Working life in Auckland has felt so consuming of late that it’s become easy to forget that my main motivation for moving to the other side of the planet (apart from the missus, obviously) was to experience new people and places and explore sights and scenery unique to this faraway isle. With a meager twenty days of annual leave to escape the trials of The Office - and most of this year’s allocation reserved for a trip back to the UK - I have been relying more than ever on public holidays and their consequent long weekends for opportunities to travel and tick off the ‘must sees’ from my indispensable Rough Guide to NZ.
This year, we took full advantage of Easter to undertake one of the great Kiwi road trips, from Auckland to Napier. While many of my plaudits in these blogs have been reserved for the scenic grandeur of the South Island, large swathes of the North have remained unexplored during my time here to date, and I was grateful for the chance to spend three days in the Hawke’s Bay area over the mood-brightening four day weekend.
As is often the case in NZ, the journey there was every bit as intoxicating as the destination. It was not a quick route though, and we spent much of Good Friday on the road as we traveled, first, down through the Waikato and across to Lake Taupo, and then down along the remote pass linking the Central North Island to Napier on the east coast. The final two hours of the drive were carved through thickly forested mountains, with vast stretches of wilderness broken only by the occasional farm and roadside cabin. Emerging, at long last, into the Bay was one of those classic awe-striking moments you never tire of in this country, as the road opened up suddenly and a crystalline seascape surged dazzlingly into view.
I found Napier, the cultural heart of Hawke’s Bay, to be an intriguing place, one quite unlike anywhere else I have visited in New Zealand. It has something of the faded seaside glamour of the French towns that line the coast of the northern Mediterranean, but its Art Deco buildings, designed in a statement of the contemporary architectural zeitgeist after a devastating earthquake in the 1920s, can’t help but recall New York. In reality, Napier is not as hip or happening as either, though our timing was unfortunate, our visit coinciding not only with an Easter exodus of the locals, but some unusually dreary weather too.
I was startled to learn on this trip that New Zealand - surely one of the world’s most secular countries - has peculiarly strict rules regarding alcohol consumption on days of religious festivity. Arriving as dusk was falling on Good Friday, our plan had been to relieve tired car-stiff bodies with a couple of drinks in a central pub before undertaking a recce of the local eateries for dinner. Unfortunately, as we strolled through the muted streets, we quickly discovered that most of the Rough Guide recommended establishments were closed, and those that were open were not allowed to serve you booze without a meal to accompany it. Consequently, we had little choice but to dine much earlier than we would have liked, and at a restaurant that, were it not for the dearth of options, we probably would have sidestepped on another night.
Despite the rain and rather subdued atmosphere, Napier was not without its charms. The Art Deco facades, though small in scale compared to their architypes across the Pacific, were fascinating to behold, the uniformly stylized streets a novelty in a country that usually prides itself on the diversity of its buildings. On Easter Saturday, which was ‘business as usual’ compared to the public holidays falling either side, we were heartened to discover some decent eateries, highlighted by excellent coffee and eggs benedict at the motley Ujazi café, and the modern strip of waterfront bars and pubs in the trendy suburb of Ahuriri, which offsets an impassive industrial skyline with pretty rows of moored yachts. The outlook from the summit of one of the city’s highest hills afforded us a glorious twilight view down over the freight shipping harbour, with the flickering lights of distant ocean liners providing the only counterpoint to the dark expanse of the Pacific.
For me, the highlight of the trip was not Napier itself, but a day spent driving through the surrounding countryside and visiting the many wineries that have made the name of Hawke’s Bay an omnipresent in every British supermarket. Dotted around a landscape of undulating valleys and steep ridges, the vineyards and their accompanying facilities provided a visual as well as sensory feast. Some of the architecture on display was very impressive, with more modern structures of stone and glass demonstrating that the Art Deco isn’t the only building style worth coming to the area for.
Of course, the real test of quality is a winery’s alcoholic output and we were delighted to discover that most of the estates offered free tastings, suggesting a confidence that the majority of customers wouldn’t be able to resist purchasing at least one full bottle. So it proved for us, but the wine was of such a universal high standard that we struggled to select our favourites and ended up making some quite random choices. Elephant Hill at Te Awanga would be our special pick, with a fine selection of wines to be sampled in a modern setting perfectly attuned to the glorious views it offers out over the surrounding hills and of the iconic Te Mata peak. If you’re not short on time, I’d also recommend driving to the summit of the Peak itself, where you can admire from on high the epic sprawl of the vine-mottled landscape.
Slinking our way back to Napier after a day exploring the bucolic scenery around it, we couldn’t resist a peek inside a roadside antique shop over-spilling with flotsam and jetsam. What was most intriguing though was the proprietor, an Englishman whose 40 years in New Zealand – so it transpired – had failed to dull his thick cockney accent and East End market patter. This little reminder of home in the most unlikely of places was enough to sway us to purchase a tatty painting from him, though I think we both questioned its appeal once the sentimentality had shaken off.
Back in the town, we retired for a final night in Criterion Backpackers, a hostel we’d chosen more because of its funky Art Deco stylings than the quality of its rooms. In retrospect, this was something of an error, as ours was dull and musty to the point of being disagreeable and some of the clientele lurking in the communal areas made us feel less than comfortable. Still, it would be churlish to criticize somewhere that unashamedly pitches itself as budget accommodation and the management shouldn’t be held responsible for the occasional oddball arriving through their doors.
The weather and Easter shut-down meant we left Hawke’s Bay with somewhat mixed feelings but there was enough left unexplored to warrant a return visit at some point and I imagine in sunnier times Napier might just pull off the illusion of a dreamy resort on the coast of Provence…