If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand, add Napier to your itinerary. Every February, the town steps back in time to the Roaring Twenties. The Tremains Art Deco Festival is an annual event in Napier New Zealand that attracts locals and tourists in hoards.
It’s one big street party and everyone dresses up in period clothing. The ladies don flapper dresses and cloche hats while men sport pastel suits or plus fours.
There are film screenings, walking tours, vintage car rides, antique fairs, Prohibition parties, and Gatsby picnics.
Rising from the ashes
Napier New Zealand is set in the scenic Hawke’s Bay area of the North Island. The town centre is one of the best-preserved enclaves of Art Deco buildings, second only to Miami’s South Beach. Pastel-coloured buildings flank the streets, with their symmetrically patterned facades, embellished with stylised geometric motifs, sunbursts, and chevrons.
This seemingly idyllic town literally arose from a natural disaster. On February 3, 1931, a 7.8 earthquake levelled most of downtown Napier’s Victorian and Edwardian buildings. More than 250 people died and only a handful of buildings survived. But the earthquake also pushed up the seabed and suddenly more than 2,000 hectares of land rose up. The citizens of Napier built this over in less than two years into an Art Deco gem.
The architects chose to adopt Art Deco as it was the prevailing architectural style of that time. Art Deco originated in Europe in the early 20th century as a pastiche of various styles. It combined the geometric structure of Cubism with the bright colours of Fauvism and the decorative motifs of Art Nouveau.
Art Deco Tour
On a bright, cloudless afternoon in November, I hop into a gleaming burgundy-coloured 1939 Packard car with Anthony (Tony), a 70-something volunteer guide with Napier’s Art Deco Trust.
The trust was formed in 1985 to protect and preserve Napier’s architectural heritage. It organises walks and vintage car tours to tell the story of the city’s dramatic rebirth as well as to help appreciate its heritage architecture.
About 140 Art Deco buildings still stand in Napier.
The most striking is The Dome, a former insurance company building now an apartment hotel on the Marine Parade (seaside promenade). This three-storey white building with a copper cupola and a clock tower is a Napier landmark.
The stripped classical style of the nearby Auckland Savings Bank building is interspersed with indigenous Maori elements like the red, black, and white frieze around the top walls.
The symmetrically patterned façade of The Daily Telegraph building, studded with stylised lotus flowers, is another eye-catching piece of architecture.
Both Emerson and Tennyson streets are seamless lines of candy-coloured buildings. These range from pale pink and pistachio green to baby blue and sandstone. Deco flourishes such as ziggurats, speed stripes, and angular zigzags adorn their sculpted entrances.
We leave the city centre and drive towards Ahuriri Port to arrive at the National Tobacco Company building.
“This is the most photographed building in Napier”, says Tony. I can see why. Art Deco blends seamlessly with its predecessor Art Nouveau in this pale pink and sandstone coloured building.
The dramatic, curved archway above the door sports the Deco staple sunburst and Nouveau elements like grapevines and roses.
When I return to the city centre, I find the Marine Parade swarming with men, women, and children in retro fashion. Apparently, there’s a TV shoot of some sort in progress. I sit back with a cone of Hokey Pokey ice cream (New Zealand’s national flavour) and enjoy a preview of sorts to the Art Deco Festival.
Vintage cars line up at one end. People dressed to the nines lounge about on the grassy knoll next to the promenade. Elaborate afternoon tea picnics are in progress. Towards sundown, a brass band kicks up on the stage. Shimmery dresses swish, sequined headbands glint in the evening light, and pale suits bob about. The Great Gatsby would be right at home in Napier New Zealand.
Where to stay in Napier New Zealand
The retro-glam Masonic Hotel has a fabulous waterfront location.
The hotel recently underwent extensive refurbishment to get a modern and stylish update. Jewel tones abound, as does plush, velvet upholstery.
Where to eat & drink in Napier
- Drop in at the family-run bistro Mister D for a sumptuous breakfast, including the D-doughnut, which you can ‘inject’ with a filling of your choice.
- For a weekend lunch, pop in at Bistronomy, a casual dining restaurant that offers a seasonal menu of globally inspired plates using fresh, local produce.
- Reserve a table well in advance at Pacifica (New Zealand’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017) for a 5-course Maori-inspired degustation menu.
- Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s oldest wine region and is home to more than 70 wineries, all of which are within a short drive from Napier. Don’t miss Black Barn Vineyards, Craggy Range Winery, and Mission Estate Winery, which is the country’s oldest winery established in 1851.
This feature was commissioned by Travel + Leisure India and was published in their February 2018 issue. Read it here.