Nearcation from Wellington: Cape Palliser, Wairarpa – Plus Video

If you are stuck in Wellington, New Zealand  but need a break for a day or longer than you can do a lot worse than heading over the Rimutakas to the the Wairarapa.  Only about 1.5hours out of Wellington, but separated by high hills, its a bit of a rural idyll. But not for the whole sheep thing that New Zealand is famous for: more its a rather nice combination of Pinot Noir, fine dining, good coffee, great fishing and fantastic landscapes.

Setting out from Wellington – it will probably be on the cool side of tropical, in fact in summer, two weeks in February normally, it may even hit 30C inland in the Wairarapa. But that’s OK – because frankly good coffee, wine and food work best if its a little cooler.

Up and over the Rimutakas is the first part of the trip – in fact its less exciting than it used to me as the road on the Wellington side has just had a lot of straightening and widening  recently.

Road Trip from Wellington to Cape Palliser, Wairarapa – Video

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Suggested Short Trip Itinerary 

First stop is Featherston. This tiny town features a landmark pub – on the right – that’s the very first pub I ever drank in, at just 18 (yes, the drinking age was 20 then, and yes, I was a uni organised official geology field trip, no I don’t think they include that stop on the trip any longer). Anyway if its too early for a beer, there are several decent cafes on the main street, and even the world’s only Fell Locomotive Museum for train enthusiasts.

Flashy Featherston Pub - which probably doesn't server under-age drinkers any more...

Flashy Featherston Pub - which probably doesn't server under-age drinkers any more...

If you have the time and inclination carry on to Greytown. This historic (for New Zealand) town has reinvented itself with plenty of antique shops, over-priced design shops, expensive B&B’s and excellent restaraunts and cafes. Its not a bad spot on a fine day if shopping is your thing. If you are on a budget or more interested in nature I’d skip it and instead turn right at Featherston and head south.

Skirting the edge of Lake Wairarapa, navigating one-way bridges, you’ll arrive after about 30km at Lake Ferry. Lake Ferry is the end of the road – and is just a camp ground and scattering of holiday homes. And a hotel – which does some of the better food in the area (which is saying quite a lot).

South Coast from Lake Ferry Hotel

South Coast from Lake Ferry Hotel

No not a ferry anymore – the original road from Wellington followed the rugged southern coast – and there was a ferry here, but the old hotel has reinvented itself with a great combination of traditional pub / cafe. You can stay there too. There are also a couple of wind-swept camping grounds which have cabins as well as sites.

Lake Ferry Hotel, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Lake Ferry Hotel, Wairarapa, New Zealand

This remote spot must be doing something right – on the Sunday I was – ahemmm – researching this article, there was not only a band of Harley Davidson bikers already ensconced, but while we were there the local MX5 club showed up.

Whitebait Fritter, Lake Ferry, for research purposes only - honest

Whitebait Fritter, Lake Ferry, for research purposes only - honest

Carrying on from Lake Ferry another 40km will get you to Cape Palliser with its rather gaudy lighthouse which made Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights under the chapter “Flashiest Lighthouses“. On the way you will pass some very exposed beaches, where only the wet-suit equipped traveller should consider surfing.

The largest settlement you will pass through is Ngawi which doesn’t actually boast a permanent pub or cafe, but does have a small wind-lashed golf course ($5/person).

Cape Palliser Lighthouse, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Cape Palliser Lighthouse, Wairarapa, New Zealand

You’ll have to backtrack from the Cape almost to Lake Ferry – but you can stop off at the spooky Putangirua Pinnacles which Peter Jackson used for filming third Lord of the Rings movie.

Turning back north you will get to Martinborough – self-proclaimed capital of the Gladstone region of the Wairarapa. Although you will have seen plenty of sheep and cattle on the first part of the trip – this part of the area is firmed focussed on the growing of grapes and olives. And cheers to that – the Martinborough Hotel actually runs a separate Pinot Noir list – because their list is a little long to fit into the regular wine list.  No Wairarapa Pinot Noir is not cheap, it is very good though!

Martinborough Hotel, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Martinborough Hotel, Wairarapa, New Zealand

If you are staying overnight then Martinborough is a central option as is Greytown. If you actually want to stay in a town with a real supermarket and not inflated tourist prices then down-to-earth Masterton to the north may be a better choice.

Wine is a VERY big part of Martinborough’s rise in the tourism stakes, you can do any number of vineyard tours here, including by bike – the area is a very flat – a rarity for New Zealand.

Southern Wairarapa Map

View Wairarapa – Staycation in a larger map

Good to Know

Wairarapa has a well-developed tourist infrastructure and a number of events over the summer. Wings Over Masterton (January) and the Martinborough Fairs (March) are the most popular. Worth checking with the local tourist office if you are not sure

Where To Stay? 

You can pay anything from $5/night at the DOC Pinnacles camp ground to Wharehakhau Lodge – regularly on the list of best boutique accommodation lists (they don’t bother mentioning price – but lets just go with 4 figures…). There aren’t too many hostels around but there are campgrounds with cabins at Lake Ferry, Carterton and Greytown. Further a field you may find a better range at Masterton. Next up in the price range stakes (still under $100/double) are motels. Not very pretty quite often, but the older ones will come fully equipped with your own kitchen.

If there is a a group of you and you want to stay a few days – look for a holiday home to let. There are plenty of these along the south coast particularly, and they are very reasonable, particularly outside of the school holidays.

Getting There/Around

There’s a commuter rail service which connects Wellington to Masterton via Featherston. There are also bus connections to Greytown and Martinborough. They are very limited though and service locals who commute not tourists, i.e. check the timetable first!  You can take bikes on the train so this may be an option particularly around the vineyards near Martinborough.

The  fit can mountain bike or hike the Rimutaka Incline (the old railway line) 17km (5 hours walking 3 hours riding)  from Kaitoke (Upper Hutt) to about 10km south of Featherston. Details here.  Bring a torch for the tunnels.

If you actually want to get to the south coast your options involve either hiring a car or going on a tour. The car will probably be cheaper between two or more people, and its easy enough to drive yourself.  The fit and keen will get around with mountain bikes. The road is sealed all the way to Ngawi – though narrow and prone to rock falls in places.

Nearcation Blog Carnival

This post is part of a blog carnival on the topic of Nearcations – short trips within two hour’s drive of our home town. The introduction of our theme. The carnival is hosted by Lane of The Lost Backpack – details here:

Amanda of

Ahhh – my favourite day trip from Perth – Rottnest Island

Ele of Kootvela
Kairenai botanical gardens are a great day out from Vilinus.

Craig of

Auckland’s best feature is the Waitemata harbour.

Jen of
One of the coolest things about living in Portland is that so many great places are within reach; the ocean, the mountain, the dessert. But sometimes it’s good to get farther away, to a place that is a little more…theatrical. Ashland is a great escape with entertainment that can take you to other worlds.

Jim of
My kids aren’t quite turned on by the image I hold of myself as an intrepid Saharan explorer. So we load our little tent, sleeping bags and some coolers of food and drink into the car and hustle a quick two hours north on Highway 522 from our home in Taos, New Mexico, into Colorado and to the 85,000-acre Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Lauren of
Extremadura is a part of Spain that few people know about. But only an hour away from busy Madrid, Extremadura makes a great choice when traveling in Spain. Visit the charming town of Trujillo to see its gorgeous castle and taste world famous Torta de Caser cheese. If you prefer something bigger try the capital, Cáceres, to see its perfectly preserved old town. Finally, head down to Mérida where the Roman ruins rival those of Rome, without groups of tourists getting in your way.

Travis of

The best possible day trip you can take to get away from Los Angeles is a quick two-two hour drive down to San Diego. Ideal weather, great beaches, interesting neighborhoods and activities that cater to adults just as much as families, make it a great candidate for getting out of the big city craziness that can come with living in, and even visiting, Los Angeles.


  1. Amanda on June 2, 2012 at 1:20 am

    You had me at Pinot Noir! (Although the “research only” food photo was impressive too!).
    NZ very high on my list – I always feel bad I haven’t visited one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, although it’s not actually that near when you’re starting from Perth.

    • Elisabeth on June 3, 2012 at 7:55 am

      LOL its a flipping long way from Perth! You’re much closer to Asia! Bring your winter clothes too, if you own any!

  2. eva hamori on June 6, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    New Zealand sounds better and better the more I read online. Definitely worth the trek.

    Our nearcation post on southern France’s Capestang our home town.


  3. Chris Alford on June 7, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    We will certainly be back here to read everything about New Zealand as we will be there for the whole of November! Just aim to do the north island this time so will have plenty of time to explore.

    • Elisabeth on June 9, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Make sure sure you subscribe to my newsletter Chris – I have a number of New Zealand posts planned – and particularly the North Island

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