Sunday, April 03, 2016

Art Deco adventure

A few days after visiting Christchurch, still struggling with the aftermath of earthquakes of over 5 years ago, we visited Napier, a town with its own unique earthquake experience. The town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1931, and its claim to fame these days is that it was rebuilt mostly in the then-fashionable Art Deco style. Walking around, particularly after visiting Christchurch, I marvelled that so much was built so quickly (mostly in 1932 and 1933, although some major buildings were built later due to money issues), in the middle of the Depression, and that they went to the effort to produce decorative and fashionable buildings.

We took a walking tour in the morning - 1 hour, although I think one of the longer tours would have been better (they run longer tours in the afternoon, but we wanted to get an overview straight away in the morning). One thing I didn't know was that, although the earthquake was obviously very destructive, destroying nearly all the buildings in central Napier and nearby Hastings and taking the lives of 256 people, it also had a fringe benefit. The land was lifted up by about two metres, which caused a lagoon around the city to drain and thus added around 40 km sq. of dry land to the area. Without this, Napier would have had little room to grow and would probably have remained a small town to this day (it currently clocks in at a respectable 61,500 people).

Most of the Art Deco buildings are essentially just square concrete blocks, fancied up with windows and decorative façades. This was a fortuitous mix between the rectilinear Art Deco style with the realisation that many of the ornately-decorated Victorian buildings had been particularly fragile and dangerous during the earthquake. The individual buildings may not compare to the likes of the Empire State building or other well-known Art Deco designs, but Napier has the most concentrated and coherent ensemble of Art Deco architecture in the world.

The ASB bank (I think originally a BNZ bank), one of my favourites for its elegant simplicity
Ceiling of the bank foyer, it is notable for incorporating Maori designs

Inside the bank

Ceiling detail (I can't remember what these are called. Awnings? Porticos?)

Trinity Church, built in 1876, so one of the few city centre buildings that pre-date the earthquake
St Paul's. As far as I can find out, the original was destroyed in a fire in 1929, just about rebuilt, then destroyed in the earthquake. There's a real kick in the pants for you.
How awesome would it be to work here? (You can, if you become a real estate agent. Nothing's perfect.)

Marine Parade. The trees date from before the earthquake - they just hung on and enjoyed the 2-metre ride

The Masonic hotel. The Queen once stayed here

You mostly have to look up to enjoy the Art Deco architecture
The Public Trust building in the neo-classical style, another pre-earthquake survivor

This is hard to see, but I enjoyed the "Self Help Shoppers Fair". I assume it means you can pick out your goods yourself, rather than them being behind a counter, but I like to imagine a more neurotic scene 

The "Six Sisters" on Marine Parade
Street lettuce!

Cutting-edge neon lighting in the theatre, built in 1937

We were in Napier on a Saturday, and as the following day was our 2-year anniversary, we decided to go out for a fancy dinner. We chose Pacifica, a fine-dining restaurant that offers a choice only between two five-course dégustation menus, which change nightly. It describes itself as "Michelin-quality food" but with relaxed service, so we had an enjoyable time critiquing the meal as to whether it really was Michelin quality. (Not that I'm an expert, but it was fun.) We both had the seafood dégustation (you can choose between seafood or meat emphasis, sorry vegetarians), and it was overall good quality, with some courses hitting the spot better than others. The service was attentive, friendly and relaxed, although one of the waitresses did the "squat down beside the table" thing, which personally I don't like. One thing that you definitely can't fault the restaurant on is the price. Jules took the wine-matching option, I didn't because they were all whites and I don't really drink whites. I had two glasses of bubbly, a red and a glass of port (mostly because Jules got a sherry with his dessert and I had wine envy, even though I usually steer clear of dessert wines, digestifs and so on). The bill for two came to $201, which is 121€ at current rates. I also liked that you could watch the chefs at work (although it meant peeping around a woven mat).

Glammed up for the evening. I even blow-dryed my hair, which I never do (can you tell?). (I was amazed by the number of women who seemingly bothered to do this every day in a campsite!)

First course was a John Dory sashimi, our least favourite dish. I suppose good to start low and end high

Corn tortellini. This was my favourite course, mostly because I was unenthused looking at it on the menu and turned out to really love it. 

A yummy crunchy swiss chard chip hiding a mussel and prawn broth (should have photographed it sans chard). This was a mid-field runner for both of us

Sesame-crusted albacore tuna with salt-and-pepper squid. Jules' favourite and my runner-up. I loved the melt-in-your-mouth tuna (having previously never really liked tuna that didn't come out of a can), but the squid was a touch flabby

My final course - I'm usually a dessert girl, but dessert was coffee-themed :( The cheese was nice, but you know, cheese is cheese unless it comes on one of those groaning cheese carts and you can have as much as you like

Jules' dessert - a yummy vanilla ballotine sadly flanked (ruined) by mocha and espresso creams

A slightly tipsy selfie back in the van after dinner

The Masonic sign at night

Marine Parade
Like most of the stops on our trip, I'd never visited Napier before, but had always wanted to. It's a lovely little city to spend a couple of nights and even celebrate a special occasion. I think it's always good to show that there are things to see and do in New Zealand that aren't outdoorsy or beachy-type things (as fun and amazing as those may be).


  1. Like that tipsy pic. I really like Napier - and it has a good climate, too! Glad you've had a chance to experience that NZ is a lot more than just Auckland (and, OK then, Wellington). xx

    1. well, bit of an exaggeration to say I only knew Auckland and Wellington before

  2. Happy anniversary!

    Somehow it seems funny to me to see a neo-classical building with palm trees next to it.

    I'm will you on choosing dessert over cheese. I love cheese, but as a snack or pre-cursor to dessert.

    1. Thanks! They were definitely very keen on their palm trees in Napier!


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