Napier is located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s about a 5-hour drive from Auckland.
My first time in Napier was on Christmas Day. I was fortunate to spend the holiday with Charlotte and Kurt, the hosts of Hillhaven, a charming bed and breakfast. Charlotte invited me to hike Te Mata Peak. I was winded after the first hill, but the view was well worth it. When we reached the peak, my jaw dropped. Beautiful scenery surrounded me. Shells stuck into the rockbed indicated that the rolling hills had once been underwater, and the Craggy Range Winery lay below, beckoning to my senses.
After a weekend there, I thought Napier was just a main street with some art deco buildings, a beautiful mountain, and a history of being devastated by an earthquake in 1931. I returned to the city to housesit in February, this time spending three weeks there (and surviving a huge earthquake). I learned that there’s a lot more to Napier than meets the eye. Here are some of the wonderful things to do there on your next trip.
If you love wine, Napier is one of the best places to get your fill. The city and the surrounding area are full of vineyards where you can imbibe to your heart’s content. I didn’t have a car, so I took an Uber from downtown Napier to Mission Estate Winery, the oldest winery in the area. Bookings are recommended for wine tastings. Afterward, you may want to get a table at the restaurant. On a beautiful day, it’s a joy to sit outside and enjoy the view with some wine and great food.
I stumbled upon this attraction by accident. I was walking up the road when I saw a sign for the prison and decided to check it out. It was eerily quiet. I knocked on the door. A panel slid open, revealing the eyes of a man inside. He asked if I wanted to enter. I did and was ushered to the office, where I had to choose between two tours: a historic tour and a ghost tour. I chose the historic one. It wasn’t a pretty story, but it was an interesting one. The tour is self-guided, and you’ll certainly have vivid images in your head as you walk through. Don’t worry — they do let you out, but you shouldn’t leave before getting your mug shot taken.
I’m not sure how I missed the Maori Compass on my first trip to Napier, but I was pleased to be able to stop here on my second visit. It’s about a 45-minute bike ride from the center of town. You’ll travel along the beautiful boardwalk, and when you arrive, you’ll find a spiritual experience. Make sure to walk over to the entrance to the compass to read about its importance. Then walk among the columns to see the legends come to life.
I had no idea what a gannet was before coming to New Zealand. Now I’ve been able to see the colonies in Auckland and in Napier. The one in Napier is excellent. I used Gannet Beach Adventures, primarily because it was the least expensive. You can book either at the information center in downtown Napier or directly on the website. If you don’t have a car to get out to Cape Kidnappers, where the tour starts, you’ll have to pay extra to be picked up and dropped off in the center of Napier.
The tour consists of a ride along the beach in a giant tractor, complete with an explanation of the fascinating geology along the way. (The land was literally pushed up from the sea by various earthquakes.) At the end of the beach, you’ll walk up a beautiful sandy dune to the gannets. I thought they’d be far away on a rock, like they were in Auckland. Instead, the birds were so close that you could (but shouldn’t dare!) touch them. They were separated from us by a mere chain, and some of the juveniles were very curious and walked very close to us.
If you’re a fan of birds, there’s also a colony of godwits that stays in Napier part of the year. These amazing birds fly almost 7,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand. Their story is fascinating. They tend to fly back from New Zealand to Alaska in early March, stopping in Asia to feed.
Art Deco Festival
Once a year, usually in February, there’s a stunning art deco festival in Napier. This year, it was canceled due to COVID. However, locals still donned their best clothing from the era and came out with their fancy old cars, and the city was transported back to the 1930s. I saw flapper dresses, dancing, and singing every place I looked. Though some locals said the festival was disappointing compared to those in prior years, I loved the small crowds — I could easily participate in all the activities. I borrowed a friend’s dress, gloves, and pearls and walked along the streets having a wonderful time.
If you can’t make it to the festival, there’s an Art Deco Shop in the middle of town. You can peruse the fun costumes, hats, and jewelry. You can also book a tour of the city’s architecture in an old car, though it’s very pricey. A walking tour is a more affordable option.
One of the best parts of Napier is its walkway, which runs through the city center and then out for miles in each direction, completely along the sea. You can walk, jog, or bike your way along the path. In the summer, there’s a morning yoga class every Sunday hosted by YinYoga Napier.
I was surprised to find that Napier has its own hot pools. I thought this was something only offered in Rotorua. Ocean Spa offers the chance for a delightful bath in some hot pools. It’s perfectly located next to the sea as well, so you’ll have fabulous views as you enjoy a warm soak.
On my second visit to Napier, I housesat on Bluff Hill. It turned out to be fortunate not just for the views, but because there were three huge earthquakes while I was there. The house shook for several minutes. I was terrified, but I learned that the house had survived the devastating 1931 earthquake. More importantly, when the tsunami warnings were issued, I learned that Bluff Hill is the highest point in Napier, so I was safe.
Earthquakes aside, there’s a beautiful walk here that affords a fabulous view of Napier’s logging port and the seaside. Basically, any view from the top of Bluff Hill is going to leave you breathless.
Te Mata Peak
If you enjoy hiking, don’t sleep on this beauty. You could drive to the top, but you’d miss out on the gorgeous nooks and crannies along the way. You might find yourself surrounded by a canopy of trees, or staring out at gorgeous 360-degree views. Te Mata Peak is home to several mountain biking paths as well, if that’s your cup of tea.
Electric Bike And Fat-Tire Scooter Rentals
Napier has several places where you can rent an electric bike. Having a bike is a great convenience when exploring the city and its lengthy walkway. An electric bike will assist you up steep hills and take some pressure off when you’re getting tired or lazy. However, the low-sitting scooters with their huge, fat wheels looked even more fun!
Napier Botanical Gardens
Up a very steep hill (if you have mobility issues, you’ll need transportation to get there) is a beautiful botanical garden. One of the ponds has ducks, and they aren’t shy when it comes to demanding food. There are several walking tracks, and you might find yourself immersed in nature for part of your walk. If you do get to the very top, you’ll find the Napier Cemetery. Some of the graves are very old, and if you read the tombstones, you’ll get a glimpse into Napier’s interesting past.
Another intriguing garden experience is the Sunken Garden. It’s in the center of town, next to the water and below street level.
Arataki Honey has a tasting room where you can sample every flavor they have (and there are some really interesting ones). Most of New Zealand has manuka and similar varieties. Arataki Honey offers some original blends I haven’t seen elsewhere. They also have lots of beauty and skincare products. It’s worth a visit!
This lovely town is a short distance away from Napier. I found it much more charming than Hastings, which is about the same distance from Napier. Havelock North is exceptionally quaint, with cafes, shops, and an all-around pleasant feel.
Pro Tip: If you like secondhand stores, the one in Havelock North is fantastic. Because it’s a more affluent town, you’ll find that the discards are pretty nice!
Napier is easy to visit with or without a car. There are plenty of transportation options, including Uber. If you walk around the center of town, you’ll enjoy the randomly placed iron statues of people from the 1930s. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the one pedestrian walk signal that features a woman standing with her dog on red, and walking with her dog on green.
Pro Tip: Book your room at Hillhaven through Airbnb.
For more on New Zealand, see this page.