Step Back in Time to the Swinging 30s in New Zealand

How snazzy! A lamp in the shape of an upturned nude balancing a ball of light on her feet. And though I don’t suit cloche hats, that black feathered fascinator is rather neat…

I never associated the Art Deco movement with New Zealand. It always conjured up notions of French Riviera resorts—or of Miami Beach, New York and Chicago. It’s King Kong clutching Fay Wray on the Empire State Building. It’s bootleggers, transatlantic liners and flappers in fringed dresses.

Yet Napier is also an Art Deco gem. On Hawkes Bay, on the east coast of NZ’s North Island, the city’s 1930s heritage is unmatched in the southern hemisphere. It’s as if a whimsical corner of the Riviera somehow washed up on a Pacific shore.

Pastel buildings are embellished with chevrons, sunbursts, stained glass and distinctive lettering. Palm trees sway along Marine Parade with its sunken gardens, oceanfront hot pools and the ‘Spirit of Napier’ (another nude) raising her arms skyward.

You half expect to see Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald stepping out of the Masonic Hotel.

Each February, enthusiasts pack their Deco-style glad rags and head to Napier for its Art Deco Weekend (this year’s is running from February 14-17). Hundreds of visitors turn up in 1920s and 30s cars; events include aerobatic flying displays, steam train rides, and a “Great Gatsby” picnic with jazz music in Marine Parade’s gardens.

Napier’s appearance is down to the misfortunes of eighty-two years ago. Affecting an area of around 300 miles, the Hawkes Bay Earthquake of 1931 flattened most Victorian and Edwardian properties. Architects rebuilt in the new style of the time: mostly Art Deco, but with some Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical too. Giving a local flavor, some buildings include stylized Maori motifs.

At this time of year, Hawkes Bay temperatures are in the high 70s. Napier itself is more for sunny promenade walks than beaches—Marine Parade’s pebble strand isn’t designed for buckets and spades—but plenty of options are within an easy drive. The long golden sands of Ocean Beach and Waimarama are popular for surfing and boogie boarding.

If you’re into bird-watching, Cape Kidnappers has one of the world’s largest gannet colonies. (The curious name of this white-cliffed headland comes from an incident in 1769 when local Maori warriors unsuccessfully tried abducting a member of Captain James Cook’s crew.)

Hawkes Bay is also the center of New Zealand’s red wine production. The country’s oldest winery, Mission Estate, lies within Napier’s limits and was established in 1851 by French missionaries. Like many of the area’s 90 or so wineries, it has a gourmet restaurant and offers cellar door tastings.

Napier’s art deco properties are rarities on the market. The town is home to 58,000 people, and suburbs such as Pirimai (meaning “come close to me” in the Maori language) are a better bet for finding a rental. A 2-bedroom furnished property in Pirimai rents for $210 per week.

Napier’s average house value is $266,000, but you’ll find buys for less. For example, a ground-floor freehold apartment (1,182 square foot) in Ahuriri is $167,000. With its fishermen’s cottages and wool warehouses, Ahuriri is Napier’s historic port quarter. Its old industrial buildings have been transformed into “lifestyle” apartments, cafes, and restaurants.

With views over town and ocean, the Bluff Hill neighborhood has some lovely villa-style homes and cottages. $229,000 buys a cute Bluff Hill weatherboard cottage (967 square feet on a 4,354 square foot plot) within walking distance of the town center and Ahuriri. As an extra bonus, it’s already furnished as a vacation let.

Art Deco and wine, too—I loved Napier. It’s on my list as a place for part-time living, an idea you can read more about in upcoming issues of International Living magazine. If you dream of escaping the northern hemisphere winter, New Zealand has many enticing options for retired sun-seekers.

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