"It's like a time warp," says tour guide Tony Mairs as he shows me around the Napier Municipal Theatre. "For the whole weekend, 95 per cent of the 35,000 people attending events are dressed in 1930s clothing."
Mairs is speaking of Napier's Art Deco Weekend, an annual celebration of the city's architectural and cultural heritage. On the Friday afternoon of the four-day summer (our winter) festival, he adds, "all modern vehicles are voluntarily removed from the city centre," replaced by about 400 vintage cars, vintage aircraft and motorbikes, even a steam locomotive taking visitors on excursions to and from the city. The more than 200 weekend events include a Great Gatsby picnic, outdoor concerts, plenty of dancing and acrobatic flying displays.
It's a far cry from where Napier was 125 years ago, called a town without a future by its own mayor as the predominantly swampy land left little room for development. But then, on Feb. 3, 1931, a massive two-stage earthquake struck. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale with the shallow epicentre just 15 kilometres from shore, it tore apart the town and triggered extensive fires, killing almost 1 per cent of the population of Napier and nearby Hastings – a total of 258 people.
From ruin came opportunity, and about 6,500 tradesman arrived to rebuild the North Island port town, not just on the former town site but also on what's referred to as "the gift" – 3,440 hectares of new land created as the earth surged upward, draining the water away. Within 22 months, the city was cleared, replanned and rebuilt in the style of the times, the earthquake-safe buildings of reinforced concrete made distinctive with Art Deco motifs: ziggurats, zig-zags, sunbursts, fountains, geometric shapes and symbols of ancient cultures – Egyption, Aztec and, unique to New Zealand, Maori.
In total, about 160 buildings (140 of which remain) were erected in the Art Deco style, led by Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced architect Louis Hay, and when construction was complete, Napier held a carnival celebrating the birth of what they called the most modern town in the world.
You don't have to visit during the main festivities to get a taste of Napier's love affair with the thirties. Mairs is a volunteer with the Art Deco Trust, whose recently renovated headquarters welcomes visitors, sells period souvenirs and arranges city tours by foot, bike, bus or vintage car. All year long, guests play dress-up with its stash of hats, feather boas, fur shrugs and long strands of beads before heading out on the town, whose formerly grey Art Deco buildings are now painted up in pretty colours that emphasize the decorative details, and where themed murals – including quotes and snippets of poetry – can be found in nooks and alleyways.
Mairs and the other trained guides are experts on the city and its history and architecture, pointing out details the rest of us might miss and sharing tidbits such as what it took to recarpet the theatre with the original design: The factory in Australia that took the order (none in New Zealand had a big enough loom) called to confirm that the eye-crossingly patterned sample piece was indeed what they wanted the new wool carpet to look like.
As fellow volunteer (not to mention Air New Zealand pilot) Graham Holley drives me up Napier's tallest hill in his gleaming vintage Packard – I blush to admit how long it took me to figure out how to open the door – I hear about Napier's other attractions: Besides Art Deco weekend each February, there's the twice annual Food and Wine Classic, as well as the smaller Art Deco-themed event, DIY Deco, held in July. There are now 180 kilometres of trails criss-crossing the city and environs, letting avid cyclists explore themed routes on single- or multi-day excursions. And the region's rich agricultural heritage and long growing season have prompted the growth of a boisterous food and wine scene, with 80-odd wineries nearby, 33 of which welcome visitors for tastings, tours, meals and even overnight stays.
We stand at the top of the hill looking down at Napier's port, currently host to a series of log booms but expecting a cruise ship tomorrow, one of the close to 60 that visit the city each year. And as Holley tells me about his dream project for the future – biplane tours that will take the thirties theme forward and give visitors the view of the city that he sees frequently in his work as a pilot – I think about the Kiwi can-do attitude that turned a natural disaster into opportunity not just for those who rebuilt the city, but for their descendants, too. It's clear that despite its dedication to history, Napier isn't stuck in the past.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand. It did not review or approve this article.