Napier: an overlooked New Zealand gem

by Elaine Housby

The small town of Napier on New Zealand's North Island is often ignored by travellers. This is a great shame as it is a charming place with a unique history

I didn't know much about Napier before I went there.  I was travelling around the North Island of New Zealand on Intercity coaches (www.intercity.co.nz), which are the Kiwi equivalent of Britain's National Express, and are a very cheap way to get around.  The Rotorua to Napier route fits in well with the usual tourist itinerary, but I seemed to be about the only person from overseas who didn't get off at Taupo. The Napier coach station is a small and dingy place apparently in the middle of nowhere, but don't be put off by this as it in no way does justice to the appeal of the rest of the town. Walk ten minutes to Marine Parade and you will be glad you came.

Napier's unique claim to fame is that the whole town centre is built in a consistent Art Deco style. It has been described by no less an authority than the chairman of English Heritage as "the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world". The reason for this though is tragic. On 3rd February 1931 the old town of Napier was completely destroyed in an earthquake, which also killed many of its inhabitants. The bold decision was taken not to replace the town buildings as they were before, but to rebuild in the fashionable style of the time. In only two years a new town had risen, which now stands as a permanent memorial to the modernist spirit of the 1930s and to the courage of the local people. You may, like me, be wondering what will happen if there is another large earthquake - tremors are frequent in this region of the country. Well, I am assured that the new buildings are much more stable than the old ones, and nowadays they are all monitored for conformity with the NZ code of earthquake resistance.

You can learn more about the earthquake and the rest of the history of the town and the region in which it is situated at the Hawke's Bay Museum at 9 Herschell Street (www.hbmag.co.nz). Then go to the Art Deco Shop at 163 Tennyson Street. As well as buying lots of lovely souvenirs there, you can go on a guided architectural walk starting from the shop, either with a live guide or following a booklet. Every year on the third weekend in February a celebration of Art Deco is held when local people dress up in 1930s' costumes and generally have a good time. Find out more at www.artdeconapier.com.

The seafront area of town is a faithful reproduction of an old-fashioned British seaside resort, and seeing a place so reminiscent of the Scarborough of my childhood holidays facing onto the South Pacific is one reason Napier has remained so vivid in my memory. There are attractive gardens running along behind the beach and an open air concert area called the Sound Shell. The beach itself is not that great, by the high standards of New Zealand, so save the swimming for somewhere else and concentrate instead on eating ice cream in the gardens. Then keep walking south down Marine Parade until you get to the National Aquarium of New Zealand(www.nationalaquarium.co.nz) .This is a very well designed aquarium with a good range of species. I can't  forget the way the hawk-billed turtle stared at me. I think it was tired of tourists.

If you don't have a problem with fur, Opossum World at 157 Marine Parade (www.opossumworld.com) is worth a look. It has a slightly strange display of stuffed possums illustrating the animal's life cycle, and a wide range of goods made from its wonderfully soft fur. (The possum is considered a pest in NZ and culled wherever possible). 

Napier is certainly not a gourmet destination, but there are plenty of decent enough places to eat in the cheap to medium price range. The cafes in the shopping area mostly close in the evening, so for dinner you will probably end up back on the seafront in somewhere that's also a bar. I went to the Lone Star restaurant on the corner of Emerson Street and the Parade - perfectly adequate and great for nachos, but the building is more distinctive than the food.

The side of Marine Parade that's not gardens is basically one long row of motels, with a few backpacker hostels as well, and you can pretty much find somewhere to suit any budget, just by walking up and down and enquiring in reception. If you are visiting during the school summer holiday season of December to February, it would be wise to book in advance, because Napier is a popular holiday spot for New Zealanders themselves. I stayed at the Edgewater Motor Lodge at no. 359, paying $150 for a large room with bathroom and kitchen facilities and a balcony with a sea view.

From my balcony I could not only look at the sea but could watch the sun coming up above the Millennium Arch, which has a striking sun-shaped disk and marks the direction of sunrise at the dawn of the year 2000. Seeing this statement of hope for the new millennium in a town which was recreated from total destruction in the last century inspired me in a way which I now recall whenever I feel down.