Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Escape travel supplement of News Corp Australia newspapers and websites in July 2016.
John Corbett travelled as a guest of Scenic Hotels and Hawke’s Bay Tourism.
Can’t decide between Wellington or Auckland? Here’s what you can do and see if you meet halfway in beautiful Hawke’s Bay.
WORLD-CLASS WINE AND FOOD
Wine has been grown in Hawke’s Bay since 1851 when French Catholic missionaries needed sacramental wine. Their winery, still thriving, has since been joined by 71 others and the region is now New Zealand’s leading producer of full-bodied red wines and rich and complex Chardonnays.
International and local investment in the last two decades has seen the emergence of world-class wineries like Craggy Range and Elephant Hill. Year-round sunny skies and flat, easy terrain make Hawke’s Bay ideal for wine touring. In the summertime, outdoor concerts in the vineyards attract some world-famous performers.
This slightly naughty acronym belongs to the Hawke’s Bay Food and Wine Classic, a twice-yearly body assault showcasing the region’s gastronomic offerings. The inventive food and wine experiences of the summer event are a hot ticket on the New Zealand food scene.
The winter FAWC! series features 55 events over four weeks in June. The next summer FAWC! runs from 4 to 13 November this year.
A WORLD CAPITAL OF ART DECO
On a bright, sunny morning in February 1931, the city of Napier was levelled by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Two years later, thanks to a number of keen young architects who seized an opportunity, the place re-emerged as one of the world’s most complete and coherent expressions of Art Deco style. And with a twist: along with examples of Spanish Mission, Stripped Classical and Zig Zag Moderne, several of the 140 UNESCO World Heritage-nominated buildings feature Maori motifs.
All are cherished by local residents: each February an Art Deco Festival brings people from around the world; in July a weekend-long party features themed events. Year-round there are walking tours, vintage car tours and displays of Napier’s retro-fabulous heritage. artdeconapier.com
NAPIER IS GROOVIER
You might expect a regional city with streets named after nineteenth-century writers (Byron, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray) to be dull, but nobody told Napier that. Step out of the four-star Scenic Te Pania, the city’s leading hotel, and you find a buzzing inner-city scene with a burgeoning arts district and great shopping and dining. For lunch, simply head to Emporium at the Art Deco-themed Masonic Hotel.
When the lights go down, Bistronomy in Hastings Street offers cutting-edge fare you would expect to find in trendy Melbourne and Sydney. For dining with a rock’n’ roll/country-inflection, Mister D in Tennyson Street is the sophisticated answer – the sugar doughnuts with an “adult syringe” filling of Hennessy Cognac Custard are a standout treat.
Afterwards, move on to cool laneway bar-cafés like Monica Loves. Yup, it’s Melbourne again.
SWIM WITH THE SHARKS
“There are no more octopuses,” said the desk staff at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, apologetically. In April 2016, the institution on Napier’s Marine Parade went viral around the world when Inky, the octopus, escaped Houdini-like from his tank and slithered away to freedom in Hawke’s Bay. His erstwhile tank-mate, Blotchy, has since passed away but there are plenty of other cool things to see including dinosaur bones (Hawke’s Bay is a paleontological mecca), Kiwis and tuataras, penguins and piranhas, and Fiona and Cheryl, two toothy young alligators.
And for $95, three times a day, you can swim with the sharks. In a wetsuit. No cage. Your call.
JOIN THE EASY RIDERS
New Zealanders are inveterate hikers and cyclists and Hawke’s Bay is no exception with a 200km network of pathways traversing the river and coastal scenery of the coastal plains.
The easy to intermediate-graded rides take in picturesque coastal communities, beautiful river valleys and panoramic views; perhaps the favourite is the Wineries Ride lined with award-winning cellar doors with plenty of places to stop and er, rest awhile. For travellers with an eco bent the Ahuriri Estuary is an internationally significant wetland with over 70 species of wading and migratory birds. You can also plant a native tree complete with its own GPS coordinates on Google Earth.
THE CLIFFS OF CAPE KIDNAPPERS
Captain Cook named the dramatic white cliffs and headland at the southeastern extremity of Hawke’s Bay after a 1769 incident when Māori tried to abduct one of the Endeavour‘s passengers.
Things are a lot more relaxed these days with sightseeing tours to the world’s largest mainland gannet colony, and golf at the spectacular clifftop par 71 championship course designed by Tom Doak. For the deep-pocketed, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers lodge, a member of Relais & Chateaux, offers secluded luxury. The lodge also offers gourmet weekends hosted by internationally acclaimed celebrity chefs.
HAWKE’S BAY INTERNATIONAL MARATHON
Q: What’s even more appealing than an international running festival in wine country? A: Staying on to enjoy world-class restaurants and cellar doors – which is exactly what lots of the 5,000 competitors did after this year’s hugely successful inaugural Hawke’s Bay International Marathon.
With a half-marathon, 10km run and kid’s course, the event is not just for the 2% body fat brigade; the main course also takes in the beauties of the region’s coastline, riversides, vineyards and olive groves. Everyone celebrates at the finish line among the vines of Sileni Estate. Entries for the 13 May 2017 event are open.
THE HOOK OF MAUI
Copenhagen has The Little Mermaid and Napier has Te Pania, a much-visited 1954 bronze statue on Marine Parade close to the Scenic hotel of the same name.
The Māori legend of Te Pania the sea maiden is part of the rich heritage of the Ngāti Kahungunu people who settled Hawke’s Bay in the 12th century: the sweep of its coastline is known as “the hook of Maui” where the ancient Māori god fished the North Island out of the sea.
Across the road from Te Pania, the smart new MTG Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery holds one of New Zealand’s finest collections of Māori artefacts. For living Maori culture, Waimarama Maori Tours and Waka Experience offer guided walks, visits to marae (meeting and ceremonial places) and cultural and sailing experiences on a double-hulled waka (ocean-going sailing canoe).
DOWNTON DOWN UNDER
Back in the day the term “Hawke’s Bay Farmer” was a synonym for landed wealth: the region’s vast 19th century sheep and cattle stations, complete with grand homesteads and fleets of servants, were amongst the finest in the land.
Heritage trails now take you into the Victorian and Edwardian splendour of lovingly preserved homesteads and gardens in Central Hawke’s Bay’s. They include Wallingford, reputedly the largest single-story dwelling in the Southern Hemisphere.
Most of the great houses are now boutique event venues with luxury accommodation. If you’ve ever wanted to sleep in a kingsize four-poster bed, here’s your chance.
Air New Zealand operates domestic services to Napier several times daily from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Jetstar NZ also flies to Napier from Auckland. Hawke’s Bay is a 5.5-hour drive southeast from Auckland, and four hours northeast from Wellington.
See: airnewzealand.co.nz, jetstar.com
There are good local organised tours (visit the i-SITE office on Napier’s Marine Parade) but a rental car is the best way to explore the vineyards and many other attractions in the hinterland. Take a free walking tour of Napier’s Art Deco heritage or do it in style by vintage car.
Scenic Hotel Te Pania, located on the waterfront in Napier’s buzzing inner-city and Deco district, is the perfect base for sightseeing and touring.