Napier, a city situated close to the wine-making region of Hawkes Bay on New Zealand's North Island, is well known as the "Art Deco City." Due to a devastating earthquake in 1931, a good portion of the downtown area was rebuilt in the fashion of the day, giving the city an architecturally harmonious look. Refurbished buildings, Art Deco walks and even citywide celebrations that fill the streets (and hotel rooms) with flappers and classic cars have become a hallmark. Not surprisingly, the Art Deco theme has made Napier a favorite stop for tourists, but we believe we have found a lesser-known and quirkier New Zealand city for vintage style.
After driving a few hours on the South Island, we needed to stretch our legs and find the nearest public toilet. (Note: while asking for a "bathroom" or "restroom" will suffice, "toilet" is the preferred noun in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. As one person questioned with a smile, "Do you want to take a bath?" Thereafter, we struggled to fit in and refer to the porcelain seat directly, but with our American ears it always felt a bit crass and was uttered with an involuntary cringe.)
With the map in one hand and a pile of guidebooks on my lap, I determined we were not far from the city of Oamaru. All New Zealand towns have public toilets, because someone somewhere told us it was the law. But both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide mentioned that Oamaru had interesting Victorian buildings, so we expected a pretty walk in addition to a bathroom break. We didn't expect to meet an eccentric artist community.
At first glance Oamaru appears to be much like every other smallish Kiwi town. When we pulled into a parking space close to the city center, we were greeted by a smattering of neo-classical buildings, a few nondescript shops and a sign pointing us down the street to the I-Site information center. Here, there were a few brochures on walking tours and penguin colonies -- nothing we were particularly interested in. We had plenty of time on our parking meter, so we decided to take a quick stroll through the rest of the historic district before heading off.
My first clue that we had stumbled onto something special came at a candy store a few steps away. While the goods were nothing extraordinary, the shop was furnished in a decidedly turn-of-the-19th-century manner with wooden and glass cases displaying the sweets. Moreover, both the man and the woman behind the counter greeted us in historic dress that matched the decor. I initially chalked this up to a sales gimmick, but it soon became clear that we had stumbled onto a small but dedicated community of Victorianphiles.
It being late afternoon, many shops were beginning to shut their doors and the streets were emptying. Strolling through the old warehouse area, we were lured upstairs by gorgeously decorated signs and what appeared to be drama sets into an expansive and theatrically displayed loft art gallery. It looked like something Baz Lehrman and Terry Gilliam might come up with.
The some-what shy but friendly proprietor, who was sporting a top hat and eye make-up, invited us to the gallery's anniversary party the next night. Flipping through a photo album of past theme-parties (including a politics and religion fete, where the two taboo topics were surely discussed), we were truly sad that our schedule was too tight to accept.
Moving on, we stopped in a used bookstore, where we learned about cigarette cards from another friendly gentleman in period dress and admired the Alice in Wonderland kid area. He directed us next door to a traditional bookbinder, who was wearing a kilt and scabbard with a real sword. He teased us about the "impending" oil crisis (saying the U.S. will turn into something out of "Mad Max" when it hits) and answered our questions about the history of the area as he cleared a table for his weekly army figure painting/Napoleonic War discussion group. It turns out these buildings were set to be demolished a few years back, but he and other citizens managed to take the street over and are slowly converting the area into a Victorian-themed avenue filled with just the sort of unusual people one expects would be into the idea.
Down the alleyway, an old passenger steam train is being refurbished by the all volunteer Steam and Rail Restoration Society. In the other direction, jazz and jam nights are organized by The Penguin Club and old movie nights by a local with a collection of old films and projectors. There's even an organ repair shop across the street from the organic bakery.
Most Oamaru tourism is focused on the penguin colony, but interest in the neo-Victorian creative community is growing the (check out Oamaru's Victorian Heritage Celebrations). While there is a dedication to the era, the locals we talked to are not interested in setting themselves up as a Victorian theme park with bus-loads of tourists flooding the town for the day. As the bookbinder put it, they're trying to develop "slow" tourism, like the slow food movement. Now that would be lovely. Oamaru certainly slowed us a bit as our pit stop turned into an overnight stay.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Gary | April 19, 2006 08:03 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.