A Walk Through the Art Deco Centre of Napier

It’s an early morning farewell to the isolated river retreat of River Valley. Today, we will be making our way over the Ruahine Ranges to the Hawke’s Bay town of Napier. Although we are leaving the stunning countryside nestled at the bottom of a river valley, it turns out that returning to civilisation will present us with an different type of beauty…

To get out of the middle of nowhere we have to drive through the middle of nowhere. We hit the gravel roads before sunrise, the only ones on the road. Notably, Laura decides this is a great time to ease back into driving for a couple of hours to get rid of her discomfort in driving. Sure, she can do skydiving, bungy jumping and a 365-trip doing 365 activities, but when it comes to driving, she is a bit of a wuss.

A stunning drive over the Ruahine ranges

As we travel over the exposed farmlands leading to the Ruahine Ranges, we see a dramatic sunrise squeezed under some low-lying clouds surrounding the mountains ahead. That’s the first case of wanting, no, needing to stop and take photos of the “wow” moments that the New Zealand landscape throws at us. We also can’t help stopping at various lookout points as we head on over a mountain pass through the Ruahine Ranges. Layers of bush-clad mountains lay before our eyes, making Laura realise how much more enjoyable driving in New Zealand can be compared to the road rage-riddled roads of her home in the UK.

Driving in New Zealand is so enjoyable, in fact, that Robin hints about three times that he can: “take over for a bit,” as he sits with itching feet in the passenger seat.

Epic sunrise on our drive over to Napier Epic sunrise on our drive over to Napier
Learning about Napier's Art Deco style Learning about Napier's Art Deco style
Art noveau meets art deco Art noveau meets art deco
Listening to the commentary along the way Listening to the commentary along the way

welcome to hawke’s Bay

Once over the mountains, we get our first glimpse of the Hawke’s Bay region under the golden light of the morning sun. Lush rolling hills stretch far and wide casting magnificent shadows over the landscape.

Checking into our art deco hostel

The closer we get to the hub of Hawke’s Bay, Napier, the flatter the landscape gets perfect for the fields of fruit and vineyards. Hawke’s Bay is a significant wine-making region in New Zealand, which we’ll be sure to find out more about later in the week, but for now, we are arriving in the city centre of Napier to check into our hostel, Archies Bunker. It is our first encounter with the Art Deco architecture that we are going to be learning more about today. The facade of the building is impressively maintained with vibrant colours and the name of the hostel sharply painted in a classic Art Deco font across the building.

Art Deco Guided walk

Once checked in, we only have to walk 30 seconds to the corner of Tennyson Street and Herschell Street to arrive at the Art Deco Centre. Not only is does the Art Deco Centre have a shop with many funky Art Deco trinkets, clothing and souvenirs, but it is also the start of a guided walking tour you can take around the city. Considering we have been in the city less than an hour, we figured this would be the best introduction to Napier.

Having a look at the grand Municipal Theatre

The dawn of a new age

The tour starts with meeting our guide, Niki, in a small cinema room for a quick presentation. Accessorised with a splendid straw hat and some funky jewellery made from coins, Niki explains the context to Napier’s Art Deco obsession. The aid of maps and photographs shows the transformation of Napier before and after a 7.8 earthquake that devastated the city. The rebuild of Napier came in this Art Deco style. And for those who are sat here wandering what the hell does Art Deco even mean, then all that is explained too with examples of geometric patterns, angular shape, and symbols of power, freedom and dawn of a new age – fitting for both the 1920s era that the Art Deco style derived from and for a reviving town.

One good looking town!

Now to see the examples of this Art Deco architecture, we head onto the streets of Napier. Almost every building in the city centre has a facade of this Art Deco style: lots of angular overhangs, a mix of colours, names and dates of buildings proudly labelling the top of the facade. The city is definitely one-of-a-kind, not only from what we have seen in New Zealand but out of the 30+ countries we have travelled in combined. These impeccably maintained buildings mixed with streets lined with palm trees makes Napier one good looking city!

Niki accessorised in Art Deco style Niki accessorised in Art Deco style
And the tour continues through pretty garden sections And the tour continues through pretty garden sections
Learning about Napier pre-earthqukae Learning about Napier pre-earthqukae

Stylish photogenic facades

Each of us is kitted up with some headphones and a receiver so we can hear Niki’s commentary no matter how close we are stood to her. You know how it is: you lag behind sometimes because you are getting all Picasso on your photos. On the other hand, Napier’s architecture is extremely photogenic so getting a good picture is effortless.

It’s in the details

From the grand and iconic dome-shaped T&G Building to the quaint Thorps Building wedged in the middle of Hastings Street, Niki points out the notable features about the architecture. What we like most about a guided tour though is the finer details hidden around the city that we would probably miss otherwise: the colourful lead-lighting windows, geometric patterns on the underside of shopfront verandas, and even Egyptian influences in some of the carved decorations. But where most of the patterns in international Art Deco style are influenced by an interest of ancient cultures during the 1920s, the patterns found on some of Napier’s Art Deco buildings are that of a something a little closer to home. Niki takes us into the ASB Bank’s foyer for a good example. The ceiling is decorating with the swirling black, white and red patterns typical of Maori design.

A sneak peak

The ASB Bank is not the only building that we take a sneak peak into (emphasis on the “sneak”, as we peep through a letterbox of Devon House to admire its unusual glass ceiling and mezzanine floor). We head upstairs to the Criterion Hotel (now a backpackers) to check out the the Spanish Mission style fireplaces and lighting displays.

Our tour of the city brings us back to The Art Deco Centre to end with a cup of tea and a short film on the Napier earthquake and Art Deco rebuild. From there, we head back to our stylish hostel with a greater perspective on the city of Napier.

Tomorrow, we visit the nearby neighbour of Hastings for the famous Sunday Market – a classic insight into the Kiwi culture. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Looking at the decorative details of Napier's shops
Looking at the decorative details of Napier's shops Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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