norman miller writer and photographer
norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer

Beau Magazine

Looking at Napier today it's hard to believe most of it was wiped out on 3 February 1931. That was the grim day a massive 7.8 earthquake slammed into this North Island east coast city – though rather than the shakes it was fire did most damage, with many blazes started by bunsen burners igniting chemicals in the make-your-own-meds pharmacies of the day.

Yet this geophysical cloud came with an unexpected silver lining. Until then, Napier had been a moribund little port struggling on a scraggy spit of land, hemmed in by the shallow Ahuriri Lagoon on one side and the Pacific on the other. But in three earth-shifting minutes, the lagoon bed thrust upward nearly 3m, suddenly creating over 5000 acres of what my guide Tony Mairs calls “gifted land” on which the town could expand. “Napier deserved a new beginning,” he says simply.

And come the rebuild, town planners went gaga for the hip style of the day - which is why I'm in the middle of the world's finest concentration of Art Deco architecture. I crane my neck every few yards, ticking off glorious examples of its trademark blend of playful Jazz Age 1920s vigour with the optimistic 1930s modernity - a townscape full of stony sunbursts, lightning bolt zigzags and pared-back geometric shapes. Mixed in are motifs lifted from ancient cultures, leavening the shock of the new with references to timeless style - not just classical nods to ancient Egypt and the Aztecs but also uniquely New Zealand symbols from Maori culture: spiral koru, twisting infinity loops, hei-matau fish hooks.

My guide to all this is a man as eye-catching as the buildings. A wiry Kiwi veteran with a crinkle cut face and an easy grin, Tony Mairs looks like he's just stepped out from an old gangster movie – a dapper waistcoated wise-guy from the top of his snappy Fedora down to brogues nattily topped with pristine spats. He ushers me towards a giant streamlined 1930s Packard, shoving a violin case onto the back seat. I joke about it containing a machine gun. “It does,” says Tony, with a wink.

Even though Napier is a doddle to stroll, we cruise around in vampish vintage style. Lounging on the wide leather seats of the Packard, I split my attention between its gorgeous wood-and-leather interior and the equally gorgeous exteriors we glide by, roaring along streets named after Mother Country literary legends like Tennyson and Dickens. People pause from snapping the buildings to snap us as we glide by.

We stop a few times for Tony to take me inside Deco masterpieces like the Napier Municipal Theatre with its glittering foyer,  where I crave its bespoke foyer carpet of brightly coloured interlocking squares, then into an auditorium where I almost have to shade my eyes at the riot of green and gold decoration and ornate curvy lights.

Then we head over to the increasingly  hip neighbourhood of Ahuriri to see what many Kiwi architecture buffs consider NZ's most stylish building - the National Tobacco Company Building,  built by renowned NZ architect Louis Hay for local magnate Gerhard Husheer. Delicate natural motifs adorn a pink arching doorway over which gorgeously stylised letters sit within a harmonious cubic frame. Inside, wood panelling glows with the patina of decades, decorated with intricate floral carvings.

Rich architecture groupies can even stay in Husheer's old house. The Master's Lodge,  high on Bluff Hill overlooking the Pacific, is now a luxurious boutique bolthole whose two suites regularly feature in Deco style books. Alas, I'm way too poor to stay there but if you can afford to pay around £450 a night for your bed and board, go for it!

Knowledge is free, thankfully, and I listen as Tony takes me through the differences between Deco and its sister styles. There's Stripped Classical - look for flattened pillar shapes rather than raunchy marble nudes – plus Spanish Mission (look for sensuous tiling). Finally, he whisks me to the gorgeous residential area of Marewa, where Deco des-res houses line streets built on the lagoon's former seabed. “Marewa is Maori for 'Gift From The Sea'", Tony explains. I make a note to check the local estate agents as I eye up single-storey cubic gems painted blue and pink, their facades ornamented by baby versions of the sunbursts and other motifs on the big boys back in town.

Napier's other major draw is very much a gift from the land rathe than the sea - the world-class vineyards of Hawke's Bay that encircle the town between sturdy hills and the Pacific. I kick off by hiring a bike for a relaxed pedal around a conveniently-flat winery trail where you please yourself about how many oenophile pit-stops you make from the 9 wineries on the route. It's a perfect balance between exercise, soaking up the scenery, and some lovely wines, while I refuel en route with a brilliant lunch at Trinity Hill, one of the star names in the so-called Gimblett Gravels.  

For a wine tour in style, I book Odyssey NZ's you-drink-they-drive gourmet evening tour. Whisked off in early evening sunshine, I lap up striking modern architecture at vineyards like Vidal, Craggy Range and Elephant Hill, while enjoying gourmet nosh at each, washed down by some superb wines. We end the evening back in Napier for dessert and coffee at New Zealand's oldest and grandest winery, the Mission Estate. Built in 1851 and centred on a elegantly restored seminary, the estate's sweeping gardens host summer concerts each year, the best celebrated with quirkily-labelled wines – Ray Charles 1995 Chardonnay anyone?

It's typical of Kiwis to add a bit of fun to proceedings whenever possible, and Napier is no different. The town serves up “Winter Whoopie!” every July at the DIY Deco weekend, a three day pairing of architecture with partying. The action centres on the appropriately-named Gatsby Room at the 1930s Masonic Hotel, whose giant Deco red neon letters are a seafront beacon, for retro fans decked in vintage clobber, keen to dance the night away to the sounds of bands like the New Mayfair Deconians. Film fans can go misty-eyed with vintage bills of Laurel & Hardy and newsreel memories of the good old days. Or maybe ride a 1930s rail car to the neighbouring town of Hastings to check out its clutch of Deco architectural beauties.

February offers the biggest event of all, the Art Deco Festival - over 200 events, a gathering of hundreds of 1920s and 30s cars, period style picnicking and extravagant dance band dinner extravaganzas. The area's gourmet pleasures are celebrated twice a year by the trencherman nirvana of FAWC - the Food And Wine Classic. The Winter FAWC lights up June, when wineries set wood fires crackling in the grate and crack open their finest reds to toast the local olive harvest. Or if the thought of a Kiwi winter is too much, come in November for FAWC's late spring outing. 

I learn about the area's deeper history standing alongside Maori elder Robert MacDonald on top of Te Mata, the region's highest peak. A buffeting wind doesn't detract from the majestic view, and I'm gripped by his tales of supernatural beings like Ruamoko (the god of volcanoes and quakes) and the monstrous Parata, still reputed to live at the bottom of Hawkes Bay. Robert tells me too about human dramas, often involving lusty Maori chieftains whose inappropriate dalliances triggered tribal wars. At the end, I hone my hongi technique as Robert bids me farewell with the traditional respectful Maori parting as we touch forehead and nose together, with an exchange of the breath of life known as ha.

I fill my last day with non-Deco pleasures. There's an excellent lunch in the bright bustle of hip diner Mister D, followed by a browse through contemporary NZ design at Aroha (9b Ossian Street) and some contemporary Kiwi art at the Paper-Works Gallery (27 Tennyson St).

Taking a final stroll along Napier’s seafront promenade, lined with palms and magnificent Norfolk Island pines, I dive into the recently revamped Hawke’s Bay Museum, Theatre and Gallery. Its Deco main building has been augmented with a bright new modern extension, where my artistic horizons are expanded by one of the country's best displays of of 20th century NZ art, alongside NZ fashion from the 18th century, gorgeous post-war textile design and Maori decorative arts.

Happily cultured up, I head back out into the sun and stride back to the Harold Latham Arch, gracefully guarding a pretty coastal park built on rubble removed from the post-quake devastation. A stirring motto is carved into its colourful stone: “Without Vision The People Perish”. Napier is a vision of a town that refused – beautifully - to perish.


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