Masterton has to be one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets. I can’t help but wonder why it’s not a tourist Mecca, as everything visitors or lifestyle junkies could hope for is here, centred around Queen Elizabeth Park, with its historic cemetery, super-sized duck pond, ‘Kids’ Own’ playground, steam train, mini golf and bowls. Teens to seniors are catered for, and they pursue their games side-by-side with equally serious intent, separated only by a low fence.
Just across the road is The Wool Shed, with its sheep-shearing displays, and information about all facets of wool production. The Golden Shears Hall of Champions pays homage to the greats of this most Kiwi of occupations.
A little further afield a mixed barrel of attractions can be found: Henley Lake; Magoo’s Street Rods on Edwin Feist Place; and The Pointon Collection, just out of town. Here, Francis and Gaye Pointon run a garage and a country harvest shop and garden, alongside a vast collection of vintage and veteran cars and motorcycles. There’s garage equipment, signs, tools, spares, and restored working displays, plus an incredible collection of clothes. Spanning a century, the latter starts with Victorian frills from the 1860s, and takes you through to the extremes of the colourful ’60s of more recent times. Francis can usually be found tinkering away in his garage, while Gaye’s interests lie in the garden and her crafts. The museum is housed in an atmospheric old WWI military prefab from Featherston Camp, which also saw life as a dormitory at Pahiatua Polish Camp. If only walls could talk, I think, as I wander around.
We depart, bound for the magnificent Lansdowne House, one of Masterton’s first homesteads, and now a tranquil retreat for road-weary travellers. Constructed on the site of New Zealand’s first commercial vineyard, this three-storey Tudor mansion has all the style and elegance of a grand English country estate. It was built for love in the early 1920s by Hugh Williams, a solicitor and wealthy land owner, who fell for Helen Jones, ex-governess to the children of the Governor of Fiji.
An independent woman, she took up a job as a barmaid on her return to New Zealand. When Williams proposed, Helen refused, saying she was not of his class, but he finally won her over. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Helen was not welcome in the homes of Masterton’s upper circles, and so Williams decided to build his wife a house of some 12,000 square feet “… so special and so grand that all the ‘so-called’ elite, both here in Masterton and beyond, will beg for the privilege of an invitation to your beautiful home”.
Today, Lansdowne opens its doors to guests from all around the world. It’s a magical environment, and invites relaxation, thanks to the efforts of its owners and hosts, Kadia and Richard Merralls, who left their lives in Auckland to restore this massive home to its former glory.
It's a great base from which to discover Masterton’s rich history and explore the surrounding countryside. The vineyards of Gladstone are a short drive away, or you can head out to the ruggedly beautiful coast.
Riversdale Beach is popular with the locals, but it’s Castlepoint that lures us. Here, the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean vents its might in giant rollers against wind-blown bluffs; the panorama overlooked by an awe-inspiring lighthouse. I brace myself against rocks studded with embedded fossils, the remnants of life’s profusion from another age, and watch as the waves send their salty spray sky-high. The plumes burst in the afternoon air, and are swept by the wind across the warm, sun-kissed plains and vineyards of the Wairarapa to become one with the bounty of the earth.