New Zealand is a fascinating place for Brits to visit. It’s different enough to be excitingly exotic but so much is still familiar, like the reassuring dawn chorus of songbirds. British settlers brought them all the way from home. Today, an enchanting five-note musical song of a bird has stirred me from my slumber. It’s magical and unreal – like a ring tone. It’s been a much nicer way to wake than the shrill tone of an alarm clock!

You’re never far from nature in New Zealand. I started my day in the leafy suburbs of Napier in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island. I came here to discover why this small city of 60,000 people is termed ‘one of most liveable cities in the world.’ It’s a place where visitors can get close to unique New Zealand wildlife, sample world class wines and savour a city of unique appearance – one of the highest concentrations of 1930s art deco architecture in the world. Amazingly it’s here through one of the most destructive forces of nature – an earthquake.

The art deco building style, with its geometric shapes and very clear and precise lines, is synonymous with the 1920s and 1930s. And it’s art deco that makes this city special. Walking through the shopping streets here in Napier you could be in a movie set – think The Great Gatsby, Bugsy Malone or Some Like It Hot. A massive quake in 1931 killed 256 people. But that tragic levelling of the city enabled locals to design and rebuild a stylish replacement.

Sally Jackson, the general manager of Napier’s Art Deco Trust, told me that the city is what it is today because it wasn’t redesigned by a committee. “When the earthquake happened, the Council was disbanded immediately,” explained Sally. “They put two commissioners in charge and they made all of the decisions. The architects also banded together and created one firm with one town plan. It was a coordinated approach across the city. They made some really wise decisions.”

Sally Jackson from the Art Deco Trust

Napier was the first city in the world to introduce earthquake-proof building techniques. “If you look back at pictures of Napier before the earthquake you’ll see power lines all over the place. The roads weren’t of a very good quality. It wasn’t a pretty town. So they made the streets wider and put all of the power lines underground. They widened the corners of the streets too. It was really clever thinking because it was just two architects driving this forward and they didn’t have to consult with anyone.”

Napier is beautifully laid out with pedestrianized shopping streets, pavement cafes and the impressive Clive Square Gardens in the centre. Your eyes will be drawn to the huge palm trees, over 100 feet tall. And your ears will be filled with the sounds of the fountains, birds and the carillon bell chimes.

The city is green and floral. A long line of mighty 50m tall Norfolk pine trees shade Marine Parade – the city’s seafront. Sailors from all over the British Empire brought them back because the trunks grow straight and that makes them perfect ships mast material. On the seafront, there’s also an art deco performance stage, designed to look like a shell, and the Tom Parker fountain, created in 1936 after the businessman saw a similar illuminated water feature light up after dark during a trip to Bournemouth. Nearly every city centre building has the look of the 1920s and residents have adopted that style in their everyday lives. Sally told me that some locals even decorate their homes with art deco and you’ll see lots of vintage cars on the streets.

Later in the day I met up with John Hanlon from Hawke’s Bay Scenic Tours. He had his own stories of friends who had gone art deco crazy. “It’s not uncommon to go into people’s houses and have a Teas-maid on the counter or the old pedestal lamps with the round globes featuring the deco speed lines on them. You might find a radiogram in the corner and the room will be decorated with pictures of ships like the Titanic, vintage cars or biplanes. They’re living the art deco dream,” he laughed.

John Hanlon from Hawke’s Bay Scenic Tours

John is the man to book if you want to a guided tour of the art deco capital of the southern hemisphere. “As far as I am concerned, there is no city like Napier anywhere on the planet,” he told me proudly. “What I like about it is the beauty, especially if you arrive around February for the Art Deco Festival. There will be plenty of vintage cars and old planes flying around. For a couple of weeks it really is a 1930s city.”

Thousands of people flock to the city to relive the 30s. Sally told me that everybody is in costume and there’s music of the era playing. “Everything that your senses see, hear and touch goes back to the 30s. You can go into a bank and the bank teller will be dressed in a 30’s outfit. It sort of blows you away,” said Sally.

John told me the whole city gets into the spirit. “It’s got to the stage that if you don’t dress up you are the odd one out!” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a five-year-old, an 18-year-old or an adult. It’s just magic.” I asked John how many straw boaters he owned. “Only two,” he laughed, before adding, “but I have around six period hats in my collection.” At that moment he leaned forward and pulled a 1930s-style flat cap from his glove compartment.

If you want to ride around in a car from the era, Art Deco Trust volunteers like Tony Mairs can take you on a 75 minute-long vintage car tour. Tony proudly revved the engine of his American 1938-built Packard. I asked him how many gallons to the mile it did? “On these tours, about eleven,” replied Tony. “All of the drivers must be trained with the Art Deco Trust first. They undertake a 12-month stint at walk–guiding. Then we can start training them on the car tours. We have both male and female drivers,” he told me. You can hire 1920s clothing from the Trust and John has a few spare hats too.

Aside from the jollity, I was interested to hear about the earthquake that created this art deco paradise – partly because, as a Brit, I know so little about them. Napier’s new Museum, Theatre and Gallery space, or MTG for short, helps people understand the social impact of seismic activity. Emma Keong took me around their exhibition, which hosts a film featuring the memories of quake survivors. “Many of our visitors appreciate this because it gives first person accounts of what it was really like. It sometimes brings tears,” she explained, as she led me towards the cinema screen playing an interview with a teary elderly lady, recounting how the day of the quake change her life forever.

Most locals I spoke with accept that Napier could succumb to quakes again, but they put it to the back of their minds. The city was rebuilt to withstand strong shakes but I had to ask Emma what a quake felt like. “Most of them are small little shakes, just the same as if a really large truck drives past. It also depends on the type of building that you are in. If you are in a wooden one, say a villa from the 1920s or 30s, they shake like anything but they are structurally sound. There’s a lot of movement and rocking but you do feel quite safe,” she explained.

You can buy lots of books about the quake but John’s tour is a good way to understand the scale and impact of that event. We took the short, five-minute drive to the hill above the town. Looking down across the bay he put the quake in context.

“On the 3rd February 1931 we had a 7.8 earthquake, a 30-second lull, and then another 7.8 quake. The recent devastating quake in Nepal also measured 7.8.” The Napier quakes were so strong that the whole region rose by up to 2.5m, enough to completely change the landscape, as John explained. “A swathe of land, including the area where the airport is now, lifted up out of the sea. It meant that 40 square kilometres of former seabed became usable land.” You can see pictures in the MTG of huge ships stranded in the former harbour as it became dry land.

A few minutes later we had driven to Bluff Hill, a leafy suburb filled with impressive wooden villas and architect-designed houses overlooking Napier and Hawke’s Bay. John stopped the car and described how the landscape changed in a matter of minutes using old maps and photographs. “Napier was an island leading up to the 1931 quake. Then the land rose up.”

Later, John pointed out a row of Victorian cottages on Marine Parade. He told me that the impressive line of Norfolk pines once marked the edge of the coastline and the white picket fences in front of the cottages were just six feet from the water. Today the sea is at least 100 feet away. Generally, the older, cheaper structures survived because they were wooden and more flexible. “Wood comes from trees that will bend and buckle. A brick wall will just crumble.”

John gave me some extra information that maybe I didn’t need to hear. “Hawke’s Bay still gets between 100 and 200 earthquakes a year on average since 1931. As a result of those earthquakes, the region is still being pushed upwards by 12 mm a year. The city has risen by another metre in the last 85 years.” I asked John whether it affected infrastructure, such as pipes and water mains. “I’m not sure what they do underneath,” he said, “but the building code is pretty good. The regulations and requirements are strong compared to other parts of New Zealand.”

We drove to see the stunning National Tobacco Building just outside the town centre. It’s a classic flat-roofed art deco design, painted cream and pink with steps leading up to impressive double doors. “It’s the best example of art deco in Napier and maybe the best in the country,” John enthused. People used to be photographed for wedding shots outside but although there’s no longer a smoking connection, the National Tobacco Company inscription has made it less politically correct for those album pics.

John pointed out that the building featured more intricate shapes and patterns, such as flowers, than many of the other art deco buildings. “That’s the art nouveau element,” he advised. “It’s the amount of money that was spent on the building which I find incredible,” he told me. “Little things like the speed lines on the front. There are tile inserts in there. The doors are made from imported oak from England. There’s Italian marble inside. You won’t believe the detail on the door handles when you get inside,” he told me.

We walked through the impressive doors. Amazingly, this beautiful building is freely open for people to admire during the day. One of the rooms featured intricate stained glass with oranges highlights – a nod to the fertile Hawke’s Bay soil. Grapes were in the design too, but interestingly John informed me that the vineyards that this area is famous for took off decades after the building was completed.

Tobacco is not one of my vices, I’m pleased to say. Wine though is a different matter and we headed from the Tobacco Building to find out more about Hawke’s Bay’s biggest export. The region has 75 wineries and at Church Road, I got a tour and tasting led by Becky.

Tour leader Becky at the Church Road winery

She started, appropriately, at the beginning. “Church Road was established in 1897 by a European man, called Bartholomew, who moved over from The Mission next door.” Apparently The Mission is the oldest winery in New Zealand, established in 1851 by the nearby Catholic monastery, which still owns it. During our hour-long walk around the winery our party learned how wine is produced and then we got to taste the fantastic Church Road varieties. I’d recommend taking the tour and there’s a great lawn outside where you can have a glass and a bite to eat if the weather is nice.

In Hawke’s Bay, life revolves around wine and the wineries. A number of the vineyards put on musical events during the year, sometimes featuring household names and A-list singers. You can purchase bottles at the cellar door, the vineyard equivalent of the farm shop, and many are destinations in themselves, offering fantastic food.

“Wine and food in Hawke’s Bay has gone to the next level,” I was told by Becky. The Hawke’s Bay residents are proud of their vineyards but there’s a very relaxed attitude about wine, without the snobbery you might find in some other countries. John told me that the vendors often say it doesn’t matter how you describe their wine – if you like it, you like it. It doesn’t matter how many stickers there are on the outside of the bottle – no expert or labelling can make you enjoy it. What a refreshing perspective!

Hawke’s Bay’s vineyards are fairly spread out. Many are along a flat coastal strip linked by safe cycle routes. There’s 300km of cycle ways around the area and if you don’t have time to bike between cellar doors, set aside at least 40 minutes for tastings.

In another striking art deco building back in the centre of town, the New Zealand Wine Centre offers an ingenious way to sample Hawke’s Bay’s local wines. They don’t just offer different varieties – you can compare the same wine from different years, in vertical tastings. And if you haven’t got time to visit the wineries, you can go on a virtual tour and tasting. You’re served a selection of local wines as you sit in a comfortable cinema and watch a polished video of the producers sharing their stories and describing the wines you are about to taste. It’s a really clever idea. The Wine Centre also has a room where you can smell and learn to recognise dozens of fragrances. It will train your nose and help you describe and appreciate the wine you will taste.

Hawke’s Bay people take food and drink seriously. I was taken aback by my experience at the excellent Indigo Indian restaurant in the town centre. Before I had a chance to look at the food menu, a beer sommelier (yes really!) came to the table to recommended local craft brews to complement the curry.

The day starts early in New Zealand and breakfast is big. I particularly enjoyed Chantelle’s Whole Food Supermarket. Inside you can share the dining space on the long galley table or sit in the sunny courtyard. For breakfast it was a toss up between marinated Hawke’s Bay vegetables with haloumi cheese, poached eggs and a flatbread, or tomato and mushrooms with cashew cream on a toasted sourdough. That’s the sort of food you’ll find here – no sausage rolls filled with pink slime.

Although it’s one of New Zealand’s warmest, driest regions, with a Mediterranean climate, it does rain occasionally in Napier. So I decided to check out one of the city’s wet-weather attractions. For 35 years, the Faraday Centre has been a hands-on museum in a former power station engine house. It shows how technology has changed through time up until the present. You can explore the playback of music from today’s digital formats through to CDs, singles and eight tracks. They’ve even got a programmable pianola.

Dave Prebenson from the Faraday Centre

I met up with volunteer David Prebensen, who told me that the centre is meant to demonstrate how household appliances, transportation and communications have evolved. I felt really old when he demonstrated how to use a rotary dial phone! I think it’s a wonderful place for 40-somethings to visit for a nostalgic trip around long forgotten technology and household appliances. I found a number of items that reminded me of home. There’s even a red telephone box inside. David explains that many everyday items in New Zealand used to be sourced from Britain.

My next appointment was with a Brit abroad. Chris Barons hails from Devon and his grandmother was Churchill’s wartime driver. Chris’ childhood fascination with the former Prime Minister has led to him creating a bar, named in the PM’s honour, inside the beautiful, art deco County Hotel, a few yards from Napier’s leafy seafront. The walls are clad in memorabilia including Churchill’s letters to his mother, sent from Cuba. Churchill’s best quotes line the inside of the men’s loo including his famous retort to Lady Astor, who accused him of being drunk. “My dear you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly,” he is reported to have told her. The hotel has been beautifully renovated in 1930s style and there’s plenty of Plymouth gin on offer. It was Churchill’s favourite tipple.

I took a 10-minute walk along the seafront to visit somewhere you wouldn’t want to spend the night. Napier’s Victorian prison closed in 1993 and, like many of the city’s wooden buildings, it survived the 1931. In true New Zealand style, the prisoners did break out but many stayed to help in the rescue effort. Today, the jail’s wooden walls and corridors are skewed and buckled because of the force of that shake. Guests can stay the night in part of the former jail, which is a backpackers’ lodge.

Marion Waaka relocated from Scotland and bought the site for use as a hostel. She says the prison tours started when people tried to get in to look around. Colleague Ally Beal leads the tours in a very entertaining way – at various times launching into her scary and formidable prison warder character, bellowing out commands and instructions as those officers would have done decades before.

Guide Ally Beal

Conditions would have been grim, Ally explained. The prison offered no heating, air-conditioning or plumbing. Inmates would have passed around a bedpan. The walls of the tiny cells are covered in scribbles and drawings. Ally explained that former detainees have been back to hunt for their graffiti messages. There’s also a resident that only a handful of visitors have seen, as Ally explained. “You can be with a group doing a tour and suddenly you get the feeling that someone has run past you. That even happens if you are standing completely still. You can’t account for this weird feeling.”

I asked her whether she had seen anything? “I don’t want to!” was Ally’s instant response. “But you hear things,” she added. “Footsteps walking down a corridor when you have stopped moving. There are doors which will shut by themselves and the hooks that are keeping doors open will strangely become unattached and the doors will close.” Some top TV psychics visited last year and they believe it’s one of the four inmates who was hanged at the jail. The prison puts on spooky evening tours where actors will jump out at you just when you least expect it.

Now from ghosts to Maori legends. The statue of Pania, a 1½ metre high bronze sculpture, takes pride of place on Napier’s Marine Parade. She is often compared to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. Pania reputedly lived with her people underwater at an offshore reef. She married the land-dwelling son of a Maori chief but had to return to sea during the day. Her husband learned that if Pania ate cooked food, she would lose the urge to return to the waters and would stay with him. But as he tried to place a morsel in her sleeping mouth, an owl woke her up and warned her. She fled and he never saw her again.

New Zealand’s landscape is vast, unspoiled and dramatic so you can understand the strong spiritual connections with the environment. And particularly in a place where dinosaurs still roam! Well, sort of. I walked down the parade to the National Aquarium, where Rob Yarrol showed me a lizard-like tuatara. They are around a foot long and best described as green chunky lizards but they have those spikes on their heads that make them look like triceratops.

Rob Yarrol

If they get angry they stand on their hind legs and fan out. “They date right back to the dinosaur age,” Rob explained. “They’re so ancient, their teeth are part of the jawbone itself. The jaw is jagged. They’re very slow moving and can live for over a hundred years. We have the oldest living ones to have been hatched in captivity anywhere in the world,” said Rob proudly.

As you tour the excellent Aquarium, you’ll see local and international fish including some very colourful Finding Nemo types. And they have piranha too! “They are a little over rated,” Rob confessed. “They are actually quite a timid fish. If anything out of the ordinary happens in the tank they will shy away.” That surprised me. Nevertheless, Rob says it’s wise to be wary of them. “The problem with a piranha bite is that it is not like a cut, it is actually a scallop that takes a piece of flesh away and you end up with a wound that is difficult to heal.”

There are also stingrays and sharks, and you can swim with those as well. Three times a day five people get a chance to get in the water. “It’s not cage diving, it’s like snorkelling,” said Rob. “We give you flippers and a mask. You can swim with the sharks all around you.”

Your journey takes you through a plastic tunnel with the fish swimming at your side and over your head and cleverly, the walkway is a slowly moving conveyor belt so people don’t hog the view. You can step off to take a longer look at the sealife.

The Aquarium also contains birds, and I was keen to see the little blue penguins, natives of New Zealand and South Australia. Across ‘the ditch’ in Oz they call them fairy penguins. And they are quite magical. The Aquarium’s penguins have all been rescued and have varying forms of disabilities, but seem very happy in their new home.

But the highlight was seeing New Zealand’s now very rare national bird. Thanks to conservation that decline is gradually reversing. It’s difficult to see kiwis in the wild because they’re nocturnal and very shy. We walked into a darkened room, thick with foliage, replicating the forest home of bird. “We have our display set up here so it is the equivalent of a moonlit night,” Rob explained to me in hushed tones. “We can guarantee that you will see kiwis.”

And I did! They’re the size and shape of a rugby ball. How very Kiwi! And they have an odd, bobbing walk, much like a rabbit, stopping every so often to dig the earth with their long, thin beaks. “They can run really fast but most of the time they just walk around. Walk, probe, walk, probe,” laughed Rob. “The aquarium gives you the best opportunity to see one acting naturally and doing what they do best,” he added.

A stuffed kiwi – the moonlit enclosure was too dark for photos!

The National Aquarium is certainly worth a visit. A few miles from Napier is another wildlife-spotter’s heaven – the 13-hectare gannet site at Cape Kidnappers. It’s the largest mainland colony in the world. You can ride a tractor to see the birds, but you can’t visit between July and October, the early nesting phase.

If you’re coming to New Zealand, plan to spend time in Napier and the wider Hawke’s Bay region. If I were to pick a place to live abroad, let alone vacation, then Napier would be at the top of my list for food, wine, social activity and scenery. Don’t pack an alarm clock. Let New Zealand’s nature wake you. And if your travel partners doubt that, tell them a little bird told you.

If you don’t fancy driving 5 hours from Auckland you can take a one-hour flight to Napier Airport, about 10 minutes by taxi to the centre of the city. For John’s tours visit HBScenictours.co.nz.
 

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