Napier: The Heart of New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay
First impressions certainly last. When I stumbled upon Napier in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island it was like discovering the land of autumn.
The grape vines in the seemingly endless vineyards were turning colour – yellow, gold, crimson and brown. The sky was clear but there was a crispness in the air.
And the city was wedged between a mountain range and the ocean – a bit like an English seaside town.
That first visit in the 1970s was by train from Gisborne, on the eastern-most point in New Zealand. I had stayed at a youth hostel overnight and caught the train the next morning.
It was while on a working holiday and I remember the railway went through the golf course then followed the coastline of Poverty Bay before crossing a range that brought glimpses of the Pacific Ocean and Hawkes Bay for much of the journey.
I must have arrived in Napier mid afternoon and was immediately taken by the charm of the coastal town.
The beers at the sailing club at sunset were some of the most enjoyable I can remember. The Leopard Brewery was right there.
Today, half a lifetime later, I have driven down from Auckland. The early light of dawn revealed seas of fog in the valleys of the areas south of Thames … Matamata, Morrinsville, Tairu … down to Taupo.
Taupo is like a snow town … Cooma or Jindabyne in Australia’s alpine region or something out of Alaska perhaps. There’s thermal power as well as hydro electricity from the wild rivers and geo thermal activity.
On the northern end of a great lake, Taupo is known for its fishing. Trout. Well, there was this time in the ’70s when we tried to tickle some trout rather than catch them with a hook and line.
Quietly slip your hand into the water and under the fish as it lazily swam in the clear water, then tickle its belly.
That was the plan. But we could never quite pull it off. Maybe it needed the Maori touch … or our workmates were fooling with us.
On our recent journey to New Zealand the drive through the range was in showery conditions yet being in a rain shadow the outlook for Hawkes Bay was good.
Virtually as soon as we dropped down into the valley, the sun broke through and the last silvery drops of rain were illuminated against the ranges as well as the grape vines in this wine growing region.
Napier was decimated by an earthquake in 1932 so when the rebuilding took place it took on this Art Deco look.
Now it is a highlight. A town preserved with a theme.
East facing at the foot of the ranges, it is washed by the Pacific Ocean and bathed by the breezes. Little wonder that is home to some delightful wines and sea food.
The importance of the sea is celebrated in a glorious series of murals throughout the port city.
Murals for Oceans was a public art project in Napier in early 2016. It has resulted in about 30 large-scale murals highlighting the ocean’s beauty, and issues facing the marine environment.
A series of thought-provoking works that can be appreciated by anyone who walks along the streets and laneways or by the wharves.
By collaborating with internationally renowned artists, the murals and community-based educational efforts focus attention on major environmental issues the oceans are currently facing, and to promote the importance of long-term sustainability of natural resources.
After all, if someone had asked where most of the oxygen we breathe comes from I would have said plants and trees, but no, it’s from the ocean.
In fact every second breath we take comes from the ocean. Reason alone to look after a precious resource. And never mind the plastic.
A benchmark mural is at the National Aquarium on the foreshore, Cinzah Merkens’ endangered Longfin eel on the back wall glistens in the early morning light.
Joggers and walkers are silhouetted against it and give it a sense of scale.
Then there is the artist Phibs and his mural showing a turtle being affected by pollution.
Ocean acidification and rising sea levels as well as endangered NZ seabirds are all depicted.
The town is quiet, seeing how it is the middle of winter. Tourism must be of vital importance, along with timber, wine, agriculture and other horticulture such as peaches, nectarines, maybe cherries, apples and citrus.
I pull up at the wharf, looking for the sailing club.
The brewery is long gone, swallowed up by one of the international brands.
The old warehouses and wool stores are going through a revival with arts, crafts, professional offices and technology centres.
An esplanade runs along the long curve of the bay. Foreshore reserve on the ocean side, the town on the other.
Pacific gulls mix with silver gulls along the esplanade.
There are vacancies in the accommodation houses, a mix of motels and guest houses, backpacker hostels as well as bed and breakfast places.
Getting a table at one of the esplanade restaurants is easy enough on this winter’s evening, except some don’t open Monday while others might have Tuesday off.
I am taken by the retro charm of Hunger Monger, recommended by the people at the Linden Winery as one to put on the must-do list.
It’s the same with Pacifica and Bistronomy. Both highly recommended.
Indeed, Pacifica knocked over the heavyweights of the Auckland dining scene to claim the 2017 Cuisine Good Food Awards after winning best regional restaurant the two previous years.
Hunger Monger is a dedicated seafood restaurant and, well, Hawkes Bay has a strong fishing industry.
The restaurant has those chintzy plastic table cloths, plastic tomato sauce containers that look like tomatoes, HP sauce bottles, period lamps, woolen skins thrown over the chairs.
The owners stake their reputation on the quality of the produce.
Fraser has more than 20 years experience as a chef, mostly in Auckland and around New Zealand as well as in Australia.
Agnieska is Polish and has 20 years in hospitality in England, Scotland and New Zealand.
The 1932 art deco building that houses the restaurant was formerly the home of Haynes Butchery in the 1920s.
The couple pride themselves on sourcing locally-caught fish and pairing it with local produce.
As Agnieszka says, “Hawkes Bay is horticultural heaven and we know it.
“We’re swimming in wine here and the breweries have a great selection.”
So it’s fish and chips … with a difference: Just $14.
There are also prawns spaghetti, seafood bouillabaisse or clam chowder. Sashimi for raw fish lovers and fresh salads.
The lightest of batters is used on the tempura prawns, and the crispy squid: $10 and $12 respectively.
Steamed Coromandel greenlip mussels with Thai green curry sauce and wholemeal pita toast. And the Bouillabaise is $28.
The beers include Zeelandt Brewery Jerry Rig blonde lager while the wine list features such labels as Elephant Hill Le Phant blanc, Pig’s Back albarino, Flying Sheep pinot noir, Squawking Magpie “The Gravels’’ syrah, Trinity Hill High Country pinot noir.
A visit to Hawkes Bay would not be complete without seeking out New Zealand’s oldest winery.
Mission Estate was established by a group of French missionaries in Hawke’s Bay in 1851, where vines were planted to produce both sacramental and table wine.
The first record of a commercial sale dates back to 1870 when a parcel of mostly dry reds was sold.
In 1897 the 800-acre Mission Estate at Taradale was purchased from the Tiffen family and the Marist Brothers travelled each day from Meeanee to work the new land.
Then in 1911 the 57 English plane trees were planted along the driveway that today make such a spectacular entry to the winery.
Mission Estate is a museum as well as a much-awarded winery, a restaurant and an events centre.
There is so much to like about the region. And while the train doesn’t run from Gisborne any more, there are railway tracks headed south towards Hastings.
That’s the way I head. Along a road fringed by giant palm trees.
It gives great perspective – like driving in a Hollywood movie set.
Then maybe I am. That’s what Napier’s like.
ART DECO FESTIVAL
Each year people visit Napier for the Hawke’s Bay Art Deco Festival.
Fox furs, boaters and beads are the order of the day, the roads are reclaimed by vintage vehicles, while jazz tunes serenade from street corners.
The 2019 Art Deco Weekend runs from February 13-17. For more information go to: www.hawkesbaynz.com