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.