Napier probably isn’t the first place that pops into your mind when planning a trip to New Zealand, but the little art deco town should be on your list for its charming character and nearby wine region of Hawke’s Bay.
A Short History
The original settlers of the area now known as Napier and Hawke’s Bay were the Maori iwa (tribe) Ngāti Kahungunu. The Ngāti Kahungunu came to this location about 800-900 years ago.
Captain James Cooke saw Napier Harbour in 1769 and the land was subsequently colonized by the English. However, they were mostly traders and whalers and the construction of the town of Napier itself didn’t start until the mid 1800’s.
On February 3rd, 1931, a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Napier and Hawke’s Bay, destroying nearly every building in the city. 258 people were killed in the quake and subsequent fire and tsunami. Thousands were displaced as refugee camps were set up and women and children were relocated during the long cleanup and rebuilding of Napier.
Parts of the Napier/Hastings area were raised up to eight feet by the earthquake. This drained the Ahuriri Lagoon and created more arable land which became farms and, later, the site of the airport.
New Zealand guidebook
Art Deco was the architectural trend of the 1930’s and Napier was rebuilt in this style. As almost every original building in the city was destroyed by the ‘31 earthquake, Napier now has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world.
Foodie Napier and Hawke’s Bay
The Manuka tree (aka Manuka Myrtle) is a native New Zealand shrub typically on the east coast of the north and south islands. Bees gather the nectar from the Manuka tree flowers to make the highly sought after Manuka honey.
Authentic Manuka honey commands a premium price of $50US and up for a one pound jar. The hefty price tag is because of the scarcity of authentic honey and its purported health benefits.
Manuka honey can have a dark and rich amber color with a taste profile of herbs with a medium sweetness and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
While Manuka honey should have mostly nectar from Manuka tree flowers, there is no way to make a honey that is 100% from a single flower. That’s because bees pollinate flowers that can be a mile or more from their hive.
So, real Manuka honey should be certified. The UMF Honey Association independently tests honey to see if it contains the telltale markers associated with Manuka honey like Methylglyoxal which is a compound associated with the health benefits of Manuka honey.
When spending big bucks on Manuka honey you should check to see that it has been certified because unscrupulous producers have been slapping the word “Manuka” on all sorts of products without there being any trace of Manuka pollen in them.
Arataki Honey has been in the bee game for 75 years. They have certified Manuka Honey as well as other honeys (like clover) and you can see the bees in action and taste their honey at their visitors center.
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to visit the local grocery store. This serves a functional purpose, of course. We need some food for our stay; whether it is stocking the kitchen at an Air BnB, getting ingredients for a picnic, or just snacks for a day trip.
But, a trip to the local grocery store provides an insight into the local culture as well. Whether it is perusing the mustard aisle at a grocery store in Paris, picking up paprika chips and limoncello for dinner in Rome, or grabbing Lychee fruit in Hawaii, shopping for groceries in an unfamiliar city is a culinary adventure.
In New Zealand, there are two major supermarket chains; Countdown and New World, each with over 100 stores. Both offer lots of organic choices with competitive prices.
And, one of the most interesting places in the store is always the candy aisle. In New Zealand, candy is referred to as a “lolly.” Not just lollypops, like in the U.S., but all candy.
There’s chocolate of course. The most famous brand is Whitaker’s which is based in a Wellington suburb. While Whitaker’s chocolate isn’t as good as some artisan chocolate, it is one of the best large scale chocolate manufacturers.
Other popular lollies in New Zealand include chocolate fish, a fish-shaped marshmallow covered in milk chocolate and pineapple lumps, a pineapple flavored marshmallow covered in chocolate. Both chocolate fish and pineapple lumps are popular with kids. I found them to be unbearably sweet and rather artificial tasting.
But, I can heartily recommend my favorite lolly in all of New Zealand which is the the injected donut at Mister D in Napier. Mister D is a great dining spot with lots to recommend. But, the one thing you must get is the injected donut not only for the great taste, but for the fun you’ll have preparing it.
A fresh-baked donut (no hole) arrives on your table with a syringe filled with custard, chocolate, or jelly. Or, for the adventurous, get a syringe with cognac, dark rum, or vodka jelly. Then, you fill your donut with the contxents of the syringe. Decadent and delicious for about $7US.
Grazing in Napier
Downtown Napier is a small area tucked behind the waterfront of Hawke’s Bay. There’s a collection of several interesting restaurants along and near Hastings Street. To visit them all would be a gastronomic flight of fancy which is why I recommend the grazing approach when visiting a new city. This maximizes the variety of flavors and settings in which to enjoy them. Here is how it works.
First, map out you itinerary. You don’t have to schedule it down to the minute, but visiting restaurants in a similar geographical location makes the grazing approach much easier.
Then, stop by the first place on your list. If it is a sit-down restaurant, sit at the bar. The grazing method doesn’t lend itself to plopping yourself at a table for the evening.
Order just one dish, preferable an appetizer or or half portion size and one drink. Share the dish and drink with your dining companion.
Pay your bill and head to the next location.
It’s as easy as that.
But, with the grazing method, you can repeat this three, four, or more times at different restaurants, getting a different taste at each place. And, by the end, you won’t be saying “I wish we’d had time to visit Restaurant X” because you’ve checked all the places off your list.
Of course, you might recognize this kind of dining from Spain, where tapas restaurants serve small plates of food with a little glass of beer or wine. While tapas is a certain kind of Spanish restaurant, the grazing method can be used at almost any restaurant anywhere in the world.
In Napier, you might want to try the grazing method like this.
Start at Indigo with a Samosa Chat and a Croucher Brewing pilsner. Then, it’s over to Emporium Eatery and Bar for a Roasted Baby Beetroot Salad and a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc. Next, walk to Kilim Turkish Cafe for Grilled Halloumi Cheese with felafel and humus and a cup of Turkish coffee. Finally, a stop at Bistronomy for cherry almond cake. Of course, if you haven’t made it to Mister D, now would be the time to get your injected donut!
Drinking in Napier and Hawke’s Bay
Hawke’s Bay is one of the most vital wine growing regions in New Zealand. Volcanic and river bed soil are rich in minerals and prime for vine planting.
Bordeaux blends, Cab-Sauv, Merlot, and Chardonnay are some of the best grape varietals grown in Hawke’s Bay, while Syrah is becoming increasingly popular.
There are lots of tours that will take you around the Hawke’s Bay wine region (see listing below), but my favorite way to see the wineries is by renting a bike from Napier City Bike Hire and Cycle Tours. These folks have figured out an ingenious way to cycle and enjoy cellar doors (wine tastings) in Hawke’s Bay. They pick you up in Napier and drop you off at a winery with your bike and helmet. Then, you’re off on a self-guided tour of up to seven wineries.
The terrain in Hawke’s Bay is flat and easy so you can enjoy the scenery without getting fatigued. Best of all, Napier City Bike meets you at the last winery where they pick up your bike and drive you back to Napier.
New Zealand grows a lot of apples. Just look in any American grocery store and you’re bound to see Gala apples from New Zealand. Many of those apples are grown in Hawke’s Bay.
Paynter’s has their own apple orchards and they call their cider “anti-hipster.” Check out the picture on the label to get an idea of what that means. Lots of places in Napier carry their cider including Mr. D.
Zeffer uses local apples and they have a taproom that’s open for tastings and tours. You can even bring your canister and buy a fill up.
New Zealanders take their coffee seriously. If you want to learn about the dispute over who originated the “flat white” check out my post on Wellington.
There’s lots of great places to get java in Napier like Crazy Good Coffee Shop or St. Germain. But, when I saw a the Turkish cafe Kilim (translates to rug or tapestry in English), I dropped everything and went inside. They have excellent Turkish food like humus and felafel, but the Turkish coffee is amazing. Super strong with the grounds left on the bottom of the cup, just like it’s supposed to be.
Things to do
The 1931 earthquake that completely destroyed Napier will forever define the look and psyche of Napier.
The Art Deco structures that were built after the quake are protected by the city and will stand forever. At least until the next big one hits. And that’s how the earthquake also defines the mentality of Napier. Very few living people have first-hand memories of the quake. But, every citizen of Napier is reminded every day of the power of the tremors and that another major earthquake could strike at any time.
Art Deco architecture began in the early 20th century in Paris but gained worldwide popularity in the 1920’s. The style featured long lines, rectangular shapes, and a lack of fancy adornments on building facades.
After the ‘31 quake destroyed the city, Napier had to be rebuilt from the ground up. As Art Deco was the style of the time, the new buildings were Art Deco in form. And since an entire town had to be constructed, Napier now has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world.
Today, the Art Deco Trust works to preserve the buildings of Napier and runs several tours in the city. You can even take an Art Deco tour of Napier in a classic 1930’s car. But, for my money, the best tour is guided 1 1/2 hour walking tour of Napier. Well-informed Art Deco Trust volunteers show off the different styles of Art Deco architecture on display in the city. Well worth the $16-$17US ticket price.
Lovers of all things Art Deco and the style and culture of the 20’s and 30’s should check out the Art Deco Trust’s annual Art Deco Festival. A long weekend of tours, classic cars, films, and dance makes for a great party.
MTG Museum Theater Gallery
MTG stands for Museum, Theater, and Gallery. Inside, you’ll see rotating art and cultural exhibits. During our stay we saw an art installation called “Bottled Ocean” by George Nuku. In it, he imagines sea creatures who have adapted to an ocean filled with plastic garbage. In reality, Mr. Nuku has taken plastic trash like water bottles and created amazing sculptures
The MTG also has a permanent exhibition of Māori artifacts including weapons, whale bones, and film of Māori from almost 100 years ago.
There is also a permanent exhibit about the 1931 earthquake with evocative photos and first-hand accounts of the disaster. When we were in Christchurch (which had major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011), residents told us stories of the ground moving like waves on the ocean. In Napier, one eyewitness to the destruction in ‘31 described it as follows:
“The outline of the hill turned into a giant serpent as it heaved up and down. The shock wave swept across it, creating a monster crossing the skyline.”
A walk along the waterfront in Napier is a must-do for any visitor. The Marine Parade stretches 3km up and down the shore from downtown Napier and winds through several gardens (including the Sunken Gardens) with a bike and jogging path.
The black sands are crumbly volcanic soil and the water has lots of dangerous rip currents so there are only a few spots where lifeguards are on duty and swimming is allowed. But enjoying the beach and the walking path is something everyone can enjoy.
Along the Marine Parade in Napier is a hidden gem; the Sunken Gardens. This small garden is a peaceful spot that you’d be hard pressed to realize is just behind a street busy with car traffic.
The space isn’t huge, but it’s a nice spot for a picnic. And, the fact that the gardens are below street level means it is shielded from the winds that sometimes whip up from the beach.
Hawke’s Bay Airport
Small airport serving domestic locations only.
111 Main N Rd, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Intercity operates buses between most cities in New Zealand. Be forewarned that travel times can be long.
While downtown Napier is small and walkable, you might want to use the bus to get to Hastings or the suburbs. The service is inexpensive and reliable.
Uber is currently not available in Napier, but there are several taxi companies.
Hawke’s Bay Combined Taxi
1/2 Price Cabs
Hawke’s Bay Scenic Tours
Family-owned tour company with several wine and craft beer tours
Wine tours of Hawke’s Bay
Rural, fishing, wine tours, and more available.
Waimarama Maori Tours
Maori cultural tours
MTG Hawke’s Bay
Museum, theater, and gallery all in one.
1 Tennyson St, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Bluff Hill Lookout
Best views in Napier. Especially nice at sunset.
Bluff Hill, Napier, New Zealand
Historic prison offers self-guided audio tours
55 Coote Road, Bluff hill, Napier
Beautiful 3 km walk from Napier along the Pacific.
Marine Parade, Napier, New Zealand
Lovely garden on the Marine Parade which is, as the name implies, below street level.
Marine Parade, Napier, New Zealand
Historic site of an early Maori fortified settlement
Springfield Road, Otatara Pa Historic Reserve, Tutira 4183, New Zealand
Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony
Great spot for birders, 25 miles south of Napier.
Cape Kidnappers, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Food and Drinks
Milk and Honey
Can’t be beat for breakfast and brunch
10 Hardinge Rd, Ahuriri, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Donut filled by syringe with cognac custard!
47 Tennyson Street, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Fine Indian food
24A Hastings Street, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Kilim Turkish Cafe
Cafe with great Turkish plates and outstanding Turkish coffee!
87 Jackson Street, Napier, New Zealand
Nouveau cuisine with flair.
40 Hastings Street, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Emporium Eatery and Bar
Great place for beer, wine, and cocktails with top-notch bar menu.
Corner Marine Parade and Tennyson Street, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Cool bar hidden down an alleyway. Small bites, too.
39 Tennyson St, Napier South, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Funky café in Napier.
28 Tennyson St, Napier South, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Crazy Good Coffee Shop
87 Bridge Street, Napier 4110, New Zealand
Good coffee and sweets.
82 Dalton Street, Napier, 4110, New Zealand
Upscale seafood restaurant
209 Marine Parade, Napier 4001, New Zealand
Churchill’s Champagne Bar
Quirky Napier bar with dated but interesting decor.
12 Browning Street, Napier, New Zealand
Asian fusion with some vegan options in Hastings.
300 Heretaunga street E, Hastings, New Zealand
Little Black Bird
Café with excellent coffee.
108 Market Street South, Hastings 4122, New Zealand
Organic café with lots of veg. and healthy options.
219 Heretaunga Street East, Hastings 4122, New Zealand
Iconic ice cream shop with hokey pokey, of course.
704 Heretaunga Street West | West, Hastings 4120, New Zealand
Local cider. They even grow their own apples.
Originally from Britain but now made in New Zealand. Required eating at breakfast.
A candy of pineapple flavored gel covered in chocolate. Available in most convenience stores.
Great source for the rare Manuka honey
66 Arataki Road, Havelock North 4157, New Zealand
True Honey Company
Real Manuka honey
3/36 Waghorne Street, Ahuriri, New Zealand 4110
12 Browning Street, Napier, New Zealand
Modern apartments with small kitchenette. Laundry facilities downstairs.
176 Dickens St, Napier 4110, New Zealand
453 By The Sea
2 Bedroom Air BnB with sea views.
Cute Air BnB guesthouse with kitchenette.