A vintage caper

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am


It doesn't look very far on the map. Even the distance from Auckland - 300 kilometres and a bit - doesn't sound too extreme. But I haven't accounted for the winding nature of New Zealand's 'main' roads. Nor the mists, the hills, the urge to stop at every turn to gaze at the landscapes. Nor the slowness of my camper van - which I've used but once for a sleepless night in a grim caravan park by a moody grey river.

Finally, after a slow climb up into the saddle of a mountain and a short passage through drizzle-filled clouds, I roll down into Hawke's Bay, the storied wine region with a long, graceful coastline like the bowl of a claret glass.

My first evening, spent not in the unloved van but in a cosy chalet on the coast, is not promising. Grey skies soon dissolve into rain as a vicious wind kicks up. As the site owner points out to me while we stand on the shingle beach looking east, nothing stands between Hawke's Bay and Chile. When I feel the walls shaking on the windward side of my little shack during the night, it sounds as if the gales have come all the way from Valparaiso.

After a Noahic night, the morning is paradise regained: a blue sky, the body-hugging warmth of a late summer sun, no wind at all and a bicycle to ride. I am heading out on to one of Hawke's Bay's four new cycling trails with Paul McArdle, a local resident and cycling evangelist who is working with the regional council to get youngsters on two wheels. Most of the cycle routes pass through or around the town of Napier, a handsome and convivial place loved for its art deco architecture.

'It's great that people come to Napier to eat all the lovely food and drink the wines, but we want to invite them to do some exercise, too - we're even managing to tempt cruise passengers to get on their bikes instead of doing coach tours,' says Paul.

We set off on the gentlest of the trails, known as the water ride. It takes us south along the edge of the beach from the camper van site, round the perimeter of Napier and then on through recreational parks and along a dedicated bike path. At a quirky little bike hire shop called Fishbike (as in the saying, 'A man needs a woman like a fish needs a bike' - at least, this is the shopowner, Brian's version), we pause for a cup of coffee. New Zealanders take their lattes very seriously and Brian makes me a perfect one while we chat about cycling. It's all very civilised, very Kiwi.

The route then takes us past some factories and onto the main road for a stretch. A little further up, we turn inland and are soon on a limestone path on a raised 'stopbank' (built to prevent floods) that cuts through a landscape of vineyards and apple orchards. Both crops are being harvested; the sun is shining after a rather wet summer and the fruit and wine growers are keen to get their produce safely barrelled or crated.

Although the terrain is only slightly undulating, a headwind makes us work hard and by the end of our 30-kilometre ride I am tired and very hungry. In a pub at a place called Puketapu, we join Paul's wife and son and tuck into delicious fish and chips. While we eat, a group of senior-ish citizens on road bikes arrive for beers and burgers. Exercise followed by enjoyment: the campaign seems to be working.

In the afternoon, I head off to explore Napier. At the Art Deco Trust shop everything is themed to celebrate the architectural heritage of the town, from feathery fascinators to ziggurat-shaped perfumes to frilly figure-hugging ball gowns. As I am buying a bottle of water shaped like a deco statue, my guide, Graham Holly, arrives, togged up in appropriate 1930s garb.

After a short formal introduction to Napier's history - an isolated agricultural town, rocked by an earthquake in 1931, almost entirely rebuilt by 1933 - we walk around the town. Graham takes me into a bank decorated with Mayan ferns, an office built in the classical revival style, past prairie-style shops and into the stalls of the rather grand Municipal Theatre, where lintels betray a marked Egyptian influence and streamlined modern light fixtures look straight out of Hollywood. It is all slightly surreal, but very stylish.

'The deco facades - and in many cases there are only facades - came about because the council realised that if they didn't rebuild everyone might well leave and Napier could simply die as a town,' explains Graham. 'So they decided to build a city that looked as handsome as New York or parts of LA. Deco was of course in fashion back then so that was the chosen style - and as it only needed reinforced concrete it was affordable.'

After two hours of walking and talking, on top of my morning's two-wheeled exertions, I am beat. It's wonderful then, when, after a quick waltz around the Masonic Hotel - home to the best stocked and most elegant bar in town - Holly takes me outside to the pavement, where he opens the passenger door of a bottle-green 1939 Packard Six.

We set off on a slow, smooth drive around town. I feel like Al Capone, but the locals, used to seeing the sleek vintage machine most days of the week, barely glance at us. After a ride up to a leafy suburb on a bluff overlooking Napier, we come back down and park outside yet another art deco edifice. Here, Holly whips out a sub-machine gun and points it at me. It is actually a piece of wood. 'The Americans love it when I pull this out,' he says. 'Must be all those gangster and moll movies, and the romance of those days.'

There's something to be said for this; Graham wears a handsome waistcoat, a cocked fedora and black-and-white brogues bought, he says, from an old-school shoemaker in Edinburgh. I am in T-shirt and jeans. He looks like a glamorous extra from Bugsy Malone; I, in the parlance of that world, look like a schmuck.

Napier has embraced its unique architectural heritage with vigour. Every February, the town celebrates Art Deco Weekend, and residents of all ages and all stripes dress in period fineries, sip champagne from antique goblets and bop to the Charleston during a four-day, round-the-clock fiesta.

I can't quite match the sartorial panache of Napier's nostalgia fiends, but I do score some luxury when it comes to dining. At the Craggy Range and Elephant Hill vineyards, I indulge in haute cuisine and sample some of Hawke's Bays finest pinots and cabernet sauvignons. My accommodation - once I've left the chalet - is pretty splendid, too. I spend a night at Hawthorne House, a property owned by British expat Mike Lewis and his Kiwi wife, Mel. They call the place a B&B, but it has the air of a country mansion, with a stylish wooden facade and tranquil gardens. The camper van seems like a distant memory.

My second day's cycling takes me up into the higher land in the shadow of the Craggy Range mountains after which the wines are named. I ride with Will Coltart, whose father runs his own vineyard, Black Barn, and a gourmet restaurant on the same site.

'This is called the landscapes ride,' he says as we exit the car park. 'So it's more of a mountain bike route, with a few tough slopes. But I'm doing it on a toy bike to show anyone can do it.' Will runs Wine Cycles, a hire firm that encourages wine visits by bike, though he recommends spitting rather than quaffing for those doing tastings prior to hitting the road.

Over three hours we cycle up and down back roads and along riverside tracks, and on more raised stop banks beside vineyards. The sun is shining again and all is well with the world. The only problem is we have lunch before setting out. While we limit the wine intake, the food is irresistible and we both struggle on the hills. Will, in particular, regrets not bringing a bike with higher gears. The landscape is deceptive, wilder and more extreme than the calming views suggest.

When we finally return to Black Barn, the sun is setting, the Ferraris have all gone and my motorhome stands alone in the car park. For once, I realise the full value of not having to go anywhere. I open the door, kicked off my trainers, lay down, and sleep through to the next morning. When you're burned out, there's nothing more luxurious than a big van with heating, curtains and a bed.


Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Auckland daily from HK$5,900 return. From there it's either a five- to six-hour drive, or a short internal flight with Air New Zealand to Napier (from HK$2,760 return)

Where to stay

Hawthorne House B&B

Black Barn Retreats (luxury villas)

Renting a bike


Cycling routes

Hawke's Bay Trails

Camper vans


Eating and drinking

Black Barn Vineyards

Elephant Hill Vineyards

Craggy Range Vineyards

For more

Art Deco Trust artdeconapier.com

Vintage car service packardpromenades.co.nz