Napier, New Zealand: From rubble to riches

Trail of the unexpected: Rebuilt in the 1930s after an earthquake, Napier's architecture fascinates

It's a near-cloudless afternoon and I've spent the past hour weaving dreamily around dozens of sun-splashed buildings from the 1930s, all immaculately preserved. Art Deco was all the rage when these shop-fronts were erected; the streets are a feast of streamlined edges, zigzag patterns and palm-fringed, pastel façades.

You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm in South Beach, Miami, regarded by many as the world's best-preserved Art Deco community. In fact, I'm in the New Zealand seafront city of Napier – and its story is arguably even more intriguing than that of its Northern Hemisphere sister.

On 3 February 1931, this North Island settlement of 15,000 souls was reduced to smouldering rubble by an earthquake and subsequent fire. Almost all the buildings – and at least 157 lives – were lost. Nevertheless, reconstruction was soon under way and within two years, Napier was back on its feet. What's more, it was suddenly at the cutting edge of architecture.

Deco dominated the city's new look, but design trends such as Spanish Mission, a revival of the Spanish colonial feel; stripped Classical, a kind of simplified Greco-Roman look; and other hot trends also featured. And now, more than 80 years later, the Pacific-fringed community is a living museum of some of the 20th-century's most attractive design ideals.

"Nobody was building town centres during the Depression, so Napier is rare," says Robert McGregor, my tour guide and the author of several books on the city. "South Beach and Napier are certainly the best Deco environments in the world – but ours is the best," he adds with a smile.

A founding member of the city's Art Deco Trust – its highlight is February's annual Art Deco Weekend when thousands roll in to celebrate 1930s style – McGregor is one of several expert guides offering fascinating strolls around Napier's architectural treasures. On our walk, I learn to look out for sunbursts, speed lines, leaded windows and Nautical Moderne flourishes.

There are streets of beautifully preserved buildings here, but some landmarks stand out as camera-hogging superstars. The immaculate Masonic Hotel's sculpted entrance parapet looks like a classic car-bonnet ornament, its stained-glass canopy lettering reminding me of retro sci-fi movies. There's also the ASB Bank building with its curlicue Maori motifs – one of only four New Zealand buildings, says McGregor, that fuses Deco and Maori design.

Then we peek behind the façades. The Daily Telegraph building – described in one of McGregor's books as "perhaps Napier's most ebulliently Deco structure" – has a handsome exterior accented by zigzags, sunbursts and lotus flowers. But inside it's even more exciting. Restored in 2003, its geometric-floored atrium is flanked by two storeys of wood panelling and topped by a patterned plasterwork ceiling studded with graceful pendant lamps. It's like stepping on to a 1930s movie set .

Graham Holley runs driving tours round Napier's outskirts. Dressed in vest, Panama hat and immaculate black-and-white spats, his outfit is not the only thing that echoes the 1930s: his touring vehicle is a 1939 royal-blue Packard Six. Built in Detroit, the car's chrome-accented interior has a back seat like a well-sprung sofa. As we trundle along the seafront, he offers enlightening insights on the rebuilding after the earthquake. "Four architecture companies and 6,500 workers were kept busy putting up 160 new buildings," he tells me.

Pulling into a parking lot, we nip inside the large Municipal Theatre. While many important buildings were swiftly rebuilt, it wasn't until 1937 that Napier regained its main stage. Reflecting changing tastes, its features run from Cubist-patterned carpeting and coloured neon lamps in the foyer to an auditorium with risqué wall panels of leaping nudes.

As we hop back in the Packard, Holley draws attention to key the architect, Louis Hay. A fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, Hay created some of the city's finest landmarks, including one fusing Deco and Art Nouveau approaches. Arguably his finest Napier work, the lovely National Tobacco Company Building, was commissioned by cigarette baron Gerhard Husheer. Deeming the original plans insufficiently ornate, Husheer sent Hay back to the drawing board to create a much grander structure.

Behind its sunburst-carved double doors – encircled by a rose-patterned entrance-way – the ostentatious interior is an achingly beautiful mélange of marble, polished wood and a stained-glass dome ceiling. "It was built for a businessman who wanted everyone to know how rich he was," Holley says.

Napier gets all the attention, but it wasn't the only city affected by the earthquake. And it wasn't the only one rebuilt with a Deco flair. A 20-minute drive away, Hastings – which lost at least 101 people – was also refashioned during the 1930s. And while its centre is not as well-maintained as Napier's, its period flourishes include a Deco clock tower. However, the main reason for my visit is the new Hastings City Night Market, launched in November.

I spend a couple of hours squeezing between the friendly crowds, perusing the crafty trinkets and licking my lips at a barbecued lamb shank stand and a stall selling fresh-baked "homemade Twinkies".

My only purchase is from Streamline Espresso, operating in the shadow of the zigzag-patterned clock tower. Housed in a shiny and immaculately preserved Airstream trailer, it too is a relic from a great age of design; I swear it makes the coffee taste better.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) has the only direct flights from the UK, with departures from Heathrow to Auckland via Los Angeles. Other flights to Auckland include those from Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Thai, Emirates and Singapore Airlines.

Staying there

The Masonic Hotel (00 64 6 835 8689 masonic.co.nz) has doubles from NZ$149 (£76), room only.

Seeing there

This year's Art Deco Weekend runs 19 to 23 February (00 64 6 835 0022; artdeconapier .com). Year-round guided walking tours cost NZ$17 (£8.50) to NZ$20 (£10).

Vintage car tours cost NZ$150 (£76) for up to four people (00 64 6 8351455; packardpromenades.co.nz). Hastings City Night Market is on Thursdays from 5pm to 9pm (00 64 6 876 9093; hastingscity.co.nz).

More information

napier.nz.com

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