For a second it does feel like having stepped through a wormhole and travelled back in time to the 1930s—an era of pretty houses in pastels and cake-frosting migrating to architecture. Paris went through that phase in the early 20th century. Except that we are in the present and the setting is Napier in the Hawke’s Bay area of New Zealand’s North Island.
Having started as a Maori town, Napier’s importance was recognised by British explorer Captain James Cook, who first circumnavigated New Zealand in the mid-18th century. The city has an Indian connection. It was named after Sir Charles Napier, a British military leader stationed in India in 1842. It later grew into a bustling port town over time. Many streets in Napier have been named to reacall the days of the Raj. One of the main roads is named Hyderabad Road while another is called Delhi Road. There is Simla Terrace, too.
A severe earthquake in 1931 left the city almost completely destroyed. Instead of staying frozen in shock or leave disheartened by loss, the city rallied around. The people of Napier rebuilt it as a whimsical art deco delight housing buildings constructed in the Parisian architectural style, in just 22 months.
The best way to experience the city is through a vintage car tour organised by the Art Deco Trust. The organisation has a variety of tourism programmes but nothing compares with the experience of swinging through the city in a 1930s olive green Packard and with guide Brocky dressed in vintage clothes giving a running commentary on Napier’s history and culture.
The tour traverses some of the town’s prominent streets with an abundance of flamboyant buildings such as the Municipal Theatre, the National Tobacco Company building in Ahuriri and other areas of Napier. There’s also the suburb of Marewa, which is populated with Maoris, who have retained some of their original character. The drive passes through stunning panoramic views of the bay and the sea.
Napier would easily pandeer to an English literatur buff’s whimsical thoughts. The surprised Anglophile, to his or her delight, will stumble across streets dedicated to Shakespeare, Dickens, Browning, Byron, Milton, Tennyson, Thackeray, Burns and Chaucer.
Once the city sights are done, head to the seafront—the National Aquarium of New Zealand. Though there are a plethora of massive water tanks housing an array of marine creatures, including piranha and water dragons, at the heart of the aquarium lies a massive oceanarium with a tunnel and a travelator containing sharks, eels, rays and many other kinds of marine life. The Penguin Encounter is an adorable diversion from predator sightings, being the only place in New Zealand dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of Fairy Penguins. Watching them waddle on the sand, swim in the tank, and interact with visitors is quirkily satisfying.
Napier is also famous for its vineyards and wineries. The oldest, Mission Estate, is located on a hillock, and was established by French missionaries in the mid-19 century. In the middle, set against the backdrop of the vineyards, is the Mission Restaurant, which has a menu which is worthy of mission possible to Napier.
Napier is a little city on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, about 415 km to the South of Auckland.
How to reach: Fly to Auckland via Singapore or Hong Kong, and take a domestic flight to Napier or book a car for self-drive. There are also buses but the journey could take up to eight hours.