Destinations: Martinborough

The clear, blue sky melds into the distinct grey-blue of the Tararua Range, hemming the Wairarapa Valley in the west. It's a pretty backdrop to green fields dotted with black and white cows, and the autumnal colours of the poplar and willow trees surrounding shrouded grapevines. This wide, mostly-flat valley is made for cycling and it also has abundant boutique food and wine producers. Hence, we hire bikes for a food and beverage exploration. Stu Edwards of Green Jersey Cycling knows the district intimately so we join him. Coming from Auckland it seems to me as if the back roads are devoid of cars, making cycling easy. I sing to myself and enjoy the breezy smells of hay, cows and ripe apples as the kilometres wheel by. The first stop is Parkvale Mushrooms. Clive Thompson was fascinated with fungus as a teenager and over 45 years that fascination evolved into a highly-mechanised commercial mushroom-growing operation, producing between six and ten-thousand kilograms of Gourmet Brown mushrooms each week. An old dairy factory has been converted into high-tech mushroom rooms where shelves of the fungus thrive in computer-controlled humidity and temperature. We take a factory tour and peek into a couple of the rooms where millions of mushrooms from bubble to cake-plate size are happily growing. So we cycle off towards Carterton, Stu sporting a bag of big, flat mushrooms in his pannier bag. Space is the feeling I get cycling into Carterton. Big old villas bask in quarter-acre sections, with large vegetable gardens and trees tall enough to have tyre swings. There is no infill-housing here and neighbours are hidden discreetly behind hedges. We park our bikes in front of The Goodness of Food Café where Sean Barnes, chef and owner, has finished his lunch-rush and is happy to cook our mushrooms, which he serves on top of bagels. We follow this with plum tart and peppermint slice. All is delicious. While we eat Sean takes three fat, flaky-pastry pies out of the oven and wafts them under our noses. The Goodness of Food Café is gluten-free and all the gorgeous sweet treats, bagels, croissants, pies and pasties are made without wheat flour or other gluten products. Sean explains he was a rather unwell pastry chef for years until he was diagnosed as gluten intolerant four years ago. He says it's impossible to have a career as a conventional pastry chef when he couldn't even taste his creations. But he loves baking so he opened the café and bakes gluten-free food with passion. I thought gluten-free food was boringly healthy rather than delicious, but Sean proved me wrong. He believes he's the only chef in New Zealand who can make gluten-free croissants and flaky pastry look and taste like the flour-based versions we know and love. On our way again and it's six flat kilometres to Greytown. With the breeze at our backs, we wheel there in no time. Greytown prides itself on being New Zealand's most architecturally-complete Victorian town and the main street is a treat of prettily-titivated heritage buildings. The shops are sophisticated with more than a small-town share of boutique clothing, accessories, art, design and gift shops. Sadly, when one has been bicycling most of a day and is unusually sweaty, one doesn't try on frocks. But nothing stops me from visiting Schoc Chocolates, in a former colonial grocery store. Chocologist Murray Langham has had career incarnations as a chef, hotel manager and therapist. Now he's a brilliant chocolatier and chocologist. Chocology is the art of chocolate therapy. Murray's book — written 10 years ago — has sold well the world over. Apparently, a person's choice of chocolate flavours reveals their personality traits. Chocology is fun, although the real attraction of Schoc is the chocolate tasting-bar where we sample chocolate chips to find out which of the extraordinary range of flavours we most love. We try curry, lime and chilli, apricot and rosemary, carrot and coriander, fennel, salted caramel and many more left-field combinations. Murray doesn't believe chocolate should always be sweet. Some of these flavours are truly sensational. It's late when we leave Schoc. I confess, we give up on cycling and accept a ride back to Martinborough, where we say goodbye to Stu and his bikes. Tomorrow we will be back on four wheels and two feet. Martinborough, another pretty, spacious Wairarapa village, was designed in 1881 by John Martin in the pattern of the Union Jack which, these days, gives the town a large central square with memorial gates, obelisks and mature shade trees. This immodest and well-travelled man named the town after himself, and the streets after places he had visited hence Dublin, New York, Cologne and Texas Streets. We stay at the 1882 Martinborough Hotel, part of the Heritage Boutique Collection, which has gorgeous traditional ambience with all the modern comforts. Dinner in the hotel's Bristro continues the day's gourmet theme. I have miso-marinated salmon while Sam has lamb rump, ratatouille and kumara. Both are superb. The Wairarapa is famous for wine so we dedicate most of our second day to vineyards, as there are 20 close to town. Murdock James has a Grape to Glass Winery and Vineyard Tour, and we're on it. Eleven is generally too early for me to imbibe but this is educational and I'm only tasting. Neil, the guide, is chatty and witty, making our wander around different varieties of grapevines a friendly and informative experience. He's carries a basket of bottles and we each carry a glass, sampling various wine varieties while we fondle the grapes, ripe on the vines and ready for picking. The good thing about the lamentable drought is that grape growers are having a bumper season. At Bloom, the restaurant on the estate, we have the best-ever platter including artisan breads, local olives, divinely-cooked prawns and scallops, café-made hummus, chutneys and fine local cheeses. The still-sunny afternoon disappears in a haze of wineries — Palliser, Ata Rangi, Te Kairanga and more. Sam tastes and I drive between them, drinking in the scenery: big sky, blue mountains, eons of space and grapevines — many still elegantly shrouded in white bird-deterring gossamer, marching into the distance. It's not the wine talking — I'm driving, so only a few stolen sips have passed my lips — but I'm overwhelmed by the loveliness of this part of New Zealand. The Wairarapa has great wine, gorgeous food, pretty towns and relaxed, friendly people. In my brief experience: warm sun-filled days and cold, star-spangled nights. Perfect. For the latest reviews, subscribe to our Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine here.
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