While visiting my son in Auckland once the restrictions on travel in place since the COVID epidemic started were lifted, we discussed getting out of town for a few days. He claimed to have never been to Napier until I produced an adorable photo of him at age 8 hugging Gordon the baby penguin at the now-closed Marineland Park.
Forgotten memories aside, Napier always seems like a good idea for a visit. Not only does it serve as a convenient base for exploring Hawke’s Bay, the food and wine capital of New Zealand, but the seaside Art Deco city also has a beautiful waterfront, lots of green space, and a charming downtown that feels like a movie set, thanks to the beautifully preserved Art Deco buildings.
Getting To Hawke’s Bay
Hawke’s Bay, the second largest wine-producing region in New Zealand, is home to more than 300 vineyards, over 70 wineries, and more than 30 cellar doors. It’s easily reached from all parts of the North Island. On my recent visit, we drove down from Auckland — about a 5-hour trip by car. We stopped in Taupo, about 3 hours from Auckland, for lunch and a walk to break up the driving. This popular summer holiday destination for New Zealanders is home to Lake Taupo, the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand, and like so much of the country, atop a volcano.
From Taupo, the drive to Napier is only another 90 minutes or so. The lovely city is easily navigated and has a great central location with lots of cafes, bars, and restaurants from which to check out the rest of Hawke’s Bay. Napier does have an airport with regularly scheduled flights from all over the country if you’re not interested in driving, but for me, much of the joy of being in New Zealand is in the journey — taking time to enjoy the beautiful scenery and small towns one discovers along the way to wherever they are headed.
1. The Art Deco City Of Napier
After a massive earthquake rocked the region in 1931 and destroyed the city, Napier was rebuilt in the architectural style of the times. The result? One of the world’s best-preserved examples of Art Deco architecture. We booked our accommodation through Airbnb, mainly for its great location about two blocks from Marine Parade and the fact that the rental came with bicycles that we planned to use to cruise through the pleasantly flat (for New Zealand) town.
Our gracious host left us a list of excellent restaurant recommendations, and we set out on our first night for Hunger Monger Seafood, a restaurant that prides itself on serving freshly caught fish from Hawke’s Bay and surrounding environs. Not a morsel of meat can be found anywhere on the menu, so if you are traveling with carnivores, this is not the place for you. The menu looked amazing to us, with everything from sashimi and oysters to paua dumplings and a classic creamy fish chowder with mussels, whitefish, shrimp, and smoked fish piquing my interest.
Unfortunately, it was a Friday night and we had not booked in advance and the buzzy, crowded restaurant could not squeeze us in. With a plan of trying to return the following night, we set off and luckily were able to grab a table at the nearby aptly named Faith Hope Love Malaysian Café. If you’ve never tried Malay cuisine before, this would be a great place to start. We feasted on steamed mussels, Nasi Lamak (the national dish of Malaysia), and Seafood Nasi Goreng washed down with local beer Hawke’s Bay beer, a perfect match for the cuisine.
We left the restaurant stuffed and happy to meander a bit further along Marine Parade before heading to check out the Napier City Centre and explore what passes for nightlife in Napier. In search of a nightcap and after a little online investigating we discovered Teresa Cocktail Bar: a hidden Futurist cocktail bar. Entering through Harvest Deli, a New Zealand take on the traditional Italian salumeria, we passed through a velvet curtain into an incredibly trendy high-concept cocktail bar.
With mixologists creating libations that seemed like science experiments, we were suitably awed. The crowd, comprised of locals of all ages, seemed just as happy as we were to have stumbled upon this dreamlike place. In an atmosphere that rivaled New York’s most innovative speakeasies, I ordered a Manifesto Sour, made with black kaffir lime gin, NZ spinach vermouth, citrus ultra-passionfruit, and an aroma bubble.
The next morning, we rode our bikes back to the city center for a bright and healthy Kiwi breakfast and steaming flat whites at a local café. After breakfast, we headed over to the bike path along Marine Parade, enjoying the beautiful day, pedaling alongside the Pacific Ocean and driftwood-strewn beach. Cycling back through town to our Airbnb, we enjoyed the unseasonably warm and sunny weather and admired the architecture, so striking in its resemblance to our own Miami Beach’s Art Deco District.
2. Te Mata Peak Hike
About half an hour drive south of Napier is Te Mata Peak. Rising 400 meters above sea level, the summit can be reached by hiking, biking, or even driving if a cardio workout is not in the cards. For the best view in Hawke’s Bay, it’s worth summiting — however one gets there.
From the top, panoramic views in every direction can be seen — including the nearby mountain ranges Kaheka, Ruahine, and Maungaharuru and Cape Kidnappers, the easternmost headland. Cape Kidnappers is also home to an exclusive luxury resort and spa, a world-renowned golf course, and the Cape Kidnappers gannet colony, which can only be safely accessed via commercial operator. On a clear day atop Te Mata, one can even see as far north as Mount Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park over 100 miles away.
There is significant Maori history linked to Te Mata, which was at one point home to a large Maori pa that was constantly under threat of attack by other coastal tribes. The park surrounding the peak is also home to a number of walking tracks that are appropriate for all levels of fitness. Each track offers different views and opportunities for discovery from Redwood forests to limestone caves.
3. Hawke’s Bay’s Wineries
Known primarily for merlot, syrah, and cabernet blends and chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay’s wineries are among the most established in New Zealand. Blessed with a warm, dry climate, you’ll find wineries both large and small dotted along the wine trail through Hastings, Havelock North, and the rest of the region. Some require reservations for tastings, while other smaller wineries are fine with just dropping in but may keep irregular hours. It’s always best to plan ahead and allow yourself a little more time at each stop than you think you might need.
Mission Winery the oldest winery in New Zealand was founded in 1851 by French missionaries. Its location right in Napier makes it an easy first stop if you’re staying in town. The setting is classic and dramatic and offers a great place to sample some vintages particular to the region while learning about the history of wine in New Zealand. The restaurant is also very popular for winery lunches.
Spend a few hours on the sunny terrace of a winery like Church Road or in the dramatic, modern tasting room at Craggy Range, sampling various wines and exulting in the beauty of the surrounding landscape. If you’re a keen cyclist and don’t want to worry about drinking and driving, a great way to visit a number of wineries is either on a self-guided or group bicycle winery tour.
Hawke’s Bay Winery Tours
Hawke’s Bay Winery Tours provides a variety of options, including half and full-day expeditions with or without lunch and will pick you up and drop you off if you’re in the area. This is a great way to experience Hawke’s Bay wine country get some exercise at a leisurely pace and not have to worry about driving anywhere. If you don’t like being part of a group, there are over 200 kilometers of easy-riding bike trails with wineries, breweries, and cider houses located just off the trails that you can discover on your own. Just rent a bike in Napier and head off with the wine trails map in hand. Even if you don’t like drinking wine, it’s a lovely day on the wine trail.
Pro Tip: Most wineries will discount the cost of a tasting with a minimum purchase. You can carry or ship wine home, or just enjoy it as you continue your New Zealand road trip.
New Zealand Wine
New Zealand is a wine paradise, with different regions throughout the country known for different varietals. Hawke’s Bay is the oldest and one of the largest, while Otago is renowned for its world-class pinot noir. Marlborough bears the distinction of producing great Sauvignon blanc, the wine that put New Zealand on the world wine map.
Many wineries will have locations in multiple parts of the country, growing different vintages in different areas. Wherever you travel in New Zealand, it’s more than likely you’ll have no trouble finding a good bottle of wine, or a comprehensive list of wines by the glass in your local cafe. So enjoy, and if you visit by car, make sure you appoint a designated driver.