Living in the most southern part of southern Wairarapa (aka Upper Hutt), the many attractions of Greytown, Martinborough, Masterton et al. are but a stone’s throw away for me and my family, and it’s fair to say we make the most of that fact with regular jaunts to the wilds.
Here, then, are what we have found to be the highlights of that massive expanse of New Zealand that is bedded down between the Tararuas and the coast, nonchalantly glancing south to the Rimutakas and north to Manawatu. As with previous features (Wellington City in March 2014; Hutt Valley in July and Porirua in October) there are but two basic guidelines:
- All of the included activities must be child- and family-friendly; and
- Top of mind for most is the cost versus entertainment ratio.
At least two of the many Wairarapa villages are famous for the eateries they boast, so let’s go through the stomach to get to the rest of the region because, if your kids are anything like mine, it doesn’t matter how little time they’ve spent in the car, by the time they get to wherever you’re going they’re “so hungry” or “starving” and you almost certainly need caffeine.
Greytown has many possibilities but we have two favourites. Bar Saluté doesn’t sound like the kind of place you’d take the under-teens, but it caters to kids brilliantly. Manager Ash Thomas has three of his own and seems to get what’s needed. They have a $16 box that includes activities and there’s plenty of outdoor seating, so that on a sunny day you can sit outside — or perhaps put the kids outside while you stay indoors with a flat white.
Local institution The French Baker has recently been bought by former Boulcott Bistro maître d’ and Wellington food identity Rusty Donworth. He’s kept everything pretty much as is, and with an outdoor area, plenty of chocolate-filled pastries and good coffee, there’s something to keep every member of the family happy.
While you’re in Greytown, there’s a cool, recently upgraded playground in Soldiers Memorial Park, on Kuratawhiti Street (off Main Street). As long as the weather’s good — and I’m led to believe that the weather’s always good in Greytown — that’s a decent run around for an hour.
If, on the other hand, you’ve veered left in Featherston and headed to where the vines are calling your name, there’s a good spot for family grazing in Martinborough too. Pinocchio has toys and a kids’ menu, and last time we were there they didn’t even seem to mind that my three-year-old twin daughters were playing tag on the bench seats.
Now, appetite sated, there’s much to do. Let’s go.
I’m not going to try to pull the alpaca wool over your eyes here; the day my friend Ben and I took our three pre-teen testers from various parts of the Hutt Valley, loaded them into the car and headed over the hill to see what they made of the best attractions Wairarapa had to offer, it was hosing down and the experience was both abbreviated and hydrated. We had three places on a fun-looking agenda, but the weather gods cast a mocking eye in our direction and laughed at that agenda before saturating it and rendering it useless. Of the three places on the list, we actually made it to only one. That said, as well pulled off soaked socks in the car afterward, we all agreed the trip had been worth it.
Kahikatea Gardens is about five minutes off the main drag in Greytown. It’s a vast expanse of beautifully maintained gardens and a petting farm, through which you get a guided tour from hosts Neil and Greg Montgomerie-Crowe.
Neil’s family has been on the land since it went all the way up into the mountains. His father and grandfather farmed this place and he grew up among the walnut trees and sheep. This is his spiritual as well as actual home, and he knows it so well he can feel its pulse. The beating heart of Kahikatea Gardens is the enormous kahikatea tree that Neil tells us is over 900 years old. It towers over everything, gargantuan, guarding, noble.
As much as the grown-ups are fascinated by the history of this place, the kids light up considerably when we’re taken through to where the animals are. Even weighed down by umbrellas and sodden shoes, we’re delighted to see two of the sheep come bounding over when Neil calls their names (Sweatpea and Violet) and shakes an ice-cream container of feed in their direction.
My son Theo is quickly fleeced by the less than sheepish pair and we move on to the donkeys. At the end of the tour I buy a huge bag of walnuts for $10. They ask that you call before you go; I suggest you take your time, and maybe wait for a sunny day. Folks who live there insist that the days are almost always sunny and that rain is the rarest of things. Halley’s Comet passes overhead more often than dark clouds, they are at pains to say.
If farm visits and country walks are your thing — or more importantly your kids’ thing — then Wairarapa is probably the best place in New Zealand for you to visit. Purely dependent on where your final destination is, a couple of other options with alpacas and sheep to pet and chutneys to buy include:
- Martinborough Manor, which has more of its focus on the orcharding of fruit and the making of jams, but does a fine, fun farm tour too; and
- Wallowing Heights in Carterton, with its pigs and ponies and a play area especially for kids.
Once you’re farmed out, the region also does a pretty good line in train rides for kids. In Featherston, try the Mini Fell Engine Rides. They choo-choose to hit the tracks on fine Sundays and cost only $2 a ride. Queen Elizabeth Park at the northern end of Masterton also has a train that runs a circuit through it on weekends and school holidays. Tickets are available on site.
Now that we’re in Masterton — Wairarapa’s big smoke — let’s stick around, because as far as attractions for kids go in this particular neck of the woods, this is where the action is. If you’re in town on a fine weekend — and the advice I get from locals is that Masterton’s weekends are never anything but fine — there’s plenty to do in this oft-overshadowed town. Sure, Greytown has the boutique stores full of cushions and colour and antique furniture, and it’s true that Martinborough has wine and festivals and Thunderpants, but if you want a day full of fun for the kids, then it’s tough to go past this place.
Using Queen Elizabeth Park as your geographical start point — and ongoing reference — once you’ve played at the park, picnicked on the grass, done your dash of football or cricket or tag in the wide-open spaces and, of course, circumnavigated it all by tiny train, it’s worth wandering south down Dixon Street to Master Putt.
Or perhaps you’d like to forgo the more manicured and formal Queen Elizabeth Park altogether and head for Henley Lake and it’s self-described Leisureland. Wander the wetlands, get the kayak off the roof and go for a paddle in the lake, grab a coffee while the kids burn off enough energy to keep them sitting relatively still in the car for 10 or 12 minutes. With two parks so close to each other that a cricket ball hit from one could be caught in the other, Masterton is well served for things to do with the kids when the weather is warm. And I’m led to believe that the weather is warm without fail…
So what if — and I am aware that Richie McCaw wandering up Chapel Street in his Y‑fronts is more likely than a wet day, but just go with me for a moment here — it rains? What if, in that week you’re staying in Masterton looking for family-friendly activities, water falls from the sky? What then?
Don’t fret. Help is at hand. The Masterton pools (officially called the Genesis Energy Recreation Centre) has swimming and slides and all that you’d expect of a city-sized indoor swimming complex. There’s half a day done already.
Masterton also has plenty of options in the ‘boutique museum’ category. A couple of quick possibilities before we get to the star of the show:
- Aratoi — Wairarapa Museum of Art and History. It’s a long and grand name for what is a small, but beautifully put together space. The historical focus is Māori and the art is ever-changing.
- The Wool Shed. This is the national museum of sheep and shearing, and every Kiwi knows what a vital role sheep have always played in this country. That makes The Wool Shed fairly significant, historically speaking, and extremely cool activity-wise. Lunches are available, shearing demos can be arranged or you can just wander through with the family. Absolutely worth rousing the gang and taking them in.
And so to this: The Vintage Aviator at Hood Aerodrome. Kids of all ages will love this place. It’s steeped in history, it smells (as promised on the website) of leather and oil, and it’s full of the coolest old stuff: fighter planes and training planes and flying equipment and brilliantly clever posters from the First World War, as well as uniforms, photographs, restored parts and plenty more. It has the right mix of the historical for grown-ups who are into that sort of thing, and fascinating machinery for the kids.
The aerodrome played host to the iconic Wings Over Wairarapa show in mid-January and this is where a lot of the aircraft and support gear spend the rest of the year. If you’re lucky and the weather is right (which it pretty much always is, according Masterton people), and your timing is good, you might even catch an aerial display.
The only way to fit all of this in, obviously, is to stay in town for a few days. Probably the best-known and most kid-friendly accommodation is at the Copthorne Hotel and Resort Solway Park. There’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of it, and maybe even stayed there. What you might not know is how far they’re going to keep the smaller members of the family happy while you’re there. Yes, you could do the bush walk, try the sports facilities and watch a movie during school holidays (free popcorn!), but the piece de résistance is the golf driving range, café and kids’ adventure park just behind the hotel.
The range itself is open even when it’s raining. Which, they tell me, never happens. Except when I visit.
When you’re planning a trip to the Wairarapa with kids, it’s worth casting an eye over the Wai Kids Play site (waikidsplay.co.nz), which has a great list of activities and events. Many thanks to Kat for some of the photos we’ve used.