Drive over the Rimutaka Hill from Wellington and you enter a different world as the Wairarapa Valley opens up before you. This is still ‘Capital Country’ but without the stress. Here you can enjoy a slower pace – a happy blend of latté and lifestyle, wine and wilderness.
Masterton is the tourist hub and commercial heart of the Wairarapa region, although this is not obvious as you drive through its quiet, unhurried streets. The Wairarapa promotes itself as New Zealand’s least visited region because ‘It’s a World Away.’ It has a distinct feeling of isolation and a colourful Maori heritage. The legendry hero, Maui, pulled the great fish (North Island) out of the sea from his sturdy boat (South Island.) Palliser Bay at the southern extremity of the Wairarapa, is the mouth of Maui’s fish and Lake Wairarapa is its shimmering eye. Archaeological sites in the bay indicate Maori occupation as far back in 1000 AD.
Europeans came on the scene in 1844 when a mob of sheep was driven around the coast from Wellington to set up New Zealand’s first sheep station. Joseph Masters later established Masterton as a rural service centre. Today there is a string of service towns along State Highway 2, attending to the material needs of eight million sheep and their hardworking owners.
Rich alluvial floodplains reach north and south of Masterton to merge with rich grasslands and rolling hills white-flecked with grazing sheep. Coastal mountain ridges and the towering Tararua Range are thickly wooded with rainforest carrying feral pigs and deer and the untamed coast has fruitful fishing grounds. For colonial settlers intent on ‘living off the land,’ this was truly Nirvana in the South Pacific.
These days the ‘immigrants’ come at weekends as ‘day visitors.’ Capital city residents stream over the hill and explore the fascinating array of country escapes on the backblocks roads, or visit Masterton, Greytown, Carterton, Featherston and Martinborough. Each town has its own unique appeal and special attractions. Nothing draws the smart capital city set more than the plump grapes that ripen on southern Wairarapa’s sunny slopes. Both Masterton and Martinborough are towns with grape expectations – numerous vineyards offer cellar-door sales, free sampling and gourmet dining experiences. The Wairarapa Wine & Food Festival in February attracts thousands of visitors. The whole world seems to descend on Masterton in March each year for the International Golden Shears sheep-shearing competition, the pinnacle of achievement for the world’s top shearers. The annual Balloon Fiesta is another popular attraction. Accommodation facilities are excellent with a full range of hotels, motels, bed and breakfast guesthouses and holiday parks.
Masterton is a perfect rural retreat in heartland New Zealand – archetypal sheep country where hospitality is genuine and people always take the time to talk to strangers.