A Martinborough winter escape
Sometimes winter's depths feel like an eternity away from the heady joys of summer.
The mass exodus to beach or bach seems out of reach as the rain lashes down and the southerlies roll in.
However, those in need of a midyear pickup should remember that a winter getaway can do wonders for the cold weather blues, offering a host of charms unique to this chilly time of year.
Wairarapa's Martinborough wine village is well-known as a summer destination, with abundant wineries, outdoor music events, fairs and the famous Toast Martinborough festival.
As I discovered though, it is a gem to visit in winter too, with warming meals, open fires and pinot noir aplenty.
Heading over the hill from Kapiti, with the kids safely back at home with a stack of DVDs, a fridge full of food and – crucially – their grandma, my husband and I were looking forward to a relaxing and cosy mini-break.
Unsure as to whether Martinborough would even be open without all the tourists and wine-tasters milling around, we found a quietly thriving little community going about its business.
Our accommodation was at Brackenridge Country Retreat, just out of the centre in rugged-sounding White Rock Rd. The retreat, opened in 2000, attracts a variety of customers, from corporate team builders and conferences to weddings or couples like us looking for a bit of escapism. Its spa is open to Martinborough residents who come over to use the pool, spa and gym, which are much nicer and more private than the commercial public ones.
With rolling farmland all around and views out to the misty hills, Brackenridge's row of little houses with a colonial, miner's cottage feel to them looked inviting in the bleak weather. A roaring open fire greeted us and, naturally, opening a bottle of local red and putting my woolly-sock-clad feet up was the logical next step.
It would have been fairly easy to stay put right there for the whole trip, but dinner at local vineyard Tirohana Estate beckoned.
In fact, a lovely lady even came and picked us up, and we pulled up to the estate's front door to service as warm as the fire we had prised ourselves away from.
Glittering chandeliers, vintage touches, white table cloths and shiny silver cutlery belied that the set menu on offer was priced at a totally reasonable $59 a head for three courses plus extra touches. Goat's cheese souffle, hearty lamb shanks and banana caramel bread and butter pudding were highlights, as well the novelty of the maitre d's antique decorative mini brush and pan that appeared as if by magic to keep our table pristine should we drop any crumbs.
Of course, the wine matches were important, seeing as we were dining at a vineyard. The new but excellent 2014 sauvignon blanc and two vintage-blend pinot noirs followed by a glass of the sticky 2011 Ice Spirit capped off the meal perfectly.
The next morning I swam off my decadent dinner at the Brackenridge pool. I then headed into the spa building, where I was booked in for a hot-stone massage and my husband a mysterious sounding "For The Man" package, which turned out to be back scrub, massage and a (manly) facial.
With cold rain outside hitting the windows, it was another world in there – one of calming colours, soft couches, open fires and any kind of tea you wanted, the latter always garnering brownie points in my book. My massage involved heated smooth stones used to infuse warmth and relaxation into the muscles, which was a wonderful experience that afterwards had me wondering if I could replicate it at home with some river stones and the slow cooker.
However, despite my thinking this was a flash of genius, my husband disagreed. This was probably because he knew he would be roped in as the masseur.
Both suitably relaxed, we emerged feeling refreshed and ready to check out some vineyards, of which a decent enough number are open for tastings throughout winter.
Later, we arrived for dinner at the iconic Martinborough Hotel, where the restaurant is run by Jerry Dolan, a talented chef with a passion for meat and game that he prepares, hangs and ages in-house using his own special meat-ageing locker. He showed it to us with obvious pride and joy in his eyes.
Goat's cheese, walnut and beetroot salad followed by venison with a rich red wine and chocolate showed the imaginative yet classy nature of Dolan's menu.
Chocolate as a savoury accompaniment was certainly a new one on me but it really works. The jerk-marinated pork with polenta and roasted cherry tomatoes and sides of sweet roasted yams was both spicy and earthy, and served with a local chardonnay took my taste buds on all kinds of new and interesting journeys.
The restaurant joins on to the hotel's bar, and an open-mic night had brought out a few of the locals, making for a warm and friendly vibe. It was nice to relax while timidly performed cover songs drifted in from next door. Luckily there weren't any that were awful.
After such a toasty and decadent time in Martinborough we felt relaxed and prepared enough to go home to the usual domestic melee the next day.
Although the slightly torturous and hilly drive to our place in Waikanae involved two sets of mountains, it was actually only an hour and a half away, despite feeling like another world.
This is the beauty of New Zealand – so much on our back doorsteps. Seizing the opportunity for a refreshing break – mini or otherwise, summer or winter, should be higher on our list of priorities than it often is. Is it already time for another one?