Monday 8 February 2016

NZ Roadtrip Napier: Packard, prison, priests

There’s something pretty special about being picked up from the door by a shiny green and black 1926 Packard complete with running boards and hat-friendly headroom. Cherrie, our Art Deco Trust guide, resplendent in a 1930s frock and shoes, was friendly and full of information about Napier before and after the massive 1931 earthquake (and subsequent fire) that destroyed the city, in one stroke snatching away the past, along with 286 lives, and delivering a bright new future on the land that rose from the sea.
It turns out Art Deco, the style of the day, is perfect earthquake-proof architecture: reinforced concrete boxes with no overhanging bits, but plenty of embossed decoration to raise the spirits both then and now. Napier is the world’s most complete Art Deco city (sorry, Miami) and it’s really worth a visit for a good poke around its streets. There’s even a Glasgow connection in the form of Charles Rennie Macintosh stained glass roses in the bronze lamps outside the National Tobacco Company’s beautiful building.
It’s not all colourful elegance, though: the prison up on the hill is a grim and depressing place, full of dark poky cells and equally dark stories. New Zealand’s oldest, it’s small, but there’s plenty of information packed into the audio tour and on the walls, much of it chirpily presented. Even so, there’s no getting past that it was a ghastly place to be incarcerated in, that it penned people up from 1862 right up to 1993, and that four people were hanged in its yard.
How nice to be able to let ourselves out through the big heavy gate and balance all that horror with the classy elegance of the Mission Estate vineyard nearby, again the country’s oldest, founded in 1851 by French missionaries. It’s in a beautiful old villa, the gardens neat and colourful, with a view over the vines. The food is excellent: perfect seafood chowder, and I recommend the Black Doris mille feuille, even if it’s nothing like the French version. Oh, and the wine’s pretty good, too.
Today’s last extreme were the heights of Te Mata Peak: steep, rocky and brown, where paragliders circled effortlessly overhead and joggers and cyclists sweated with rather more effort up the winding road and trails. Their reward was extensive views from the top of sea, beach, plains, hills, river – and the road, which will take us south tomorrow.

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