Wellington is well-known for its shopping, museums and art galleries but, after getting your fill of them, hop on a train and take a day trip out of town. New Zealand’s capital city is wedged between the ocean and rich farmland, so the toughest decision will be deciding whether to head north, south, east or west.
Go north for a vigorous hike along the windswept sea cliffs of the Kapiti coast via the Te Araroa trail, or head east towards the vineyards and long, lazy lunches of the Wairarapa region, where travellers can pop into the Avatar director James Cameron’s organic fruit shop and cafe for a soup made with vegetables from his garden.
Take the Te Araroa trail
The Te Araroa trail is a national hiking track that runs the length of New Zealand. Beginning in Cape Reinga at the northern tip of the country, it concludes 3,000km south in Bluff, where local oysters and blue cod are on every menu. The trail is relatively new – it was officially opened in 2011 – and is quickly becoming a bucket-list challenge for hikers around the world.
Although it would take three to four months to walk the trail in its entirety, you can get a taste of it in a day trip from Wellington. Start early and take the train north to Pukerua Bay. Hop off, cross the road and start walking.
The trail can be steep and it is best to choose a calm day, but the views are magnificent: teal seas, dramatic stony beaches, windswept pine forests and grazing sheep. It does require hiking boots and a reasonable level of fitness, though the track is also suitable for children (factor in an extra hour).
The stage of the trail concludes 10km north of Pukerua Bay in the quaint seaside village of Paekakariki. It’s a good place to stop for a late lunch and then browse the village shops. Beach Road Deli does excellent coffee, fresh pastries and pizzas, and there are a host of organic fruit shops, ice cream bars and a pub. Hop on the train back to Wellington and you’ll be home in time for sunset.
Taste the Wairarapa with a wine tour
While Wellington city offers plenty of excellent local wines, an all-inclusive wine tour (NZ$164) in the Wairarapa is a great excuse to get some fresh air and take in the rural scenery when you tire of cityscapes and bitumen.
The tour departs from central Wellington station at 9.30am, and chugs slowly north for an hour through the grey suburbs of Lower Hutt before disappearing into a tunnel beneath the Rimutaka mountain range and emerging on the other side to a stunning vista of vineyards and native bush.
The Wairapara vineyards are largely small and family run, making them casual and charming, and we stopped at four. Our day was spent sitting in lush gardens as the vineyard ownershosted us like old friends, and their dogs rested their heads in our laps. At Brodie Estate, our small crew of six went weak at the knees for the 2014 pinot noir.
For lunch, we stopped at the Village Cafe for heaving platters of locally grown and produced antipasti, a glass of wine, coffee and sweets. In the afternoon we stopped at my favourite winery, Palliser Estate. The riesling was so good (and reasonably priced) I ordered a case to take home.
While it’s possible to catch the train back to Wellington after the tour, I overnighted in a plush suite at the elegantly restored Martinborough Hotel (about NZ$200 a night). Before dinner I wandered the grand hallways pretending to be in an Agatha Christie novel, and read in the hotel’s well-stocked library. That night we ate in the hotel’s rustic-luxe restaurant and, if we hadn’t spent the day on a wine tour, I would have finished the evening in the bar by the open fire with the locals. But a bath, book and bed were a fitting conclusion to a special day.
Glamorous in Greytown
Another train ride (NZ$18) out of Wellington takes visitors to Greytown, a small but rather glamorous village of 2,000 surrounded by picturesque countryside. It’s home to the Avatar director, James Cameron, and his organic grocery store and cafe, where the director’s garden produce is available to buy.
By locals’ accounts, Cameron and family are active and passionate members of the Wairarapa community and haven’t brought any Hollywood hoopla to this gentle corner of New Zealand.
Greytown is a boutique country village, the kind New Zealand needs many more of, with so many small Kiwi towns neglected and in states of disrepair. The main street is a lazy potterer’s delight, full of designer clothing stores and top-class restaurants. It’s also home to the delicious Schoc chocolate shop, which does curious chocolate flavours such as carrot and coriander, curry and papadums, and my favourite – Earl Grey tea.
Being mostly flat, the village is a great place to hire a bike (aboutNZ$40 a day) and explore the surrounding district, which is safe, easy riding. When you’re all cycled out, sit down in the shaded courtyard of Salute for a tapas lunch. You may even spot James Cameron wandering past on the way to his shop.
Guardian Australia was a guest of Wellington Tourism and Wairarapa Tourism for parts of this trip.