Napier might be best described as a phoenix city. Devastated by an earthquake in 1931, it was quickly regenerated in accordance with the popular Art Deco styles of the day. With washes of pastel colours, sunburst motifs and sleek geometric features, all that hurried building created a sort of architectural time capsule to 30s design.
I love historical settings in all shapes and sizes, so Napier was high on my list of places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island!
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: A MODERN CITY
I’ll begin with a caveat: ultimately, Napier is a modern city. With some notable exceptions, most of its Art Deco features are only visible when you look up above street level. For this reason many of my photos are tilted skyward (or otherwise awkwardly cropped)! Despite the city as a whole being more modern than I’d hoped, there were plenty of standalone buildings and design details that made up for the lack of coherent aesthetic.
TOURING ART DECO NAPIER
It’s very easy to tour around the town on your own – there are even a downloadable walking tours you can use to inform the experience.
We wandered a little for ourselves but also booked onto one of the Art Deco Trust’s walks. This offered a more holistic experience and some expert insights into the buildlings we visited. One of the most useful aspects for me actually came at the end of the tour, when we were shown a short documentary video on the earthquake. It offered a lot of additional context around the circumstances of the earthquake and havoc it wreaked on the area.
In terms of the tour itself, there were so many wonderful details scattered throughout the city – stained glass, carved wood, old inscriptions, gorgeous lampposts. I could go on! As for buildings as a whole, my highlights included the gorgeous Parker’s Chambers building above (its neighbouring buildings were pretty spectacular too!), the old fire station and the Masonic Hotel.
My personal favourite of everything we saw, though, was one that didn’t feature on the tour: the old National Tobacco Company building. Located outside of the centre of town, it felt very much like a little Art Deco island in a sea of industrial buildings.
As well as a beautifully-preserved exterior (unspoiled by a modern lower storey), it was also one of the few buildings that had a partially-accessible interior, replete with marble, rose-motifs and a gorgeous stained-glass dome…heaven!
OUT OF THE CITY: CAPE KIDNAPPERS
If you’re indifferent to architecture or history, a walk to Cape Kidnappers may well be more your cup of tea. It’s reached by a coastal walk from Te Awanga, so whether or not it’s accessible is very much determined by tide times. We checked in with the Napier i-Site (NZ Tourist Information) ahead of time. They gave us a really helpful sheet showing the tide times for the week with the accessible days highlighted for maximum clarity on when to go.
We set out very early (around sunrise) and took around 3 or 4 hours to walk there and back. I’d say our timing was just about right – unfortunately on the way home we did get caught out by the tides at certain points. Ben returned unscathed but I received a bit of shoe-soaking from the rising water!
The majority of the walk is across sand, so relatively gentle. Only towards the end do you walk up to the top of the cape to see the lovely gannets at the Plateau Colony.* When we visited we saw only a handful of other people, which made it all the more enjoyable. A very fitting end to our stay in Napier.
* The best times to visit the gannets are from early November and late February. There’s also no public access to the colony between 1st July and Labour Weekend in October.