Leslie Canter, an Arlington, Virginia-based Virtuoso advisor, recently returned from New Zealand.

Here, her report on one of its lesser-known destinations.

With so many famed destinations and activities to pack into a New Zealand adventure, it can be easy to overlook Wairarapa, a region that anchors the North Island’s southeast corner about an hour’s drive from the country’s capital, Wellington. But this charming area, whose name means “glistening waters” in the Maori language couldn’t be more distinct, with quaint towns and deserted railroad villages such as Featherstone, Masterton, and Martinborough – and many more sheep than people. But its top discovery? Some of the most highly praised, small-production pinot noir in the world.

New Zealand wines, and its pinot noir in particular, are quite young compared to some wine world mainstays. That relative youth pays off with less pretense at wineries – of course, it helps that Kiwis are naturally charming, too. The atmosphere in tasting rooms often feels like visiting a good friend’s home rather than a world-class winery, with farm dogs napping on the floor and owners leading tours while clutching bottles as if they were their own children. You can hop amongst them by bike (or by trike, for those less confident after a few glasses), adding to the picturesque chilled-out scene.

Beyond the vine, there’s more to do than pedal from porch to patio. Dining throughout Wairarapa is exceptional. Many wineries around Martinborough have opened restaurants and cafés. One of the top places to stay is Wharekauhau Country Estate: Located along the roughly hewn coastline of Palliser Bay, just a short drive west of the Martinborough vineyards, the luxury lodge is surrounded by thousands of acres of private farmland and pays homage to its sheep station roots with activities such as sheep shearing, farm tours, and ATV tours. Of course, guests are welcome to return from winetasting and just relax at the spa.

wharekauhau estate
Morning at Wharekauhau.

Exploring Wairarapa feels like finding a lesser-known corner of the world where travelers, artists, craftsmen, and farmers enjoy rosé at the same table. But like all things worth traveling for, word is getting out. My advice is go now.


Wairarapa is roughly an hour’s drive or a 15-minute helicopter ride from New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. It’s best to visit in the spring and summer, but those in the know go between February and March when you’ll have plenty of sunshine and not too much heat. If you travel in late March or early April, you may get lucky and experience the harvest. Just be sure you get there before the April frosts!


Cottage Suites at Wharekauhau (pronounced “Far-ee-ko-ho”) Country Estate perch high atop cliffs overlooking Palliser Bay’s black sand beach. The spacious cottages provide separate seating areas and gas fireplaces to cozy up on cooler nights, and use natural materials such as clay tiles, pebble mosaics, rich New Zealand wool carpeting, and hemp curtains throughout.

stairs to lighthouse
Advisor Leslie Canter on the stairs to Cape Palliser Lighthouse.

Eat & Drink

As its vineyards earn more acclaim, Martinborough is becoming something of a foodie haven and is home to numerous boutique restaurants and wineries. Most vineyards and tasting rooms are clustered around Martinborough’s quaint downtown. In order to make the most of your visit, rent a bike and start in the heart of it all. Your first stop is Schubert’s Wine, followed by a tasting and seasonal platter of hummus, prosciutto and bruschetta at Poppies just down the road. Your final stop is Te Kairanga Wines, where you will wind down with a glass or two on the porch overlooking the Huangarua River before you head back to your hotel and top off a day of perfect produce by indulging in Wharekauhau’s “locavorian” farm to table fine dining.

cheese plate
Lunch at Poppies Martinborough.

Oenophiles rejoice! Join general manager and wine aficionado, Richard Rooney, along with the hotel’s sommelier on an exclusive tour through the region’s most esteemed cellars. The tour starts with a walk through the vineyard at the award winning Devotus Estate, where participants draw barrel samples to taste wine at various stages of fermentation.

Buy: Paul Melser Pottery

Don’t miss Paul Melser’s studio in Carterton. Melser’s pottery is rooted in functionality – each piece is meant to add beauty to ordinary, everyday life.