Laidback, seaside NAPIER is Hawke’s Bay’s largest city (population 54,000) and one of New Zealand’s most likeable regional centres, thanks to its Mediterranean climate, affordable prices and the world’s best-preserved collection of small-scale Art Deco architecture, built after the earthquake that devastated the city in 1931 (see The earthquake).
Thanks to the whim of mid-nineteenth-century Land Commissioner Alfred Domett, the grid of streets in the city’s Art Deco commercial centre bears the names of literary luminaries – Tennyson, Thackeray, Byron, Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton and more. Bisecting it all is the partly pedestrianized main thoroughfare of Emerson Street, whose terracotta paving and palm trees run from Clive Square – one-time site of a makeshift “Tin Town” while the city was being rebuilt after the earthquake – to the Norfolk pine-fringed Marine Parade, Napier’s main beach.
Around the northeastern side of Bluff Hill (Mataruahou), about 5km from the city centre, lies the original settlement site of Ahuriri, now home to trendy restaurants, cafés, bars and boutiques.
Napier makes a perfect base from which to visit the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers as well as the vat-load of world-class wineries on the surrounding plains (see The Cape Kidnappers gannets).
In 1769, James Cook sailed past Ahuriri, the current site of Napier, noting the sea-girt Bluff Hill linked to the mainland by two slender shingle banks and backed by a superb saltwater lagoon – the only substantial sheltered mooring between Gisborne and Wellington. Nonetheless, after a less-than-cordial encounter with the native Ngati Kahungunu people he anchored just to the south, off what came to be known as Cape Kidnappers. Some thirty years later, when early whalers followed in Cook’s wake, Ahuriri was all but deserted, the Ngati Kahungunu having been driven out by rivals equipped with European guns. During the uneasy peace of the early colonial years, Maori returned to the Napier area, which weathered the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s relatively unscathed. The port boomed, but by the early years of the twentieth century all the available land was used up.Read More
National Aquarium of New Zealand
National Aquarium of New Zealand
The National Aquarium of New Zealand is one of the finest in the country, with distinct marine environments from Africa, Asia and Australia, plus a substantial New Zealand section. At the time of writing, a display for penguins rescued from the defunct Marine World was under construction; once open it should add to the aquarium’s already excellent reputation.
The most spectacular section is the ocean tank, its Perspex walk-through tunnel giving intimate views of rays and assorted sharks; try to time your visit for one of the hand-feeding sessions. There’s more hand feeding at the reef tank, plus behind-the- scenes tours and the chance to swim with the sharks in the ocean tank. Within the controlled environment of the tank and without shark cages or nets this is a rare chance to come face-to-face with these ‘monsters’ of the deep.
There are also excellent non-aquatic sections on New Zealand’s reptilian tuatara, and a nocturnal kiwi house.
Art Deco Napier
Art Deco Napier
The 1931 earthquake saw Napier rebuilt in line with the times. Although Art Deco embraced
modernity, glorifying progress, the machine age and the Gatsby-style high life, the onset
of the Great Depression pared down these excesses, and Napier’s version was informed by
the privations of an austere era. At the same time, the architects looked for inspiration to
California’s Santa Barbara – which, just six years earlier, had suffered the same fate and risen
from the ashes. They adopted fountains (a symbol of renewal), sunbursts, chevrons, lightning
flashes and fluting to embellish the highly formalized but asymmetric designs. In Napier,
what emerged was a conglomeration of early-twentieth-century design, combining elements
of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Californian Spanish Mission style, Egyptian and Mayan
motifs, stylized floral designs and even Maori imagery. For the best part of half a century,
the city’s residents merely daubed the buildings in grey or muted blue paint. Fortunately,
this meant that when a few savvy visionaries recognized the city’s potential in the mid-1980s
and formed the Art Deco Trust, everything was still intact. The trust continues to promote
the preservation of buildings and provides funding for shopkeepers to pick out distinctive
architectural detail in pastel colours similar to those originally used.
You can get a sense of Art Deco Napier by wandering along the half-dozen streets of the
city centre, notably Emerson Street. Worth special attention here is the ASB Bank, on the
corner of Hastings Street. Its exterior is adorned with fern shoots and a mask from the head of
a taiaha (a long fighting club), while its interior has a fine Maori rafter design. On Tennyson
Street, look for the flamboyant Daily Telegraph building, with stylized fountains, and the
Municipal Theatre, built in the late 1930s in a strikingly geometric form.