Napier, N.Z.: Visiting the world's 'art deco capital'

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t's Hollywood. It's South Beach. It's Napier. Napier? Yes, Napier, which is a small coastal city (population: 50,000) but a major dot on the art deco map.

Fortuitously, it also sits smack-dab in the midst of New Zealand's important Hawke's Bay wine-growing area, making it a fine base from which to follow one or more wine trails.

And, like frosting on a cake, it also offers ready access to Maori cultural experiences and plenty of New Zealand's rightly acclaimed scenery.

Art deco story

In 1931, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale flattened much of Napier. After the town buried its dead (162), it dove into a rebuilding project that saw the heart of town ready for business in two years.

The near-total reconstruction of Napier as part of a coordinated plan produced something unique in the world, an almost all art deco city, and most of those buildings have been well preserved. Even the McDonald's -- called McDonald's McDeco -- located in a former hotel in a suburb, is gorgeous.

The Art Deco Trust offers twice-daily walking tours (at about $4 and $6) through the compact downtown area.

But there is more. Decked out in a stylish black cloche and fox fur wrap in the best 1930s tradition, I tooled about town in a bright-red 1934 Buick.

Bertie of Deco Affair Tours.My host was Clarence Bertram St. John Fitz Montague (I'm not kidding). Known as Bertie, he is the town's "art deco ambassador" and operates Deco Affair Tours (e-mail [email protected]; visit www.decoaffair.com), which offers -- in vintage vehicles with costumed guides -- "jolly jaunts," "deco dawdles" or longer tours that include tea or cocktails.

Bertie provides 1930s costumes to customers who want to wear them. Tour prices, listed on the Web site, are commissionable at 10%; the operator also can quote net rates.

Our tea was served in the appropriately furnished home of Bertie's partner, Penelope Partington-ffyes, in Marewa, the suburb where streets lined with art deco homes gave the strongest impression of any Napier neighborhood that we had driven into another decade.

Marewa -- Maori for "gift from the sea" -- has its name for good reason: The 1931 quake lifted the Napier area more than six feet and raised about 6,000 acres of its inner harbor, ironically meeting the growing town's need for space. The airport now occupies some of that land.

Nearby towns like Hastings and Havelock North, damaged to lesser degrees, boast notable collections of art deco buildings, as well.

Napier's Art Deco Trust (e-mail [email protected]; visit www.artdeconapier.com) sponsors an annual Art Deco Weekend -- set for Feb. 19 to 22 in 2004 -- a "not-too-serious celebration" that can include a vintage car rally, Busby Berkeley movies, a costume and coiffure competition, a "Gatsby picnic," lots of jazz and a "Depression dinner."

Many locals take this seriously enough, however, to spend the weekend dressed for the era, and visitors do the same.

Wine trails

There are more than 30 wineries open for tastings around Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island, and there are plenty of critically acclaimed whites and reds to try.

Before hitting the Hawke's Bay wine trail, I visited Lindauer Cellars in Gisborne, New Zealand's easternmost town, which is dubbed "the first city in the world to see the sun each day."

The cellars showcase Montana Wines' specialties. The product line is labeled Brancott in the U.S. because research showed a wine called Montana would not sell well in the States.

The Hawke's Bay itinerary fittingly began with New Zealand's oldest winery, Mission Estate, founded by French missionaries in 1851.

The main building, dating from 1880, housed the missionaries and their seminary. The seminary was cut into 11 pieces and moved from a flood-plagued valley to its current hilltop site in 1910.

The most memorable of several wineries visited was Sileni Estates, partly because of the lunch -- aptly dubbed gourmet -- served in one of two restaurants there.

Located not far from Hastings, this winery also boasts a gourmet cellar store and cheese larder, both stuffed with tempting goods, plus a demonstration kitchen, site of a cooking school described as unique to Hawke's Bay wineries. The education center and a library buttress these offerings.

We toured the wine-making facilities and then tasted wines, cheeses and chocolate; a hostess distributed take-away tip sheets on the art of wine tasting and pointers on judging chocolate and olive oils. The tasting area is used for wine classes, as well.

Thus, Sileni has fodder for a half- or full-day's activities that would include -- besides a winery tour and the de rigueur wine tasting -- a cooking class in the demo kitchen plus tasting and discussion sessions featuring cheeses, olive oils and chocolate. It also is an event site.

Rates to agents are net; interested retailers should make e-mail inquiries to [email protected]; the Web site is www.sileni.co.nz.

Culture

I spent a day with Brigid Ormond, owner of Long Island Tours in Havelock North, an operator of custom itineraries for independent travelers or groups. She promises visitors will meet "authentic Hawke's Bay characters."

Maori account for about half the population in Hawke's Bay, so itineraries can focus on various aspects of Maori culture (performances, bush walks, spiritual tours).

Ormond also operates itineraries that include station life (farming), gardens, wineries or activities like kayaking, rafting, fishing and horse-trekking.

My lead character was Robert, a Maori chief at the Waimarama marae (fortified village), who was eager for ideas on how the Maori can be more effective players in the tourism business "without being merely the performers in a spectacle."

Orine Gillies, the Maori culture tourism project manager for the marae (www.waimarama.maori.nz), led a walk over Maori farmlands that include potential dig sites where long-ago ancestors made their homes and fought battles. She advised that the Maori word for tourist, te hunga to poi, translates as "people who go around being amazed at what they see."

Long Island Tours quotes rates commissionable at 20%; for details, call (011) 64-6 877-0977, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.longislandtoursnz.com.

Scenery/station life

Visitors get an idea of country life by staying at a station. New Zealanders use the word interchangeably with farm, but I'd call it a ranch.

My station experience was at Tunanui (e-mail [email protected]; visit www.tuanui.co.nz) in northern Hawke's Bay, a remarkably vertical, 5,000-acre spread with glorious views where the owners run cattle, sheep and goats and maintain a handful of kenneled dogs and horses to muster the livestock.

Here, visitors, who stay in one of two houses apart from the main home, need to provide transportation to the property and are expected to tend to their own meals, though they may be invited to the main house for a drink and socializing.

Rates run about $100 per couple. To search for a station, go to www.purenz.com. Commissions and/or net pricing plans vary by property.

Finally, not to be overlooked, Hawke's Bay provides a coastal haven, at Cape Kidnappers, for one of the largest, most accessible gannet colonies in the world.

These birds, with wingspans at six feet or more, are in residence between September and late April; the best viewing time is early November to late February.

Room key: McHardy House
Address:
11 Bracken St., Napier; on a hill overlooking Hawke's Bay
Telephone: (011) 64-6 835-0605; fax: (011) 64-6 834-0902
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.mchardyhouse.com
Co-owners: Brenda Robins, Markus Burkhard
To book: Web site, above; via Availability at www.availability.co.nz.
Commissions: Negotiable
Number of units: Six
History: Built in the 1890s as a home; converted to other uses, including a maternity hospital; totally renovated as a B&B by current owners four years ago.
Daily rates: About $375 for deluxe room; $450 for a suite; covers breakfast and four-course dinner for two, but not taxes; no children under 14.
Room highlights: Bathrobe, hair dryer, towel heater, space heater (but no central heating reflecting a mild climate); no phones or TVs in rooms.
Services highlights: Full bar services; gourmet dinners, with Hawke's Bay wines, by co-owner and Swiss-born chef Markus Burkhard, but must book dinners in advance; heated swimming pool; billiards room; health and beauty therapy (must book ahead); e-mail and Internet access, telephone and fax; laundry.
Noteworthy: Grand old house with big rooms, high ceilings, broad verandas, native timber floors, original tin ceilings; "magic" hall lights that come on after sensing you are there
Not worthy: Room lighting not the best for reading.

You can reach the journalist who wrote this article at [email protected].

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