the large bay on the south coast after his friend and patron Sir Hugh Palliser.

Seventy years later William Deans became the first European to enter Wairarapa walking along the coast from Wellington to Palliser Bay with a Māori guide. Impressed he spread word of the region’s potential for pastoralism.  By 1844 Wellington entrepreneurs had begun moving to the region to farm land leased from the Māori with official purchases occurring from the 1850s.

Settlers from Sandinavia and other places came in the 1870s and cleared the dense forests of the Forty Mile Bush in Northern Wairarapa. They farmed the cleared land and built towns.

There was an absence of fighting during the New Zealand wars of the 19th century as relations between Māori and Pākehā communities remained strong.  Even so, some Wairarapa Māori fought alongside Taranaki kinfolk, supporting Māori sovereignty, selling land to buy arms. By the end of the wars, most Māori had sold their land and couldn’t afford to buy it back. Unable to return to their traditional lands, many found work on settler farms.

Boutique Wineries

New Zealand Wine Vineyard sunset

New Zealand is fast becoming a leader in the wine industry and the Wairarapa region boasts some of New Zealand’s most iconic and sought-after producers.  Be sure to stop by for wine tastings at one of the many wineries the Wairarapa has to offer.

With a long history dating back to the settler period, the first vineyards were planted in 1883 but fell victim to the temperance movement in 1905.  The Wairapara’s modern wine history dates back to the late 1970s, since when a range of styles have developed including exceptional Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Aromatics as well as stylish Chardonnay, Syrah and dessert wines.

Although the three main sub regions of Wairarapa – Masterton, Martinborough, Gladstone – share broadly similar climate and soils, they offer subtle differences in character for the discerning palate to explore.

Highlights: Masterton 

Masterton is Wairarapa’s largest town, home to numerous attractions. Enjoy the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre and get acquainted with some of New Zealand’s rarest bird inhabitants amidst a pocket of ancient rainforest. Visit the stunning locations of Henley Lake and Queen Elizabeth Park. Soak in the dramatic scenery of the nearby locations of Tararua forest park and Castle Point Beach at Cape Palliser, complete with a picturesque lighthouse overlooking the sea. And of course, don’t forget the numerous award-winning vineyards open for wine tasting.

Aerial view from castlepoint New Zealand

Masterton is also home to Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History – the Wairarapa’s largest museum and only public collection of art works – – and hosts major annual events including the International hot Air Balloon Fiesta and the Golden Shears shearing competition.

A trip to Masterton is not complete without a sampling of gourmet food and local wine at its excellent line up of cafes, restaurants and bars open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Highlights: Martinborough

Martinborough is a unique wine village packed with over 25 boutique vineyards, most within walking distance of the charming town square.

The village itself is packed with colonial charm, its square laid out in a Union Jack pattern criss-crossed with walking and cycle tracks to explore.

Martinborough is a popular weekend destination for neighbouring Wellingtonians, who enjoy the vineyard cafes, boutique stores, quality accommodation, olive groves and gourmet restaurants serving up seasonal menus.

Winter landscape of Martinborough, one of the biggest wine-making regions in New Zealand

Tour of the Wairarapa

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of the Wairarapa as part of our small group tour of New Zealand’s North Island for mature and senior travellers.

Led by a tour guide chosen for their local knowledge, our tour is for up to 12 people, typically mature and senior travellers joining as a couple or as solo traveller. Off the beaten track, our itinerary follows the east coast from Auckland to Wellington as we guide travellers through the history, Maori culture, and landscapes of the beautiful North Island of New Zealand.

For many visitors, the South Island gets all the attention, with the big tourist draws of Franz Josef Glacier, Milford SoundQueenstown and historic Christchurch. But dig deeper and you’ll find that New Zealand’s North Island has as much to offer, including the beautiful Bay of Islands, Poor Knights Island, White Island, and Waiheke Island, the bird sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi, the Art Deco of Hawke’s Bay, alpine Tongariro, and the glow worm caves in the Waitomo Caves complex.

Heading from Auckland we journey through the Coromandel Peninsula, then track south through the Bay of Plenty to Tairawhitu (The East Cape) rich in Maori culture and travel experiences. From Gisborne through Hawkes Bay and the Wairarapa, grape vines dominate the landscape. We will enjoy several wine tasting experiences, focusing on the different regions of grape that we travel through. The area is also home to several beautiful national parks. Finally, our North Island road trip arrives in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations. Odyssey specialises in offering small group tours, partnering with local guides to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals.  For more information, click here.

Articles about New Zealand published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Wairarapa and New Zealand’s North Island:

Articles about New Zealand

Questions About New Zealand Odyssey Traveller specialises in crafting unforgettable experiences for mature-aged travellers, providing adventure and educational programs to small groups since 1983. Odyssey has built up a reasonable knowledge bank to answer questions…
Questions About New Zealand for senior travellers Odyssey Traveller specialises in crafting unforgettable experiences for senior and mature-aged travellers interested in learning as a couple or as a solo traveller when they travel. Providing adventure…
The Hawke’s Bay region is situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It includes the hilly coastal land around the northern and central bay, the floodplains of the Wairoa River in the…
The Bay of Plenty The Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand is situated around the bight of the same name on the northern coast of the North Island. About 260km long, the bight extends…
The Maori People New Zealand‘s Maori people are the original inhabitants of the island nation, with a history that predates European colonization by centuries. The Maori are a people of Polynesian descent, sharing some cultural…
Napier By Marco Stojanovik Napier city and port is the centre of the Hawke’s Bay region on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. With a well-established Maori history spanning centuries, Europeans began settling…