The ravenous flame red 1974 MG Roadster devours the winding road ahead as the surrounding hills form a verdant blur that contrasts with the brilliant blue sky. The roof is down and the rush of air duels with the engine’s growl in a battle for aural supremacy as by my side sits my wondrous Heather — smiling, beautifully, as always. There may be better paid ways to make a living, I muse, but with perks like this, there are few that are as much fun.
An invitation had arrived in my inbox a few weeks earlier to travel to North Island’s east coast to write a feature about Hawke’s Bay and its many charms. And what better way to zip through this vine-stitched land than in a vintage British sports car? The car was loaned from Hooters, a Napier-based classic car firm befitting the Art Deco hub.
Napier, of course, is home to the finest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world, but what makes its story so compelling is that much of this enchanting area’s earth rose from the ashes of New Zealand’s deadliest ever natural disaster. It was the morning of Tuesday 3 February 1931 when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck with a force equivalent to the detonation of one hundred million tonnes of TNT, a blast which lasted a terrifying two-and-a-half minutes and took the lives of 256 souls. Perversely, as buildings fell, a vast swathe of seabed along the fault line rose by up to 2.7m, creating 2,000 hectares of brand new land in the bay.
Part in defiance of the economic doom, part practicality — the reinforced concrete constructions fared better than brick against the quake — Napier’s resplendent Art Deco iconography took shape. Nearly a century later it still stuns, so how it must have dazzled in the Depression of the 1930s. How it must have offered such hope.
In keeping with the city’s stylish spirit, Meadowood House, our home for the weekend, is plucked straight from the the pages of The Great Gatsby. No expense has been spared — and no detail missed — by owners Shelly and Mark Witchalls in the tasteful transformation of this countryside retreat set in 11 acres of land. Each luxurious room sports an individual theme, while public areas are watched over by beautifully framed images of 1920s and ‘30s Hollywood stars such as Mae West. Artworks of the day sit next to high-end retro furnishings and even the wallpaper is bespoke, shipped in from the US. Seeing is believing — it’s akin to residing in a film set.
Adjacent awaits Crossroads. The beautiful boutique winery is an award-winning setup famed for it’s flagship Talisman label which is born from secret blends passed from winemaker to his or her heir. I ask the current chief, Miles Dinneen, who else knows what goes in. Absolutely no-one, comes the reply. Presumably such secrets are under lock and key, I wonder. Just in here, he tells me, with a wry smile and a tap to the side of his head, Jedi-like. The amiable winemaker shows us the journey of the grape as we wonder through the maze of oak barrels out back, sampling the various stages of the fruits of his craft before retiring to the sun-drenched courtyard of the cellar door. We sit sipping the finished product, shooting the breeze under clear skies overlooking finely manicured vine rows just beginning to betray their autumnal hues.
Our hosts for the first evening are Peter & Hieke Wijnsma of Restaurant Indonesia, a Southeast Asian culinary delight — with a touch of Dutch – that sits on Napier’s seafront serving food which is more than a match for the welcome. The restaurant is romantic and softly lit, its walls adorned with traditional Indonesian decoration such as Balinese masks. Their signature dish, Rijsttafel — meaning ‘rice table’ — is lauded as the best in New Zealand. Similar to tapas, a selection of small dishes are kept warm above a candlelit heater and included is lamb stew, various curries and shrimps, chicken, beef and fish drizzled in delectable sauces of varying degrees of sweet, sour and spice. Raw vegetable pickles offer plenty of complementary crunch, while the traditional Spekkoek dessert, infused with aniseed, cloves and cinnamon, closes.
With our coffee brewing the following morning, the crunching gravel of the driveway imparts the arrival of our first Hooters car. And what a car it is. From the gleaming maroon 1953 Citroën Big Fifteen, as if from a time machine, steps a dapper David Brock-Jest dressed from head to toe in Art Deco era attire. Nearly back at the showroom, I take over driving duties, enjoying the chance to work a clutch. After some slobbering over the stunning collection of historical rides (I don’t consider myself a car fanatic, but you can’t help but marvel at such well-preserved works of automotive art), we step aboard the open top 1926 Dodge for a guided city tour — though, at times, feel as though it is us, or rather the car, on show, what with all of the admiring glances. Later, I’m handed the keys to the MG and head for the hills to tear up some country roads and hear that engine roar.
Mission Estate Winery boasts a magnificent, imposing building on the raised ground of the Taradale Hills with a unique Hawke’s Bay view, and so, I must admit, it feels rather Bond-esque snaking up the driveway in a classic sports car. The winery, established in 1851 by French missionaries to craft vino for the Catholic Church (who still owns it), is New Zealand’s oldest. The sprawling estate is a spectacular, ‘special occasion’ destination with a fine dining menu from which we are treated to the chicken liver pate and the gnocchi to start, followed by the seared fish and the roast duck. With my driving duties now over, and the sun blazing, a chilled bottle of Mission Reserve sauvignon blanc is gratefully accepted — and probably guzzled a little too fast.
And so the good vibes continue with our friendly, infectiously enthusiastic guide for the rest of the day, John Hanlon, who heads Hawke’s Bay Scenic Tours with wife Margaret. The depth of his knowledge is staggering. He shuttles us around the region regaling us well into the evening with insights about the region, it’s history, it’s architecture, it’s businesses and its land. A keen photographer too, booklets adorned with John’s snaps are on hand to accompany his words. Striking is John’s passion. How many hundreds of times, I wonder, must he have told these tales, yet continues to recount them with such wide-eyed wonder.
We visit Ta Mata Figs, a Havelock North orchard run by Helen Walker and Murray Douglas, two former “desk warriors” in Australia who fell in love with the laid back Hawke’s Bay lifestyle. They take great pride in their low impact, spray- and fertiliser-free system. Figs, it turns out, are pretty easy to grow — the problem comes from storage and transportation as they must be consumed within days if eaten fresh. Helen and Murray have created a boutique range of fig treats such as chutneys, compote and paste. “We try to echo the fruit’s ancient history within our recipes,” says Murray proudly.
If bees disappeared from the face of the Earth, so said Einstein, mankind would soon follow, and after a trip to Arataki Honey, you’ll certainly have a new-found respect for the busy little buzzers. There are heaps of honey-themed educational entertainment for all ages — including free tastings — with one particularly superb display which enables visitors a direct view into a giant working hive.
With sunset fast approaching, John ferries us to Ta Mata Peak, a breathtaking — and windy! — 400m-high lookout known as the ‘Sleeping Giant’. The legend goes that a Maori princess set tasks of increasing difficulty for her would-be ‘giant’ suitor, with the final being that he must chew his way through the mountain. In his attempt, he chocked to death on a boulder and fell to the ground, his love unrequited until the end of time and his shape forming the famed peak of Te Mata.
An evening at MINT restaurant provides the perfect end to a perfect couple of days. The fine dining eatery is located in a storied Napier settlement, one of a collection of identical buildings known as the ‘Six Sisters’ which a father built for his six daughters in 1897. The comfortable, contemporary interior — spread over two levels — provides an unexpected but pleasant contrast to the Victorian shell. Our hosts, Ruth and Steve Beere, present an exquisite tasting menu which includes a daringly delicious calamari and pulled pork salad and duck breast served with orange, fennel, spinach and feta croquette. Interesting experimentation continues with the dessert of Flourless Chocolate Cake, served with a rich olive oil and and dark chocolate mousse and salted ice cream. A differing glass of wine offered with each dish ensures the short walk to our cab was not the steadiest. (Incidentally, MINT is also the only restaurant in the bay to list Crossroads’ stunning Talisman Syrah, crafted in celebration of the winery’s quarter-century anniversary.)
Back at Meadowood, Shelly had kindly waived the checkout time for the following morning, leaving us to enjoy our final couple of hours in what must be Hawke’s Bay’s coolest house. One of the most striking aspects of the trip overall was the utter pride the residents had for the region, many of whom weren’t even born there. It’s easy to see why. We left feeling exactly the same way.