Make February the month you travel to Hawke’s Bay and get ready to party like it’s 1939 because, after three years of cancellations, the Napier Art Deco Festival is back. Catherine Milford takes a look at this year’s line-up and reckons it’s set to be the biggest celebration the town has seen in a long time.
With epic street parties, vintage car parades, the iconic Great Gatsby Party at Mission Estate, memorial flying displays, a soapbox derby, and Art Deco Fashion to name just a few events, there’s no doubt this is set to be a stylish party like no other.
While most of New Zealand – and the rest of the world – suffered greatly at the hands of a pandemic, few would deny that Napier, in particular, has had its fair share of challenges. The last Art Deco Festival managed to squeeze itself in, in February 2020, before New Zealand locked down against COVID-19, causing the country to come to a halt, and the 2021 and 2022 festivals to be cancelled. All was looking great for the 2023 festival and then came Cyclone Gabrielle. Once again, the organisers had to pull the plug.
This month, however, the festival isn’t just back on with a bang – it’s celebrating with resilience and spirit. Because in an ironic twist of fate, natural adversity is the reason the festival was created in the first place. On the morning of 3 February 1931, Napier suffered a 7.9 earthquake that destroyed the commercial heart of the town.
It takes more than a disaster of this magnitude to take down the people of Hawke’s Bay, however, and the locals got to work, rebuilding their homes in 1930s style. Stripped Classical, Spanish Mission, and Art Deco took centre stage, incorporating Māori motifs, and the buildings of Louis Hay, a great admirer of the great American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright. By the end of the 1930s, the town was rebuilt, making it at the time the newest city on Earth.
“We’ve had a challenging time in Hawke’s Bay, but ours is a resilient community; much of our city is built as a direct response to the effects of a natural disaster,” says Kirsten Wise, mayor of Napier. “We have daily reminders of what is possible, and of the innovation, entrepreneurship, and energy it takes to rebuild.
“The strength of those who have come before us has given us the motivation to get our region back on its feet; the Art Deco Festival is a celebration of an important part of our heritage, and an opportunity for people to come together and celebrate our special character.”
Whether you’re a fashionista, an architecture lover, a lover of planes, trains, and automobiles, a music lover, or simply a born partier, there’s something for everyone at the festival. Here are a few highlights:
This new event will start your festival weekend off right, at the hottest soirée in town. You’ll be welcomed to the Gatsby Room at the Masonic Hotel in Napier on Thursday, 15 February with a signature Art Deco gin cocktail or glass of Mission Estate bubbles as you enjoy the stunning vocals of vintage music trio The Madeleines over a long, lazy afternoon.
Learn to Charleston at the Soundshell
Ever wanted to put on your dancing shoes and learn to dance the iconic Charleston? The dance was originally a symbol of the Roaring Twenties in the US and became a significant part of the Jazz Age culture. Originally rooted in African tradition and danced by enslaved African Americans on the docks in the early 1900s, it was quickly adopted and became a symbolic dance, in part because it was one of the first semblances of equality between the sexes, as women were allowed to choose their dance partners. On Friday 16 and Saturday 17 February, the Hi-De-Ho Swing School will teach you some moves you’ll be busting out at the campsite for years to come.
Try the Devil in a Little Green Bottle
This immersive art deco experiment, held in Hawke’s Bay’s intimate Cedric’s Bar, in the historic Municipal Buildings in Hastings, promises to take you to another time and another world. Indulge in the allure of absinthe, be enchanted by live music from the 1920s and 1930s and pretend – just for a while – that you’re living 100 years ago. Events are on Thursday 15 and Friday 16 February, with sessions from 5:30pm to 7:30pm and 8 to 10pm.
The Great Gatsby Party, Mission Estate
This fabulous affair is one extravaganza you don’t want to miss. Inspired by author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary book, the Mission Estate Winery is transformed into the decadent world of The Great Gatsby for one night. You’ll be greeted on arrival with canapés and a glass of Mission Fēte before being welcomed to the ground floor, where you’ll enjoy a sumptuous dinner, including table wines, followed by cheese and petit fours. After dinner, head upstairs to the Cocktail Club to continue the libations or step outside onto the lawn for a night of dancing, revelry, music, and romance.
Take in a Play
Glorious! is delightful musical comedy at Napier Little Theatre, from 14 to 18 February, and is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the legendary New Orki heiress and socialite, and the enthusiastic soprano whose pitch was… a little less than perfect. Set in 1944 New York, we see Florence performing at the Melotone recording studio, the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and, ultimately, a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall. This wonderful story of a woman who dared to dream is beautifully costumed, and all the glitz and glamour of Art Deco New York will be on display.
Big Band Boogie with the Royal New Zealand Navy Band
Head back in time to the music of the 1920s and 1930s at the Soundshell in Napier, where the RNZN Band will have you up on your feet and enjoying a free world-class concert, under the direction of Lieutenant Commander Michael Dowrick. If you haven’t heard this full-time professional band yet, you’re in for a treat – these musicians love their work, and they like you joining in even more. Saturday, 17 February, 5:30pm.
A Night At The Opera with Romeo et Juliette
This ultimate love story, as told in opera form by Charles Gounod, will sweep you off your feet. On at the Napier Municipal Theatre from Thursday 13 to Monday 19 February, this legendary tale about the power of love, the weight of hatred and the ultimate sacrifice is set in Renaissance style, evoking all the romanticism of the much-loved Shakespeare play and the brilliance of French composer Gounod. Unmissable for born romantics.
Get Steamy in Style
One for the train enthusiasts, Dining & Arriving In Style is another new event to the festival. Travel behind a vintage steam traction engine and embark on a delightful trip that incorporates the sounds and smells of our heritage, along the seafront to Ahuriri. On arrival, you’ll be treated to a delicious three-course set menu, which you can enjoy along with spectacular harbour views at The Thirsty Whale Restaurant and Bar – one of Hawke’s Bay’s most iconic restaurants. Keen to party? You’ll return to the Napier Soundshell just in time for the evening’s festivities to kick off. Trains depart from opposite the Soundshell at 5:40pm on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 February.
Art Deco styles
While you’re wandering around the city, keep an eye out for the following styles and symbols that dot multiple buildings and structures around Napier.
Sunbursts and fountains: representing the dawn of a new modern age
Skyscraper shapes: symbols of 20th Century architecture and growth
Symbols of speed, power, and flight: representing developments in transport and communications
Geometric shapes: a nod to machines and technology, which were thought to be at the forefront of solving the world’s problems
Ancient cultures: despite the modernist outlook, there remained a fascination with the civilisations of Egypt and Central America
Where to stay
As a popular destination, Napier and Hastings have plenty of camping options for every size and type of motorhome. A few popular ones are listed below; however, do look around as both areas will be happy to see you:
Affordable Westshore Holiday Park at Napier’s northern gateway is a sheltered spot with well-maintained grounds, within walking distance to the swim/surf beach and the Ahuriri Estuary Boardwalk and Bird Reserve. Westshoreholidaypark.co.nz.
Kennedy Park Resort is a family-friendly park complete with a jumping pillow, gym, sky theatre, entertainment room, free WiFi, and swimming complex. Kennedypark.co.nz.
Napier Beach Top 10 Holiday Park, previously known as Snapper Park, is situated 8.5km north of Napier. This coastal park has beachfront sites with direct sea access and is the only site in Napier with an uninterrupted direct coastal location. Book early as there are only six powered and five unpowered beachfront sites. Park sites are more sheltered and located in a gorgeous tree-lined setting. Napierbeach.co.nz.
For information on freedom camps, visit napier.govt.nz/napier/freedom-camping/location-map.
For more information on what’s on, visit artdecofestival.co.nz.