Napier is one of New Zealand’s most popular holiday destinations. It is especially known for having one of the best collections of art deco architecture in the world. Walking through its streets will make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
This city in New Zealand’s sun-soaked Hawkes Bay was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931. 256 people died as the buildings collapsed and fires broke out. The centre of the town was so destroyed that it had to be rebuilt from scratch.
The town was rebuilt in the newest and hottest style of the time: art deco. As a result, it is a living museum to this architectural movement. Napier and South Beach in Miami, Florida, are considered the two most well-preserved art deco towns in the world.
Napier was also the first cultural site in New Zealand to be nominated as a World Heritage Site. It is not often that an entire town is built during the same period and in the same architectural style, especially when that style is as striking and beautiful as art deco.
What Is Art Deco?
Art deco is a visual arts and design style characterized by geometric motifs, rich colours, bold shapes and symmetry. It originated in Paris during the 1920s and flourished throughout the world in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Art deco emerged during the period between World War I and World War II when life was being transformed by rapid industrialization. The previous style, art nouveau, which became popular around the end of the 19th century, was typically expressed in lavish, curvilinear and organic forms like twisting vines, floral patterns and the female figure. Art deco was a stark contrast to art nouveau as it embraced technology and modelled itself after machines and industry rather than nature.
Enjoying Napier’s Art Deco Architecture
If you prefer to explore at your own pace, you can buy a booklet at the Information Centre in Napier that will give you information and directions for a self-guided walking tour. The booklet supplies interesting background stories behind the buildings.
However, it’s hard to fully appreciate the architecture with only a small brochure. If you are interested in learning more, you will enjoy the guided walking tours offered by the Napier Art Deco Trust. They cost $16NZD at 10 a.m. and $21 at 2 p.m. The guides take you on a walk through the city and tell you fascinating stories about the buildings.
The Art Deco Festival
Every year in February, Napier hosts the Art Deco festival that celebrates the 1920s and ‘30s in retro style. Over 2,000 events are held during the festival, including steam-train rides, a “Great Gatsby”–themed picnic, live music, classic car shows, free outdoor performances and dinner galas.
If you plan to attend, dress up in your finest 1920s clothing, available to rent from the many costume shops downtown.
Other Things to Do in Napier
Rent a bike and ride out to Cape Kidnappers, located on the southern tip of Hawkes Bay. Here, you will find a colony of gannets that make their home on the rocky outcroppings of this bay.
Visit the Napier Prison. It’s a spooky old building located up a winding road on the top of Bluff Hill, overlooking the ocean. This prison was constructed in the 1860s and held convicts in its stone and barbed-wire walls until the 1990s when it was abandoned. These days, backpackers work as tour guides, giving historical tours in exchange for the privilege of being able to stay within the creepy cells.
Take a wine tour. The fertile soil and abundant sunshine of the Hawke’s Bay region makes it perfect for wine production. You can tour many vineyards and wineries in the region.
Napier is not just a sunny seaside city but a fascinating time capsule that will immerse you in another era.
About the Author: Basil Roland is a freelance travel writer and blogger who spent six months backpacking around New Zealand. He searched online to find Expedia hotel deals when visiting destinations like Napier.
Picture credit: Annie Beaumont.