New Zealand: Day 4 & 5 — Napier, the Country’s Coastal “Art Deco” Capitol

Before I tell you about our time in Napier, I think you might find some of the news we’re finding in New Zealand’s newspapers very interesting. Harry and Meghan are visiting, so their every move dominates “above the fold.” There’s a huge political scandal involving a member of the Center-right “National Party” who apparently slept with everybody. They’re having trouble keeping up with housing, and funding housing for the homeless. And a column today concerned itself with whether “every voting booth is made equal.” Do any of these stories sound familiar?

Napier is situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, where the coast is known as Hawke’s Bay. HB is very reminiscent to me of our own Santa Monica Bay, with its large crescent shape and definitive end points. It is a fantastic coastal town, and the weather was so good here we enjoyed a sense of summer days here WITHOUT the summer crowds (who will descend on our hosts in December). But there were many visitors about town and in the shops and restaurants, for which Napier is very rich in its “City Centre,” where we stayed at the historic “County Hotel.”

I suppose I’m a bit late in sharing that people in New Zealand are incredibly nice. They greet you with a hello, and one woman even stopped to offer help when she sensed Erin and I had gotten ourselves turned around. They are a diverse mix of European whites, native Maori, and other Pacific Islanders and Asians that have relocated or are working here. We made friends at the County Hotel with Grace, a young woman who decided to get a work visa and give New Zealand a shot. Her original intent was to work on a vineyard with a friend who had turned her on to the idea, but we were the beneficiaries of that arrangement not working out. She was our server at the hotel’s restaurant / bar, and we enjoyed lively conversation with her both evenings of our stay. I would like to think she was in much better spirits during the inset photograph than her Mona Lisa smile suggests.

Napier is not only the “Art Deco Capitol” of New Zealand, but also may rival Miami in terms of the sheer number of well preserved, bright, and decorated art deco buildings make up City Centre. The origins of the city’s art deco phenomenon are tragic. In February, 1931, as the world-wide Great Depression also gripped New Zealand, a 7.8 earthquake struck the unexpecting town. A huge fire also ensued from damaged gas lines, and the town was largely destroyed outside of hillside housing. Given that Art Deco was the popular design in the 1920s and ‘30s, the city largely rebuilt its commercial core using the popular modern design of the times.

This entry will likely best be spoken in the numerous photos I’m filling in to the page here, as they really do affect the ethos of the town as a fun-loving beach town where art galleries and boutiques reign supreme. The residents are all clearly upper middle class based on our walks through their neighborhoods, and unique tastes and traditions are annually adhered to. Every February, the city hosts it’s Art Deco Festival, the well-designed promotional posters for which are popular collector’s item. If Napier sounds as much like Laguna Beach to you as it does to me … you’ve got the right idea.

On our limited first day, we walked the chic City Centre streets of Napier, littered with the art deco buildings that had been advertised. The most common themes among the businesses along the several blocks of City Centre were eateries and coffee houses, jewelry shops, and an inordinate number of hair salons. Top fashion brand stores also made up our window shopping.

It was on Tuesday evening that we met Grace and ate at the bar at the County Inn. We ordered the Seafood sampler for two, which included calamari, octopus, white fish, salmon, two styles of shrimp, and warmed olives with feta cheese. It was a feast for the senses, great taste being the top of the list. The County Inn clearly employs a chef that knows what she’s doing with seafood.

Retiring to the room, we finished off Season 3 of the Man in the High Castle, the fantastic Amazon Prime original series based on the Philip K. Dick novel where the Axix Powers win WWII, but films exist that suggest the “alternate reality” that we all enjoy today.

On Wednesday, we endured quite a workout on the suggestion that we make our way to the High Bluff Lookout. This view would apparently give us a picture of the entirety of Hawke’s Bay at an altitude far above the City Centre. Well, it did, but at that altitude, it was a bit hazy. Therefore, the pictures inset here are actually at sea level, in order that you may see both ends of the Bay clearly. But to obtain the hazier, albeit loftier view of Hawke’s Bay, we were forced to endure incredibly steep inclines for a half-mile straight just to find the final wooded trail to the Bluff. Talk about an effort with very little payoff. It’s a bit hard to believe that this destination made the “Top 10 Things to do in Napier” I printed up from the Internet. At the same time, my out of shape body did appreciate the pain and gain of the journey. On our way back to the City Centre, we walked the hillside neighborhoods of Napier, where you’ll see from inset photos are filled with very old, classic homes that likely were built prior to the 1931 earthquake. Who knows what rich history and numerous families have passed ownership in these large homes in the last 120 years or so since their foundation.

After a big rest and lunch, we returned to the not-so-mean streets of Napier’s art deco City Centre for more window shopping and stops for coffee. In the evening, we dined at “The Emporium,” a trendy bistro not far from the hotel. It did NOT disappoint, Erin enjoyed a tender and delicious steak, and I took in deliciously grilled lamb on a bed of soft potatoes. We were definitely vacation dining now!

On Thursday, we weren’t due to fly to New Zealand’s Capitol, Wellington, until 3:00PM, so we walked along the beach and found Napier’s beautifully manicured “sunken gardens,” the inset picture for which doesn’t give justice to the lovely and organized series of bedded flowers and palms adorned the public space. The same walk led to the local Museum and Art Gallery, where we learned more about the 1931 earthquake through old news real and witness interviews, and a nice, somewhat haunting exhibit. The Museum also features a standing exhibit to Maori art and culture, which is so inherently embedded into New Zealand culture and through the Maori people of the islands.

In the afternoon, it was time to make our way to Hawke’s Bay Airport, where ABSOLUTELY NO SECURITY greeted us as we gathered with others to fly on what ended up being a noisy prop-plane to Wellington. I’m not kidding. They SEEMED to scan our checked baggage, but there was NO search of our carry-on baggage, and the bottled water we walked into the airport with was easily carried right onto the plane. … nice to have few problems, eh, New Zealand?

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