Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Napier, New Zealand

Posted on February 9th, 2005

When I tried to book my bed for Napier, I encountered an unexpected number of full hostels. I finally asked the third hostel what the hell was going on. Turns out that I was trying to slip into town in the middle of the Harvest Hawk’s Bay festival weekend and everyone who likes cheap food and wine (i.e. every backpacker who ever lived) had the drop on me. I finally managed to snare a bed in an obscure, yet nice hostel called Stables Lodge, whose only downside was that they employed a useless German girl on the afternoon shift with all the charm of week-old roadkill.

On that note, I’d like to amend to my list of horribly stereotypical, yet entirely true, labels about backpacker nationalities. From my Queenstown journal, we already know that Italian men are loud, inconsiderate, pubic hair farms and that Indian men are messy, phlegm loving, discourteous smokers. Additionally, Israelis are all stoners, Americans and Canadians between ages 20 and 25 are all drunken idiots, the Japanese have an unhealthy obsession with packing everything in loud, crinkly plastic bags that they feel compelled to organize at 7:30 each morning and finally the Germans are tied with the French for having the worst customer service skills in the world. Unlike the French, however, who simply have no concept of customer service, the Germans know full well what is expected of them and just chose to deliberately disregard these aspects. (i.e. “Yeah, I could help you but why should I? Instead of taking 15 seconds out of my magazine reading time, why don’t you take an hour and waste money and Internet resources to do it yourself?”)

The Napier area has a load of notable wineries and some half decent waterfront action, assuming you haven’t already been to three NZ cities with the exact same thing, but their main claim to fame is the direct result of a natural disaster. In 1931 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake virtually leveled the city and for reasons that are still unclear the vast majority of the city was rebuilt in Art Deco style. We’re talking businesses, civic buildings, homes, fountains, the works. It’s peculiar, but very fun.

Napier's modest beach

I arrived in Napier a bit late. One of New Zealand’s 10 Most Wanted Cookies was on my bus and decided to have an episode where she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be on or off the bus. She demanded that the driver stop for her three times, usually in the middle of nowhere because she had to get off, but as soon as she was off the bus and we started to pull away, she would start screaming and banging on the door, wanting to get back on. I knew this cookie was full of potential fruity behavior when I laid eyes on her in Rotorua. I have a very finely hone Cookie Sense and all alarms went off when I saw her get on the bus and take a seat in the back with a battered plastic bag full of her effects. She managed to keep a handle on the weirdness during the 45 minute drive from Rotorua to Taupo. She only switched seats twice and spent most of the drive sitting on the floor, in a prayer position. However, after Taupo, it was all-systems-go on the H.M.S. Eccentricity. After the bus stopped for the third time to let her off, she got it in her head that everyone was turning against her (as we were) and she decided to head down the road on her own back toward Taupo, which was about 40 kilometers away on narrow mountain roads by that point. The driver had already phoned the police to wrangle her in, so having done all he could do he took the opportunity to leap back into the bus and squeal off, calling the cops again to update them on her whereabouts. We were all relieved, mostly because the cookie had nearly succeeded in killing us all. Much of the road from Taupo to Napier is composed of frightening, precipitous mountain curves. At one point, in her effort to get off the bus, the woman had actually tried to grab the driver while he was negotiating a particularly intense series of switchbacks. That would have just been my luck. I’m in the “adventure capitol of the world,” and how do I die? Not because of a bungee mishap or a white water rafting accident, but because some nut caused our bus to swerve over a 300 foot cliff. They don’t let you into heaven if you die like that. You go straight to hell, no questions asked.

All this nonsense resulted in us arriving in Napier just late enough that doing some serious touring was out of the question, plus my cold was starting to really take hold and I figured I had better not push my luck with a late night of wandering. I got settled and stepped out to get some dinner. I managed to do a brief Art Deco tour of the city center as I was shopping for a sandwich. The rumors were true. Nearly every building was either mildly flared with or full-on draped in Art Deco adornments. I had heard tales of whole neighborhoods with houses done in Art Deco style, but seeking those streets out would have to wait.

The next morning I was disillusioned to learn that while the Harvest Hawk’s Bay was still in full gear, mysteriously they had decided to discontinue the free transport out to the wineries where the festivities were being held. My choices were to either drive myself around (with what?) or take a cab to each and every winery (roughly NZ$378). So, I was screwed. Additionally, it was a Sunday and there was some kind of national holiday that no one had bothered to tell me about, so all but one of the regular wine tours were shut down. I sighed heavily and booked myself on an over-priced tour that would take me to four wineries, after which I headed out for a huge breakfast to dilute the biblical flood of wine that I intended to swill down in order to get my moneys worth.

The tour set off from the tourism center at 1:00. Somehow our group was combined with a group from England that had clearly already been to a few wineries that morning. They were stewed and in loud, obnoxious, wino overdrive. The first winery was the busiest and for good reason. It outclassed the other wineries on every level. Their courtyard was packed with people and deep in a party atmosphere, with wine, food and a live jazz band. One of the owners, who had been dipping deep into product that day, corralled us as soon as we were in the door and led us to a quiet, cool wine cellar for a private tasting. He poured us seven generous samples, two of them from his top shelf, prize winning collection, all the while expertly working the crowd and regaling us with the unique facets of wine making in New Zealand. He even managed to good-naturedly bob and weave around the slurred, nonsensical comments from the English group. We stumbled back onto the bus buzzing and thoroughly entertained.

We could hear the heavy metal music from the parking lot at the second winery. They had a sound system wired up for the festival that blasted out over the entire vineyard. Who knew that Led Zeppelin encouraged the development of the grapes? This vineyard was a sobering 25 minutes out of town and not one that the tour usually visited, but it had been specially requested by the English group, so there we were. Alas, this vineyard wanted to collect a “tasting fee” from each of us. I had already coughed up NZ$45 (US$32) for the tour ticket and another NZ$10 (US$7) for the “glass pass” - you were required to purchase your own souvenir glass for the tours, which they enthusiastically told me I could keep after the tour, but clearly the marketing dorks who dreamt up this mandatory fleecing didn’t consider the feasibility of backpackers trying to carry a glass around in their backpacks for five months, I ended up giving my glass away in the end. So, it goes without saying that I was not going to cough up another $6 for five conservative splashes of wine. All but two people in my group acquiesced, so we just stood around, tapping our toes to AC/DC and waiting for the bus driver collect us.

The next winery was the only one that didn’t seem to have a party going on. In fact, I’d swear our arrival interrupted the mid-afternoon nap of the sole person on duty. Having the entire winery to ourselves was quite nice, because we didn’t have to wait in line behind a mob of chattering drunks to for each tasting. We just tripped up to the table and the lady was standing at the ready to refill us. The healthy buzz that we primed at the first winery was pumping generously now.

DJ Sir Drinks-A-Lot

The last winery, again, was pulling out all the stops for the festival weekend. They had a party tent, tables, hay bale benches and a DJ with limited mixing talents providing the music. Once again, we were allowed to visit the tasting table as often as we wanted and we were all eager to abuse this privilege. We lingered at this winery long enough for me to have two of everything and fend off the advances of one of the English women who had taken a fancy to me at the first winery. While the owner was quizzing us where we were from, I stated that I was currently homeless and the English woman in question piped in “Well you can come home with honey!” She was in her late forties, made up like an aging trophy wife and dressed like a teenager, with a daring cleavage display. She had been chatting with me more and more as the afternoon wore on and she was literally stuck to me at the last winery. Good to know I still got it with the older ladies.

The tour bus mercifully deposited me right at the door of my hostel, where I immediately climbed into bed to sleep off the wine drunk.

Waking up at 7:00PM with a mild hangover prevented me from setting out in search of more of Napier’s Art Deco offerings. I felt like I had not given Napier much of a look, particularly after I had come so far out of my way to see it, but my hangover and the steady advance of my cold convinced me to stay put in the hostel. I ate a gigantic Chinese feast and medicated myself into a deep sleep.

The next morning, I boarded the “Purpil People Mover” shuttle service to backtrack to Taupo and my date with an adrenaline rush that promised to be the wildest thing I have ever done, if I survived.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012