Travel Story Napier thrives on Art Deco legacy

EXPLORER OF THE SEAS NEW ZEALAND CRUISE. The ship in its berth in the heart of Auckland. Picture by Barry O'Brien. (with story by Barry O'Brien)

A New Zealand city once ravaged by earthquake proves a real highlight on an Explorer of the Seas cruise to the Land of the Long White Cloud. 

The cold wind was fierce but the sun shining brightly as wife Pat and I cruised across “the ditch” on our way to New Zealand aboard Royal Caribbean ship Explorer of the Seas. However, the icy wind didn’t deter the hardy souls surfing the heated waters of the FlowRider surfing experience on deck 13. 

Our first port of call was the beautiful little town of Picton at the top of the South Island — the butt of comedian’s jokes. “We bring you to all the great places in the world — Paris, New York and ... Picton,” joked our cruise director. Across the water to the north, New Zealand’s capital Wellington was next. 

Having previously visited Wellington and Auckland, Napier, the self-proclaimed Art Deco Capital of the World, was the highlight of our cruise. The city was completely devastated in February 1931 by a massive earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale that ravaged the Hawke’s Bay region. 

Following the earthquake, fires engulfed the stricken area. The loss of 261 lives makes it New Zealand’s greatest ever disaster. The city was rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the time. 

We paid a visit to Hooters, a vintage car company with 20 wonderfully restored vehicles ferrying tourists around the town. We were allotted a red 1926 Chevrolet called Ruby. But Ruby wasn’t ready to take her love to town and conked out through overheating 20m after we took off. The replacement, a 1925 Hupmobile, ticked over like clockwork. We honked the horn as we left Ruby sadly steaming by the side of the road. 

Every third weekend in February 40,000 visitors descend on Napier for an Art Deco festival. The town centre is closed to general traffic and only open to pre-1945 vintage vehicles. Next year the festival will be on from February 14-18. 

“We get hundreds of vehicles, including showroom pieces, daily drivers and some that look like they’ve just been dragged out of a bush,” Hooters manager Phil Kavanagh, said. 

“All part of the fun,” he added as he drove us around in the Hupmobile. “Everyone gets involved, the young and the old. You are out of place if not dressed in clothes of the period. Some just wear a trilby and waistcoat while others really clad out in 1930s dress. 

“Our old cars are available for hire and we can drive you around or we will teach you how to drive them. They are a bit more complicated than modern cars.” Petrol was $NZ1.90 a litre ($1.72).

Vintage aeroplanes, spitfires mustangs and the like also give displays. High-end food and wine-based events including a Depression dinner and a Gatsby themed dinner are very popular. 

However, accommodation is at a premium and should be booked early. 

Next we visited Opossum World where we learnt that in the 19th century brush-tail possums from Australia were released in the wild to help establish a fur trade. Now numbers total from 30-50 million, depending on which survey you believe. One count in the 1990s had about 70 million of the little pests munching 21,000 tonnes of vegetation a night. 

The establishment of a good industry combining possum fur with merino wool, producing beautiful, soft, warm garments has reduced the numbers. Professional hunters can bag up to about 300 possums a night. 

At Tauranga, our next port, Lord of the Rings tours proved popular and in Auckland, the ship berthed right in the heart of the city.

On board, the Royal Promenade was a gathering place with shops and bars as well as the throbbing hub of specialised entertainment — 70s Disco Inferno and Rock Brittania street parties. On the last night, every possible vantage point was jammed for the “Royalpallooza Parade”. Of the 3700 passengers aboard for this cruise during school holidays more than 800 were children, emphasising the growing trend for family holidays at sea. 

For a quiet cruise we would probably avoid school holidays next time. 

As on all ships, the food is plentiful and delicious.

A visit to specialty restaurants Chops Grille, Giovanni’s Table Italian style and Izumi Asian cuisine all incur a charge but are worth every cent. The steaks for Chops are free range, grass fed and flown in from either Nebraska or Iowa pastures in the US. Pyush, our Indian waiter was keen to talk cricket. 

He boasted of his knowledge of Aussie expressions. “She’ll be right mate, fair dinkum and chuck a ‘Uey’ — like the ship did today,” (as it did make a U-turn to settle into its berth). 

The entertainment on RCL ships is always of a high standard. The afternoon ice show, Spirit of the Seasons, was spectacular with international skaters careering around on the blades at a frenetic pace. 

Two acts, illusionist Leo Ward and comedy singing impressionist Jonathan Clark were hilariously funny as well as highly talented. Clark’s impression of Elvis learning a song from a damaged tape had tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks. 

As they say in New Zealand: Fintistuc eh!

Fact File

For itineraries, see Royal Caribbean, phone 1800 754 500 or travel agents. 

For more information on the Napier Art Deco Festival go to artdeconapier.com.

For accommodation try the Napier i-Site: napiernz.com or email info@visitus.co.nz

Hooters Vintage & Classic Vehicle Hire Ltd: hooters-hire.co.nz or email info@hootershire.co.nz

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