Why Wairarapa is the perfect destination for a family hike

A hike you can tackle in sneakers, with kids in tow, with wine at the end? In Palliser Bay it’s possible - and you can pack in a visit to a legendary movie location, seals and a scenic lighthouse too.

Palliser Bay in the Wairarapa region on New Zealand's North Island.
  • Carolyn Swindell
  • September 2019

The whiteness of my sneakers is the first giveaway. We don’t pass many people on the first part of the hike in the Wairarapa region, tucked away at the south-eastern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, but those we do are all decked out in hiking boots and fabric so tech savvy it could write its own code. We are clearly amateurs, the softest of soft adventurers, about to follow in the footsteps of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli who travelled this very route in director Peter Jackson’s cinematic masterpiece and the third in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. What fate will await our jeans-wearing ensemble as we tackle our own intrepid adventure, armed with little more than bananas and trail mix? Quite a good one actually.

In Maori mythology, the demigod Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga (feel free to call him Maui) pulled from the depths a fish that became Aotearoa’s North Island. The mouth of that monster fish became Palliser Bay and my husband and I are taking our 10-year-old boy and five-year-old girl into what must have been the soft palate of that fish, the Aorangi Range. This rugged coast, about 150 kilometres south east of Wellington, with towering sharp slabs of rock on one side of the road and the full force of the southerly swell hitting the black sands on the other, feels like the end of the world.

A person climbs on a rock formation in Palliser Bay in New Zealand's North Island.
In Maori mythology, Palliser Bay is the mouth of a giant fish that was pulled from the depths of the ocean.

In this part of the country, beautiful hikes – which, because we’re in New Zealand, we’ll refer to as “tramping” – can be accomplished without carrying our body weight on our backs, or without the need to invest in a new wardrobe of outdoor gear. And we’ll be back to comfort and civilisation to share our war stories over fine food before dark. Yes, we’re just like those plucky hobbits, but propelled by Converse, a Camry and chocolate biscuits instead of a fixation on a piece of jewellery.

Our fab four is about to tackle the Putangirua Pinnacles – eerie rock formations that found fame as a haunted passage under the White Mountains in said movie – tucked into the middle of the 40-kilometre stretch of road along Palliser Bay. The tramp may be officially classified by NZ’s Department of Conservation opens in new window as “easy” but is definitely worth it for newbie trampers and hard-core adventurers alike.

While the Pinnacles are a manageable day trip from Wellington – Green Jersey Explorer Tours opens in new window offers a one-day Palliser Bay Explorer Tour out of Wellington – they’re much better tackled as part of a slightly longer stay in Martinborough. The drive from Wellington to Martinborough winds through the Remutaka Hills and takes just over an hour. Or get the Wairarapa train from Wellington to Featherston, then catch the Martinborough bus.

The Putangirua Pinnacles in New Zealand.
The eerie Putangirua Pinnacles were featured in the movie 'Lord of the Rings: Return of the King'.

Back in 1879 a fella named John Martin bought the township of Wharekaka, laid out the town square and streets like the Union Jack and renamed it after himself. Fast forward to the 1970s, some bright spark had the idea of planting grapes around the ailing farming town. The township of Martinborough now offers much for those of us who like a holiday with adventure (but not too much).

One accommodation option is The Martinborough Hotel opens in new window, a restored historical pub that offers boutique accommodation for adults and families. Downstairs is the delightful Union Square Bistro, which serves contemporary NZ fare with French influences and has a good kids menu. Or you can book a cabin or a campsite at the Martinborough Top 10 Holiday Park opens in new window, which has a range of family-friendly budget accommodation. There is also the Aylstone Boutique Retreat opens in new window, a guesthouse offering beautifully decorated rooms amid the vineyards, but it doesn’t cater for kids.

Because it’s New Zealand, good coffee is as abundant as fresh air. In the Neighbourhood opens in new window offers both, plus a great selection of pastries. Load up on snacks before you hit the road at the Four Square Supermarket on Memorial Square. It has everything needed to fuel a moderately strenuous day.

The Pinnacles are only about an hour’s drive from the town square, followed by an hour’s hike. But first, we have a lighthouse to see. We know we’re getting close when we see the rusty anchor of the Ben Avon, a roadside memorial to the lives lost to the treacherous waters of Palliser Bay, which has claimed many ships in its time. Right about here, Cape Palliser Road narrows to little more than a single lane, squeezed by the erosion that is plaguing the area, with tides and southerly storms claiming about half-a-metre of land in a normal year. The seas here are hungry and several homes have slipped into the bay, so the cheerful facade of the Cape Palliser lighthouse at the North Island’s southernmost point seems a bit out of place.

As we step out of the car to admire New Zealand’s only red-and-white-striped lighthouse, we almost fall over one of the many fur seals that call this stretch of coast home. Until you’re right on top of them, they appear like other grey boulders, and I can’t have been the first person to entertain my family by shrieking when the boulder I stood beside belched loudly. This uncouth creature is part of the only colony of fur seals in the North Island where breeding is well-established. Bad manners are clearly no impediment to a robust social life.

A fur seal sits on a rock at Kirikiri Bay, New Zealand.
Large colonies of burping fur seals can be found at Cape Palliser.

The 18-metre lighthouse was built in 1897. The stairs were built in 1912. The lighthouse is made of cast iron and came out from Birmingham, England, in pieces before being hauled up that hill. Before the steps. That thought is never far away as we climb more than 250 of them, steeply stacked, to reach the lighthouse. We can’t go in as it has been controlled from Wellington for almost 40 years but it is still worth visiting for the views across Cook Strait from the base, the satisfying quad workout and the excuse to eat those baked treats I wisely bought for our future selves all those hours ago. What a good mother.

Given my fear of heights, the trip gave me a small adrenaline burst readying me for the pinnacle of our day’s daring deeds – tramping the Putangirua Pinnacles. Even Sir Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, would have had to start in the same car park where we shouldered our daypacks, looked at the map and harboured secret doubts about our outfits.

A short way in came our first decision; did we want to re-enact that Tolkien-ish scene and walk among the stone pillars of ancient gravel? Or, did we want to head up to the lookout and eyeball these pinnacles, which seem much friendlier when you call them by their other name – fairy chimneys? Although we’re reliably advised that the Army of the Dead has all cleared out, we overruled the children’s desire to vanquish any zombie stragglers and made an executive parental decision to take the high road. We’re heading up, kids.

The Cape Palliser lighthouse in New Zealand.
The view from the Cape Palliser lighthouse is worth the climb.

Our path to the lookout sees us pass switchback after switchback under the cover of archways of trees that don’t allow much sense of how high we’ve come or how much more will follow. The Kiwi bush path seems quieter than we’d expected; the insects speak more quietly, the birdsong less shouty. It brings out the contemplative walkers in us (or perhaps that’s just the breathlessness from the uphill slog). We know we’re close when the path flattens and the bush falls away on either side. The sea looks a long way below us as the viewing platform comes into sight.

Our reward for the burning glutes and sweaty brows comes less than an hour’s walk later, as we finally stand as equals with the pinnacles, clustered shoulder-to-shoulder like a choir in front of us. Our jeans and city sneakers have been up to the task and we have triumphed in our day’s exploits.

Dave’s arrival a minute later is somewhat deflating. The 63-year-old firefighter has popped down from Wellington for his weekly training walk in which he carries 60 kilograms of bricks in his backpack to simulate lugging heavy hoses up high-rise buildings in an emergency. Yes, well. Trail mix and bananas are also a burden for some of us who aren’t such show-offs, Dave.

A sign on the Pinncles Track pointing towards the lookout and the base of the Pinnacles.
You can choose to walk through the base of the pinnacles or head to the lookout to view them from above.

Later that afternoon, we ride our rented bikes through vineyards. Martinborough Wine Merchants opens in new window has friendly and knowledgeable staff who’ll steer you in the direction of the best wineries to check out. They also sell local wine and olive oil and rent bikes. We head past Margrain opens in new window, which I learnt produces an excellent pinot noir, heading for a warm window-side table at the Cool Change Bar and Eatery opens in new window on Martinborough’s Memorial Square.

As I enjoy some cocktails and kumara and blue cheese croquettes, we get company. Gerald, a farmer who looks like he’s straight out of Central Casting, drops by our table, the first of three locals to stop by. We realise later, after several such conversations, that this small town that is flush with tourists in the summer months is still surprised to see mid-week visitors in winter.

We didn’t need days out in the wilderness to get a real taste of New Zealand. An hour-long hike in the clear winter air, followed by delicious food and a warm welcome was all it took to forge charming Martinborough and its surrounds indelibly into our memories.

It’s clear that canny J.R.R. Tolkien was right when he wrote, “Little by little, one travels far.” And my sneakers still bear the evidence of just a touch of Kiwi adventure.