An Art Deco Wonderland
Come February, and a small town in New Zealand will once again step back in time to celebrate the roaring twenties.
The Tremains Art Deco Festival that takes place in Napier each February draws locals and tourists in hoards to its film screenings, walking tours, vintage car rides, antique fairs, prohibition parties, and Gatsby picnics. Everyone dresses up in period clothing; think flapper dresses and cloche hats for the ladies and pastel suits or plus fours for the men.
Napier is set in the scenic Hawke's Bay area of New Zealand's 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 with symmetrically patterned facades and embellished with stylised geometric motifs, sunbursts, and chevrons, flank the street.
Little can someone imagine, that this seemingly idyllic town had to be rebuilt from the ground up after a massive, 7.8 magnitude earthquake levelled most of downtown Napier's Victorian and Edwardian buildings in 1931. What could still have been salvaged was consumed by fires that started immediately after. More than 250 people died and only a handful of buildings were left standing. As if to compensate for the loss of livelihood, the earthquake also pushed the sea away by almost 5,000 acres, leaving a veritable blank canvas for the citizens of Napier to use. In less than two years, the locals rebuilt the stretch and fashioned it as an Art Deco paradise.
On a bright, cloudless afternoon, I hopped into a gleaming burgundy-coloured 1939 Packard car with Anthony (Tony), a 70-something volunteer guide with Napier's Art Deco Trust. This trust was formed in 1985 to protect and preserve Napier's architectural heritage, which was in danger of being torn down in favour of modern buildings. Today, it organises walks and vintage car tours to educate tourists about the city's dramatic rebirth and help them appreciated its heritage.
About 140 Art Deco buildings stand in Napier, the most striking of which is The Dome, a former insurance company building which was converted into an apartment hotel on the Marine Parade (seaside promenade). This three-storey white building, capped by a copper cupola and a clock tower, is Napier's prominent landmark. Nearby, the stripped classical style building housing the Auckland Savings Bank is interspersed with indigenous Maori elements like red, black and white frieze around the top walls. Another is the symmetrically pattered facade of The Daily Telegraph building, studded with stylised lotus flowers, another eye-catching piece of architecture.
Bother Emerson and Tennyson streets are seamless with lines of candy-coloured buildings: from pale pink and pistachio green to baby blue and sandstone. Their sculpted entrances are adorned with Deco elements such as ziggurats, speed stripes, and angular zigzags.
We left the city centre and drove towards the Ahuriri Port to the National Tabacco Company Building. "This is the most photographed building in Napier", said Tony. I could see why. Here, Art Deco blended superbly with its equally successful predecessor, Art Nouveau, in a pale pink and sandstone coloured building. The dramatic curved archway above the door sported the Deco staple sunburst, punctuated by Nouveau elements like grape vines and roses.
When I returned to the city centre, I found Marine Parade swarming with men, women and children, all dressed in retro outfits. Apparently, there was some TV shoot in progress, I sat back with a cone of Hokey Pokey ice cream (New Zealand's national flavour) and enjoyed a preview to the Art Deco Festival. Vintage cars lined up at one end, at sundown, a brass band kicked up on the stage, sequined headbands glinted in the evening light, and pale suits bobbed about. The Great Gatsby would be right at home in Napier.
EAT & DRINK NAPIER
Prachi Joshi's guide to eating and drinking in Napier
Drop into 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 offeres 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 five 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.