The earthquake that struck Napier at 10:46 am on February 3, 1931, was—at 7.8 on the Richter scale—the largest quake ever recorded in New Zealand. The coastline was wrenched upward several feet. Almost all the town's brick buildings collapsed; many people were killed on the footpaths as they rushed outside. The quake triggered fires throughout town, and with water mains shattered, little could be done to stop the blazes that devoured the remaining wooden structures. Only a few buildings survived (the Public Service Building with its neoclassical pillars is one), and the death toll was well over 100. The surviving townspeople set up tents and cookhouses in Nelson Park, and then tackled the city's reconstruction at a remarkable pace. In the rush to rebuild, Napier went mad for art deco, the bold, geometric style that had burst on the global design scene in 1925. Now a walk through the art deco district, concentrated between Emerson, Herschell, Dalton, and Browning streets, is a stylistic immersion. The decorative elements are often above the ground floors, so keep your eyes up.
Caution Dining Lounge
Massive wood-frame mirrors reflect the candles behind the bar in this northern Napier spot overlooking the boat masts in the basin. Try the rabbit leg roulade wrapped in pancetta, braised red cabbage and kumara. The rhubarb and lemon grass fool, served with rhubarb lemonade and a white chocolate garnish may have you begging for more dessert. Caution shares ownership and the same kitchen with the attached Shed 2, a casual restaurant and bar open for lunch and dinner. During summer the menu is shared by the two joints but Caution is more formal.
Enter thisweathered blue bungalow and watch classically trained chef Jeremy Remeka produce delicious items using whatever he has bought from the suppliers of the best local product that day. It could be anything from a free-range pork fillet to a chorizo-crusted kingfish with ham hock, and water cress broth.The menu pivots on his creativity and manifests itself with superbly presented, small tasting plates. Order as many or as few as you like.
The Old Church Restaurant & Bar
From the high-vaulted ceiling to the overly ornate fittings, this restaurant (a converted church) is a stunner. Sit on red velvet upholstered chairs by an open fire and gaze at the massive chandelier while waiting for your meal of vanilla and honey glazed duck breast with Hawke's Bay potatoes. Sweet and sinful temptations include cheesecake with passionfruit sorbet, cointreau soaked oranges, and raspberry sauce. Hallelujah!
Art Deco Shop
Napier's Art Deco Trust maintains an Art Deco Shop. This perfectly laid-out shop sells everything from table lamps to tiles to ceramics, as well as hats, jewelry, rugs, and wineglasses. You can also pick up booklets outlining self-guided walks through town.
This shop sells opossum fur products and holds a mini-museum about the opossum's effects on New Zealand's environment. Products made with opossum fur include hats, gloves, and rugs; a soft blend of merino wool and opossum fur is made into sweaters, scarves, and socks.
One of Napier's more notable buildings is at the corner of Hastings and Emerson streets. The Māori theme on the lintels is probably the country's finest example of kowhaiwhai (rafter) patterns decorating a European building. The traditional red, white, and black pattern is also continued inside around a coffered ceiling.
This is typical of the Spanish Mission style, which Napier took on because of its success in Santa Barbara, California, where an earthquake had similarly wreaked havoc just a few years before the New Zealand catastrophe. It has smooth plastered concrete walls (in imitation of adobe construction) and tiled parapets. The small square windows and larger round-arched glass doors also reflect features of mud-brick construction.
Here you can stroll the pedestrian mall and view some of the city's finest art deco buildings such as Hannahs and the Hawke's Bay Chambers. Bowmans Building is a Louis Hay design in brick veneer with the characteristic eyebrow (brick or tiles, often curved, set over a window). Some of Hay's work was influenced by Chicago's Louis Sullivan; his best-known design is the National Tobacco Building in Ahuhiri.
South of the intersection with Emerson Street, the pink Countrywide Bank Building, with its balcony, is one of Napier's masterpieces. Hildebrandt's, at Tennyson Street, has an excellent frieze, which is best viewed from across Dalton. Hildebrand was a German who migrated to New Zealand—hence the German flag at one end, the New Zealand at the other; the wavy lines in the middle symbolize the sea passage between the two countries.
Daily Telegraph Building
This is another Napier classic, now a real-estate office. It has almost all the deco style elements, incorporating zigzags, fountain shapes, ziggurats, and a sunburst.
Market Reserve Building
On Tennyson and Hastings Streets, this was the first building to rise after the earthquake. Its steel metal frame was riveted, not welded, so that the construction noise would give residents the message that the city was being rebuilt. The bronze storefronts with their "crown of thorns" patterned leaded glass are still original.
Former Government Building
A decorative lighthouse pillar at the front takes on the almost-Gothic menace that art deco architecture sometimes has (like New York's Chrysler Building).
Stand on a moving conveyor that takes you through the world of sharks, rays, and fish. Environmental and ecological displays showcase tropical fish, sea horses, tuatara, and other creatures. For NZ$80—all gear provided—you can swim with the sharks. There is also a kiwi enclosure where these birds can be seen in ideal viewing conditions.
One of the most handsome wineries in the area, Brookfields features rose gardens and a tasting room that overlooks the vines. The gewürztraminer and pinot gris are usually outstanding, but the showpiece is the reserve cabernet sauvignon–merlot, a powerful red that ages well. Syrah grapes are proving spectacular as is the Brookfields Hillside Syrah. From Napier take Marine Parade toward Hastings and turn right on Awatoto Road. Follow it to Brookfields Road and turn left. Signs will point to the winery.
A little over a kilometer (½ mi) north of the central area stands one of the finest deco buildings. The magnificent 1932 structure has been totally renovated and its original name reinstated: the National Tobacco Company Building. It has a rose theme on the stained-glass windows and on a magnificent glass dome over the entrance hall.
In a place where the beaches are not really suitable for bathing, this spa complex is a delight for the sun- and water-seeking tourist, its open-air pools being right alongside the beach. Sun beds, spa treatments, and massage are also available.
Silky Oak Chocolate Company
This complex comprising factory, museum, shop, and café is a chocoholic's fantasyland. The museum details the story of chocolate through the ages, and the café has a nice selection of goodies.
Hawke's Bay Museum
A multimillion-dollar renovation has seen this museum renamed MTG Hawke's Bay—a space that is home to the museum, a theater, and a gallery. The curatorial team is engaged and the exhibitions ponder a range of local and international issues. You'll need to check the website but you could see a retrospective exhibition of a body of work alongside the exploration of memory and momentos and a cutting-edge digital presentation. The museum is home to a significant collection of newspaper reports, photographs, and audiovisuals that re-create the suffering caused by the earthquake. It also houses a unique display of artifacts of the Ngati Kahungunu Māori people of the East Coast—including vessels, decorative work, and statues.
Art Deco Trust
The Art Deco Trust has a couple of excellent guided walking tours of Napier. A one-hour walk starts daily at 10 from the Napier Visitor Information Centre (NZ$17). A two-hour afternoon walk, starting at the Art Deco Shop at 2, includes slide and video presentations (NZ$20). Both walks end with optional free video screenings and refreshments. There's also the Marewa Meander around Napier's art deco suburb, and the Art Deco Tour Map, which plots a self-drive route through Napier and Hastings. To really emerse yourself in the 1930s aesthetic, be driven around the Napier sights in a 1934 Buick1930's vintage car. (NZ$150 for up to three people; book through the Art Deco Shop).