New Zealand Travel

New Year’s in Napier


We left grey, rainy Auckland at 9:47 on Sunday morning, 30 December 2012. We couldn’t wait to get out. Although Saturday, the 29th was a stellar day, the sort of day Pacific Island poets harp on about, we couldn’t wait to get away from the utterly unstable weather of the region. It just gets tiresome. Will it be rainy, will it be sunny, will it be windy? Will it be all three or none of the above in the span of two hours?

I had spent the previous evening poring over weather reports, trying to suss whether Napier was going to be as beautiful and warm as the forecasts suggested. Auckland has made me a weather cynic…even more so than San Francisco did.

It’s a 5-hour drive through dairy country flats, the interior of the central North Island, peppered with breathtaking sights, but not known as a destination, per se. Exceptions to this are Rotorua, Lake Taupo, and some of the volcanic parks, which are all impressive and exciting in their own special ways. Heaps of waterfalls and unexpected steam springs, winding roads that reveal their secrets only when chanced upon…hard to plan for those, like strikes of lightning.

Where things get really interesting is when you leave Taupo, headed south on your last leg of the trip to Hawke’s Bay. By the time you reach Taupo from Auckland, you are more than two thirds of the way, but that last third. Wow. It’s like Hawke’s Bay has magically thrown up an endless mountain range to test the mettle of any who would brave that last leg into its precious climate and gorgeous coastline.

This range is called — I don’t know what it’s called, and all attempts to suss the name from locals, from Google Earth, from whatever, result in nothing. How strange, that a mountain range with a sealed highway through it has no apparent designation, even though it has well-documented mountains within it.  Guess it doesn’t matter. It’s bloody gorgeous.

It’s over an hour of driving through mountains. Not treacherous…I’ve been through treacherous mountain ranges. This one was a joy to drive through. Long stretches up and then down hills, brief winds that aren’t really very windy at all. Pastoral. Reminded me of mountain passes in Italy.

Coming down from the mountains into Hawke’s Bay was like passing through the final membrane. It’s easy to drive very fast here…while speed signs are posted, the roads are excellent and sparsely used. Visibility is excellent. There’s excitement in pushing to 120kph or 130kph, which by New Zealand standards is quite fast.

When you reach a small suburb called Bay View, you have essentially reached the out skirt of Napier.

Napier is quite small. Maybe a little bigger than Salem, MA, maybe not. It’s a dot of residence, water industry, and deep history piled into a very small piece of real estate. Despite this, it doesn’t feel cramped. In fact, it feels underpopulated, even on this, the weekend before New Year’s Day. I can’t think of a more perfect thing than a medium-sized town that seems like very few people are actually in it.

We strolled the road from our hotel, along an unspoiled estuary, toward the bridge that spans the small inlet. We found a mini grub-and-beer district. I very intentionally call it that, because there’s nothing here but beer and grub. Expect no fine dining…instead, this is the sort of place where you hang out on the drinking deck of a commercial establishment with questionable kitchen skills and drink in the late afternoon sun. View onto the marina, which is small and dotted with catamarans, modest sail boats, many of them lovely, but none of them so sleek and excessive that one is reminded of wretched excess.

Tomorrow? Who knows? Depends on the weather…that’s the New Zealand way.

DAY TWO (New Year’s Eve):

Another perfect day of weather, another day of sunhats and ultra-SPF. We got up early and had breakfast at Groove Kitchen Espresso and then spent the day really taking a look at Napier. Napier’s not that big, so you can really get an excellent feel for it in a day. The fact that we’re here for 4 days will give us great insight into the character of town.

Highlights of the day included the dead hospital on top of Hospital Hill, the highest point in Napier. How odd is it that a massive old hospital that dominates Napier’s skyline, viewable from nearly every point outside the CBD, should be this derelict building that hasn’t been used in years and is, sadly, marked for demolition. It’s not a beautiful building by any stretch, but it is impressive, especially when seen from far below the hill’s summit. Ironically, it has the region’s best views of Hawke’s Bay. I’ve always had a fondness for old structures, with the ruins of Ireland being among my favourites. There is something majestic about grand structures that are now haunted with disuse looming over the landscape. Apparently, an Australian investment group has bought the property, so who knows what they will build. Because of the difficult winding roads that lead to the hospital, the property doesn’t lend itself to a hotel (which would be perfect, given the views), but might make for a great park or series of apartments. I hope they do something sensible, but I never hold out hope for the creativity of land developers. Time will tell.

Meters down the hill from the dead hospital is Napier’s gorgeous old cemetery, opened in 1855 and closed in 1917. I’m not sure what closed means, since there were headstones dated as late as 2002, although they were attached to existing family plots. Perhaps you had to have been buried here during its open days for your family to be allowed internment on its grounds later. As with all great old cemeteries, it is positively alive with character and history, with little stories in nearly every etching and epitaph.

DAY THREE (New Year’s Day):

Another gorgeous day in Napier. Last night, we went to an Indonesian restaurant on Marine Parade, run by two old Dutch guys who were hours away from celebrating the 30th anniversary of their restaurant. The interior is packed with an exquisite array of Indonesian arts and crafts, from batiks to shadow puppets and small chests used for jewels and condiments. Dinner was — OK. I’ve studied Indonesian cuisine for nearly two decades and consider myself more than adept at the cooking of it. The restaurant’s proprietors, it seemed, have dumbed the Indonesian flavour profile down for Kiwi palates (which are famously averse to heat), serving hot-ifying condiments on the side. It was tasty, but all a bit production line. I was disappointed.

We trotted down to Marine Parade expecting to stay up long enough for the midnight fireworks, but we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel, waking just long enough to walk down to the estuary and watch a fraction of the fireworks before climbing into bed.

This morning, up early, poked around, and then back to bed for a few extra hours of very deep and needed sleep. Woke up at noon and headed back to Groove Kitchen Espresso for a strong dose of flapjacks and a half benne. We then headed back up the mini mountain to the Napier Botanical Gardens, which, oddly, are nestled between the dead hospital and the cemetery. It’s not a grand botanical garden, but it is a place of great serenity, with lovely shaded walks that, as in any good garden, transport you to another place.

DAY FOUR (January 2):

It’s our final day in Hawke’s Bay, so we decided to branch outside of Napier proper and explore Havelock North and some of the renowned ranges and coastal areas south west of town. After a nice late sleep-in, we headed down to Havelock North, the smallest of the three towns that make up the Napier/Hastings/Havelock corridor. We had been told that Hastings is boring, so we didn’t even bother with it, zooming around it and straight on to Havelock North. Lunched at Diva Bistro and Bar, which is on one of the main roads in the CBD. Charming place, with a large open front. We sat at a table on the footpath, where I enjoyed a couple of Tuatara pilseners and one of the best chicken Caesar salads I’ve ever had (perfectly poached egg on top was the bomb).

We then headed off to the modest but lovely Keirunga Gardens. More of a forest preserve than proper gardens, it shares with Napier’s Botanical Gardens a series of winding paths through the shade of massive old trees, in this case, mostly oaks and very well-developed Eucalyptus. There’s an old train (clearly designed for the kiddies) that winds on elevated tracks through a small portion of the Gardens. Unfortunately, they run the train only two days per month, or I would have forced myself into a tiny seat next to some kiddie and terrorized him with tales of train wrecks and horrible deaths on the tracks. I’m like that.

We then headed off to Te Mata Peak, which everyone told us we should visit. I’m always skeptical of the destination everyone is supposed to visit, but this one exceeded all expectations. It’s the highest point in the region, atop a dramatic ridge of limestone peaks that were pushed up out of the ocean aeons ago as two massive plates converged. Views from the peak included the vast valley of Hawke’s Bay all the way back to the mountain ranges the constitute its north west border. From this height, you could see the snowy peaks of Mt Ruapehu and in the foreground the flat expanses of Hastings, Napier, and Havelock North. To the east, another valley through which runs the Tukituki River, and beyond the east-most range, the ocean. Because it’s summer, the ranges are golden, like those found in California during the dry season, but there’s a great visual difference to these peaks and ranges — they have the special quality of seeming largely unspoiled. They have the even greater quality of having Maori legends attached to them:  Chief Rongokako, who took many huge tasks to prove his worthiness as a suitor for the daughter of a competing tribe’s chief. He succeeded at all but the last task, which was to eat his way through the hill. That hill is where he failed and became the peak known as Te Mata today.

Our final stop of the day was Ocean Beach, a very small community beach that’s wildly popular with locals because of its easy access, friendly surf, camp site, and even a lagoon that’s great for kids. I’m not big on heavily populated beaches, so our stay was short. Frankly, I preferred the drive to and from it, which was highlighted by gorgeous lowland hills and those ever-present limestone peaks jutting out of the landscape.

Now, on our final evening, I’m sitting on the upper deck of our hotel, facing west as the sun begins to sink into the Ruahine and Kaweka ranges we will tomorrow cross on our journey home. This has been one of our finest little getaways in New Zealand. To be honest, not one of them has been less than special in some way, but Napier’s personality, environment and climate have really captured our hearts.


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