Living Well in Napier

Napier, New Zealand considers itself the Art Deco capital of the world — for good reason. As I write this post, I’m listening to Lana Del Rey’s “Art Deco” on repeat just to amp up the Gatsby vibes a bit.

My friend Charlotte recommended I spend a few restful days in Napier, a little town tucked away in Hawke’s Bay on the North Island’s east coast. It doesn’t always make it onto tourist must-do lists, but it’s an impressive region all its own. I booked two nights at the Hillhaven B&B and made the two-hour drive from Taupo. I picked up some gummies as a snack for the ride over.

Hillhaven B&B is owned by a retired German couple, Charlotte and Kurt, who’ve been permanent residents of New Zealand for over 35 years. They turned their house into a bed and breakfast awhile back, offering housing for three people while living there themselves.

The house is nestled in the hills just outside of the city centre — normally something I would rejoice in, but my busted ankle hurt just looking at the stairs to the front door. Luckily, my sprain had improved significantly and I was able to hobble myself up and meet Kurt for check-in.

Hillhaven is absolutely surrounded by foliage, to the point where it feels hidden even in a bustling neighborhood. It fondly reminded me of a different Airbnb in Medellín, Colombia I once stayed in nicknamed “Salsipuedes” — translated as “leave if you can.” Once I stepped inside Charlotte and Kurt’s cozy home, I wondered if I should book a few more nights.

Kurt suggested I go to Ahuriri, a neighborhood northwest of town with a lovely beach and bike paths. I parked outside of an antique store called Whales Tales, whose offerings were way too expensive for a backpacker budget ($100 for a teacup). However, their mirrors were absolute fire, and I took the opportunity to take more ankle pics in hopes of garnering sympathy from my Instagram followers.

After convincing the store owner that I neither had the budget nor room in my backpack for a giant mirror, I hobbled to Milk & Honey, a little cafe with a mean flat white. Then I gave in and got ice cream from a Tip Top seller across the street, Cool Cat. Cookies & cream, how I’ve missed you!

The Ahuriri beach looked beautiful as the sunset drew near. I wasn’t in the physical state to swim or to bike, and my ice cream was blowing all over from the surprisingly strong winds along the shore. So I just settled for people watching.

For dinner I found Sri Thai just around the corner, which serves up a delicious bowl of green curry for about $20 NZ.

Back at Hillhaven, I sat on the porch and talked to Charlotte and Kurt as they cooked dinner. They told me how they’d traveled the world for a few years in their late twenties, backpacking through Asia, working in Australia, going back home to Europe, and eventually coming to make a permanent home in New Zealand. They’d even biked the whole country in the 1980s — an impressive feat.

Kurt’s somewhat of a wine aficionado, explaining to me the wonders of Sauvignon Blanc and white wine in general. He brought out a bottle of Villa Maria, a New Zealand wine, along with another brand, and had me taste them both. I felt like my palette (and general wine knowledge) was slowly but steadily increasing.

Napier is known as a great wine region of New Zealand, and Kurt promised to pick up a couple bottles of Merlot for a wine tasting the next night. I couldn’t say no to new knowledge.

The next morning, Charlotte prepared breakfast for me and Johanne, another Hillhaven guest from Germany whose working holiday visa in New Zealand is about to run out. We had the typical spread of coffee, toast, jams, muesli, yogurt and fruit.

Then it was time for Charlotte and I to depart for a dancing ceremony at the Buddhist Centre, which Charlotte attends every Wednesday morning at 10am. We drove into town and met Bhavna, who was leading the day’s Tara dance.

Tara Dhatu is an international org formed in the 80s which celebrates the Buddhist mother goddess Tara. The dances, primarily performed in a circle and focused on women/feminine energy, vary in length and focus. Thankfully, the foot movements weren’t complex and my ankle was a-okay for a couple hours of meditation, connection and celebration.

We all grabbed a “cuppa” after the Tara dances, around the corner at a unnamed but excellent coffee shop. Bhavna gave me a Tara flyer in case I wanted to find another Tara dance ceremony along my journey.

For lunch, I met my friend Tobias (once again!) at Mister D, a wonderful cafe that apparently serves giant donuts with syringes of different sorts of filling. I’m not really into that, so I just got the fish of the day — roasted tarahiki (a common NZ fish) with kumara mash and broccoli. Heaven on a plate, worth the $34 NZ price tag.

After lunch, Tobi and I walked over to the Napier Museum, a small (but totally free) collection of Māori history and stories of the Napier earthquake of 1931, which wiped out much of the city but caused an architectural resurgence in its wake. They also had a little exhibit on F. Scott Fitzgerald and fashion in the Roaring 20s.

Tobi and I walked across the street to i-Site, the tourist info center available in nearly every larger town here. I purchased a $10 self-guided Art Deco walking tour pamphlet (the official guided tours are more than $40 NZ, which I don’t personally find worthwhile).

I said goodbye to Tobi as he was headed toward Wellington that day, and I departed for my self-guided tour. The Napier city centre is truly a gem, filled with countless Art Deco buildings and public artwork. I started near the water, taking a few photos of the beautiful — albeit windy — coastline.

I followed along the brochure’s guidelines for about an hour, starting with the Marine Parade (lots of yellow arches surrounding a public gathering place) and continued on to The Dome, an iconic building in the Napier “skyline,” if you will.

I passed the Masonic Hotel (another icon) and walked along Emerson Street, passing countless gorgeous examples of Art Deco architecture. Unsurprisingly, I saw more than several people driving around in classic Art Deco-era cars (for lack of a better word). I’d say the city is a haven for Art Deco fans.

I found myself especially drawn to the Provincial Hotel, which is now a whiskey bar, across from a pleasant park called Clive Square.

Turning onto Tennyson Street, I saw a small orange caravan called Donut Robot, which serves five fresh cinnamon sugar donuts for $5. The best deal I’ve seen in this expensive country — it may not be ice cream, but how could I turn it down? The owner and I talked about the absurd state of American politics while the donuts fried.

After arriving home, Charlotte made some avocado mash served with cheese and crackers, and she taught me how to draw a labyrinth — for meditative purposes or otherwise.

After snacks, Charlotte and I departed for circle dancing, a group that meets once a month to perform surprisingly meditative dances from cultures all over the world. For just a $1-2 coin donation each, our group of about 12 people danced for a couple hours to tunes from Romania, Yugoslavia (my favorite) and Senegal, among others. A woman named Margaret led the dancing, blessedly patient with those of us who are new to circle dancing.

Heading home once more, I met Kurt out on the back deck, ready with a couple bottles of red wine for the night’s tastings. First up: Hawke’s Bay Merlot, which is available for under $12 at the local grocery store. It was smooth and beautiful, my personal favorite for the night.

We also tried a Villa Maria Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which I identified as more acidic and less favorable. Look at me! I’m learning the absolute basics of wine.

Kurt and I had a wonderful conversation about music, including a stint where we talked about Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for a very long time. I couldn’t have chosen better hosts in Napier, truly.

The next morning, sad to leave Napier, I woke up for another breakfast with Johanne and Charlotte before saying goodbye and visiting the city centre one last time. I found a nice cafe, Georgia on Tennyson, and caught up on blogging before walking along the water in search of some dank ice cream. I ordered a hokey pokey scoop from a little stand called Danish Delight, topped with whipped cream.

Then it was once again time to hit the road, continuing on to Wellington and the exciting prospect of finally visiting a “big” city. A few relaxing days in Napier did wonders for this girl’s psyche — but for a city full of wine, dancing and art, who’s surprised?

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