The Wairarapa district covers the south-eastern corner of New Zealand's North Island. While separated from the Wellington metropolitan area by the Rimutaka Ranges, its proximity and good transport connections to the capital makes it a popular place for Wellington day-trippers and commuters.
The Rimutaka and Tararua ranges shelter the region from the prevailing westerly winds, resulting in a warm dry climate. While the region is mostly suitable for general sheep and dairy farming, there are localities where horticulture and viticulture have been established.
Wairarapa takes it name from the largest lake in the region, Lake Wairarapa. According to local Maori legend, the lake was discovered by Haunui while chasing his cheating wife Wairaka and her lover across the lower North Island. While he rested at the top of the Rimutaka Range, he looked down towards the lake to see it glistening with the reflection of the sun, hence he named the lake Wairarapa (glistening waters). Haunui also named the region's five major rivers - Tauwharenikau (corrupted to Tauherenikau), Waiohine, Waingawa, Waipoua and Ruamahunga.
Commuting between Wairarapa and Wellington began after the opening of the 8.8 km Rimutaka rail tunnel in November 1955, and today over 1000 people make the daily commute "through the hill" to work in Wellington. Before the tunnel opened, trains ran over the unique Rimutaka Incline Railway, which due to its steepness required special Fell locomotives and brakevans that gripped onto a third centre rail for adhesion and braking. Trains up the incline often required five locomotives and had a top speed of just 8 km/h. The old railway formation now forms the Rimutaka Rail Trail, a popular walking and cycling route over the Rimutaka Ranges.
- Masterton i-SITE Visitor Centre, cnr Dixon & Bruce Sts, Masterton, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Mo-Fr 09:00-17:00, Sa-Su & holidays 10:00-16:00.
- Martinborough i-SITE Visitor Centre, 18 Kitchener St, Martinborough (cnr Broadway St), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Tu-Sa 09:00-17:00, Su-Mo & holidays 10:00-16:00.
State Highway 2 passes through the Wairarapa, connecting it with Wellington and the Hutt Valley in the south, and with the Hawke's Bay in the north. Between the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa, SH 2 passes over the Rimutaka Range via a narrow and winding 15 km road; take extra care as it is one of the country's worst crash blackspots.
From Palmerston North, take State Highway 3 via the Manawatu Gorge, then turn right onto State Highway 2 at Woodville. An alternative route is the 'Pahiatua Track' (actually a fairly good sealed road), which leaves State Highway 57 at Aokautere in southeastern Palmerston North and joins with State Highway 2 in Pahiatua.
There is a regular train service to and from Wellington known as the Wairarapa Connection. Primarily for commuters to Wellington from the Wairarapa, it runs 5 services daily each way on weekdays and 2 services daily each way on weekends and public holidays. Seating is strictly on a first-come-first-served basis, and evening peak services are often standing-room only during the school holidays. There is a luggage compartment in the northernmost carriage and bicycles will be carried for free (space permitting). The train stops at Featherston, Woodside (for Greytown), Matarawa, Carterton and at 3 stations in Masterton. Purchase tickets at the station ticket office (if one is open) or on board the train.
Tranzit Coachlines operates a Palmerston North to Masterton service five days a week (Tu-Fr and Su). The bus departs the InterCity terminal in The Square, Palmerston North, and stops at Ashhurst, Woodville, Pahiatua, Eketahuna, Pukaha Mount Bruce (booked passengers only), and Masterton.
If you are cycling from Wellington, it is best to use the Rimutaka Rail Trail from Upper Hutt. Cycling on State Highway 2 over the Rimutakas is not recommended due to the narrow winding road and amount of traffic. An alternative is to ride around the South Coast from Wainuiomata – the track is reasonably flat, but there are a number of natural hazards, the main one being a few river crossings that can be impassable in heavy rain. Approaching from the north is more simple, using State Highway 2 from southern Hawke's Bay.
Air New Zealand cancelled its Masterton to Auckland service in February 2014, citing high costs and low passenger numbers. Alternatively you can fly to Wellington or Palmerston North and then drive/bus/train to the Wairarapa.
A car is probably a good idea if you intend to get out of town. The country is reasonably flat so bicycling is practical for short distances.
There is a regular bus service linking Masterton with Carterton, Greytown, Featherston and Martinborough. Buses also link Martinborough with trains at Featherston and Greytown with trains at Woodside. They do not operate on Sundays or public holidays.
- Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, 85379 State Highway 2, Mount Bruce (30 km north of Masterton, 11 km south of Eketahuna), ☎ . Daily 09:00-16:30. A good place to see kiwis and kaka (bush parrot), and plenty of other native birds. Inside the kiwi house is Manukura, the only white-feathered kiwi in the world! Adult $20, child $6.
- Stonehenge Aotearoa, 51 Ahiaruhe Road, Ahiaruhe (12 km east of Carterton, follow signs from High Street South), ☎ . A full sized working model of an astronomical stone circle, like Stonehenge, constructed from modern materials, opened in February 2005. Guided tours take place on weekends and holidays but you need to book in advance.
- Fell Locomotive Museum, Cnr Fitzherbert St (SH 2) & Lyons St, Featherston, ☎ . Daily 10:00-16:00. Home to H199, the only remaining Fell locomotive in the world and one of six Fell locomotives that worked the Rimutaka Incline between Wellington and Wairarapa for 77 years (1878-1955). Make sure you go under the locomotive to see the four wheels that gripped onto the third centre rail and helped the train climb the incline. Also on display is a fully-restored Fell brakevan, plus photos, video footage and memorabilia from the Incline's operating days. Adults $5, children $2.
- Putangirua Pinnacles, off Cape Palliser Rd (13 km south of Lake Ferry Rd turnoff). One of New Zealand's best examples of badlands erosion, these earth pillars tower above the Putangirua Stream. The Pinnacles lookout is a 90-minute return walk from the carpark and DOC campsite.
- Cape Palliser, end of Cape Palliser Rd (37 km south of Lake Ferry Rd turnoff). The southernmost point of the North Island (it's further south than Blenheim in the South Island). Climb the 258 steps up to the red-and-white-striped Cape Palliser Lighthouse (1897) for magnificent views along the coast and across Cook Strait to the South Island. Look out for the North Island's largest fur seal colony on the coastal rocks along the road to the lighthouse.
- Tui Brewery, State Highway 2, Mangatainoka (cnr Kohinui Road, 4 km north of Pahiatua), ☎ . Daily 10:00-16:00. One of New Zealand's better known beer brands, thanks to its viral marketing and its sometimes controversial "Yeah Right" billboards. Visit the Tui museum and check out the shop full of Tui-branded merchandise. Tastings are available at $20 for 3 beers, and you get to keep the glass. Tours of the 1931 heritage-listed brew tower (originally built without stairs or a lift!) and the modern brewery are available, but need to be booked in advance.
Wairarapa is a small wine-growing area compared to Marlborough and Hawke's Bay, but its boutique wines (especially its Pinot Noir) ranks highly in national and international wine awards. The main growing area is around Martinborough, with smaller areas further north at Gladstone (east of Carterton) and north of Masterton. Pinot Noir and Sauvingnon Blanc are the two main varieties produced, but the region also has a significant amount of aromatic wines such as Pinot Gris and Riesling.
- Martinborough Wine Centre, 6 Kitchener St (SH 53), Martinborough, ☎ . Daily 10:00-17:00 (winter); Su-Th 10:00-17:00, Fr-Sa 10:00-19:00 (summer). Provides information on local wineries and offers a comprehensive range off local and regional wines to taste and buy. Cycle hire is available for $40 per day (bookings essential).