June 12, 2020

Things to do in Masterton

I confess, I have never really “explored” Masterton. It’s always been more of a town to pass through, catch up with a few friends and visit the graves of my husband’s family (his grandparents and uncles and aunts were born and raised here).

But that has now changed, with the help of the awesome team at Wairarapa NZ who put a whistle-stop itinerary together for me and included some gems I did not know about.

So off we set from Auckland, stopping at Ohakune for a photo with the carrot and again in Taihape for one with the gumboot and staying with friends in Palmerston North, before setting off the next day to the dry farmland of autumnal Wairarapa.

Read on to discover a white kiwi named Manukura, where we stayed in a boutique vineyard and my pick for where to get a great steak for dinner!

Ohakune carrot mascot
I couldn’t resist posing by Ohakune’s carrot!
Megan with Taihape gumboot
And again with the iconic gumboot in Taihape!

Things to do in Wairarapa

If you’re planning a Wairarapa road trip, there are plenty of great places to stay from glamping yurts to historical hotels, boutique BnBs and everything in between.

In my previous posts I’ve written about staying in Martinborough at the iconic Martinborough Hotel on the square in the middle of town and enjoying the surrounding vineyards, and then a night in cute-as-a-button Greytown staying at the White Swan, another iconic hotel which started out a century ago as a railways building.

But tonight our accommodation is just outside of Masterton at Le Gra vineyard in their brand new BnB above the garage with sprawling views of the vines to the mountains.

Wairarapa countryside
The crop in front is irrigated, but check out how dry those hills are!

Stay in a vineyard

Family owned Le Gra Vineyard belongs to Brian and Nicky Geary, who with their 12-year old daughter Orlaith, returned to New Zealand from Ireland (Brian has a great Irish accent) to be near Nicky’s family and create their dream of owning a vineyard.

Le Gra is an Irish phrase and means With Love, and I absolutely adore their logo which is like a finger print with a teeny heart in the centre then a new ring added for each year.

The Geary family in their vineyard Le Gra
The Geary family in their vineyard Le Gra
Le Gra sauvignon blanc and nibbles
Trying out portrait mode on my phone camera as I tasted the Le Gra sauvignon blanc and nibbles!
Pinot nir tasting at Le Gra
We tasted the pinot noir right out of the vat!

Nicky grew up in the area and has been learning the art of wine making since they bought the place, creating not just delicious Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir, Pinot rose, Pinot gris which she pairs with a beautiful antipasto platter for tastings, but she also makes preserves.

A visit to Le Gra for a wine tasting is a wonderful experience, especially as we timed it right to taste the pinot noir directly out of the vat just like a vintner! But to stay in their BnB was a luxurious touch with views across the vines.

They don’t have a restaurant on site, so off we went into Masterton (about a 10-minute drive) and had a delicious dinner before returning to our suite next to the house. If you want to make a booking, contact Nicky direct via her website.

The view from our room at Le Gra
The view from our room at Le Gra

Where to eat in Masterton

Two places came highly recommended for dinner and we found ourselves at The Screening Room, attached to the Masterton cinema. This restaurant is much more than a place for a quick bite before the movies, in fact when we were there I’m not sure if anyone was heading into the cinema, although with two cinemas (seating 60 each) and the possibility of taking dessert in, I might have been wrong.

Koi Lounge was the other popular restaurant that came recommended. It serves modern Indian/Malaysian cuisine and also has a restaurant in New Plymouth, but it was a steak at The Screening Room that lured us.

Visit Pukaha National Wildlife Centre

Driving to Masterton from the north (via Palmerston North and across the Pahiatua Track), we stopped at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre at Mt Bruce to see their native birds, including an incredibly rare white kiwi that I caught a glimpse of in the low light of his nocturnal sanctuary.

Standing in the Redwoods at Pukaha
They have even taken weddings here in the Redwoods at Pukaha

Pukaha is a 942-hectare sanctuary for native birds where you are free to roam. Expect to see wild kakapo and kākā, titipounamu (rifleman), kārearea (New Zealand falcon) and the kererū (wood pigeon) just wandering or flying about.

There are large aviaries where endangered birds are breeding to be released around New Zealand. A breeding program has been operating here since 1960. Today it is highly organised with easy-to-walk (even mobility scooter friendly) tracks to tour the forest.

If you join the “hikoi” (walking tour) you will meet Everlyne Chase, a local Maori woman who lives in nearby Eketāhuna (long vowel sound on the first a. I have been pronouncing it wrong my whole life! It should be, phonetically sounding it: ecky tah hoona)

Everlyne Chase at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre
Everlyne Chase sharing her heritage and knowledge with visitors to Pukaha National Wildlife Centre

I sat down with Everlyne who had just finished taking a school group through the sanctuary. Actually I heard her before I saw her. In fact I thought someone had tipped over a box of Lego, but no, it was Everlyne swishing over to me in her piupiu (pronounced pew pew), a cloak made of dried flax, or harekiki.

Did you know flax has many different uses? Her piupiu is an example of how it is used when it dries and rolls into little cylinders. It can also be woven together by the strands that are shredded to make rope, or muka (as Martin shows me below on our walk through Pukaha), and then you make different patterns and designs by dyeing it in taewa – purple potatoes.

Making Muka, flax rope
Volunteer guide Martin shows me how to make flax rope
How to make flax rope
Peel off the strings
Flax rope (muka)
Muka (flax rope) is unbreakable and was used for everything from binding waka (canoes) to making garments

See the white kiwi!

Another fascinating discovery here at Pukaha is to see Manukura, the white kiwi! She lives in the kiwi house, but her also white brother, Mapuna, hangs out with the takahe wandering freely. They don’t get on, the siblings!

These white kiwi are not albino, their parents had a recessive gene, Everlyne explained. Like when you get a dark haired plus a blonde haired parent and they produce a red head kid. These are the only white kiwi in New Zealand (that we know of).

Manukura the white kiwi
Beautiful Manukura, the white kiwi. Pic by Tara Swan.

I’d suggest you allow at least two hours here, longer if you join the hikoi tour, and there’s a cafe that overlooks the park for when you’re done.

How to get to Masterton

The distance from Wellington to Masterton is 98km, about 1 hour and 45 minutes drive up through Greytown.

The distance from Palmerston North to Masterton is 93km, about 1 hour and 20 by car, past Eketahuna and Pukaha.

The distance from Napier to Masterton is 230km, or about 2 hours 45 minutes on SH2 through Dannevirke and Woodville, then joining the route from Palmy at Pahiatua.

If you’re planning a larger New Zealand itinerary you’ll like this post giving a great overview of every region and how long to spend there.

About Megan Singleton

Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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