We left Ohakune around 10 in the morning for our trip over the mountains to Napier. Like nearly every road in New Zealand it was a narrowish two-lane job, and since it was through hills and mountains and over rivers and streams, it twisted and turned at every opportunity. The route we took was the most direct one between Ohakune and Napier. That meant, scenic as it was, there was danger of a semi truck around every hairpin turn. Thank God there wasn’t a blood pressure monitor hooked up to me. I don’t want to know what I registered at some of the more interesting moments.
Nevertheless it was a beautiful drive. Our first view of the distant Pacific let us know we were truly over the peaks. A long descent took us near the coast for our drive into Napier.
Art Deco Weekend
We rolled into Napier on the eve of the city’s biggest annual celebration. The streets were packed with people in 1930s attire, automobiles and trucks from the first half of the twentieth century, and steam-powered tractors while planes from WW I and WW II flew overhead. What was being celebrated you ask? Eighty four years ago on February 3, 1931 an earthquake destroyed this resort city on Hawke’s Bay known as the Brighton of New Zealand. (The Brighton referred to is of course the seaside resort in England.)
It wasn’t the earthquake that was being feted, but Napier’s rebirth a mere two years later in the then contemporary architectural style known as art deco. In America we have South Beach in Miami as our best known collection of art deco buildings, but that patch of pastel hotels, restaurants, shops, and residences has nothing on the downtown of Napier which today is a living homage to a single architectural style. There are virtually no structures that are not art deco.
People come from all over the world to see the buildings of Napier. In fact they were a big part of why we were stopping here for six days. Once a year for one long weekend everyone in Napier seems to time travel back to the 1930s and ’40s to re-celebrate its resurrection as a true jewel on the Pacific. It’s called Art Deco Weekend, and that’s where and what we found ourselves in.
Residents and visitors, and there are a lot of the latter, transform themselves into their parents and grandparents. Vintage clothing stores overflow with people making last-minute purchases of dresses, parasols, wraps, hats, white trousers, braces, vests, bowties, and striped blazers with which to create their own special image as they stroll the town over the weekend and attend concerts, dances, and scores of other events.
Karen got into the swing of things with the purchase of a white day dress and an accompanying parasol. I settled for a cheese-cutter cap. We may not have been among the best dressed, but we had the spirit.
And then there were the cars. There were times when I looked down a street with sidewalks full of what seem to be men, women, and children from a bygone era only to have my observation confirmed by a line of Auburns, Duesenbergs, Austin Sevens and Eights, MGs, Packards, and Model As turning the corner. And, oh yeah, here comes a Rolls Silver Ghost and a Bentley from the other direction. Not a Toyota, Honda, or Nissan in sight.
It‘s like being on a movie set except these are regular people going about the business of enjoying a summer weekend in a fashionable seaside city of the 1930s.
Wine making region
By Sunday we were ready to experience some of the other draws of the Hawk’s Bay region. The area is touted for its award-winning wines, so a trip to a winery was in order. We drove the ten miles or so to Havelock North, a village of about 13,000 inland and a little south of Napier. There we had breakfast before driving to the outskirts of town and the Te Mata winery. It was a little early for wine so first a word about one of the great things about New Zealand you don’t hear about—the bacon. It’s just about the best I’ve ever had, and no, it’s not lamb bacon.
If you’ve visited wineries in the US then you know that nearly all have begun to charge for tastings. At Te Manta the tastings were free and generous. I’m more of a beer, whisky, or gin guy than an oenophile, but that was good wine.
There’s a beach in Napier, but it is black stones and gravel. Once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. However north of the city a few miles is Waipatiki Beach. That was our destination Monday morning. It was (okay here I go with that word again) beautiful. We had it to ourselves mostly except for one large family and another couple or two until three automobiles pulled in and parked on the sand. At that point I stopped looking at surf, cliffs, and sand.
They were Duesenbergs from the 1930s. One of them may have been the car once been owned by Carole Lombard. It lives in New Zealand now and everyone refers to it as the $8-million car. The three Duesies were shortly joined by sedan that looked plain in comparison to them. It was just an everyday Auburn. By the way the expression, “It’s a Duesy,” used to indicate that something is really special derives from the Duesenberg automobile.
Whatever and whoever’s the four pieces of motoring art were, I was looking at a fortune in restored-to-perfection vintage autos sitting on the sand at a remote beach. I was tempted to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming, but I didn’t want to destroy the experience in case. I was. By the way this wasn’t a photo shoot. No skinny high fashion models got out of the cars, just the people who had taken them out for a drive.
Some final thoughts on Napier
Tuesday was our last day in Napier and we drove up to a steep road above downtown to Bluff Hill. It overlooked the working harbor where stacks of shipping containers stood on the quay waiting to be loaded on trucks or ships. Behind them were two cruise ships that had docked at Napier. The lookout from which we saw all this had held cosatal guns in WW II.
From Bluff Hill we could see much of the area. Even the beach that had been graced by the Duesenbergs lay around a promontory just visible in the distance. It was a great place to remember all the things that made our stay in Napier so wonderful, including our little Airbnb studio and our hosts Marise and Grant. I know I’ll in all likelihood never be back here, but it’s the kind of place where the first words that come to mind are, “I could live here. Yes I could.”