Miami Nice And A Guy of Gisborne

[A final backlogged post…]

After my fantastic days in Tongariro Park, doing the Crossing and climbing around Mt. Ruapehu, I contiued along the Thermal Explorer Highway (actual name) to the city of Napier, on the Pacific Coast of the North Island.

Napier doesn’t have any volcanos, but it does have a tragic history of seismic proportion.

On February 3, 1931, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake leveled Napier. Scores were killed, many of them by falling balconies and parapets. When the city decided to rebuild, it did so with a unique, singular vision… many of the finest Art Deco, Mission and Prairie School architects of the day designed the buildings of the new Napier, which today is  considered “comparable with Bath [England] as an example of a planned townscape in a cohesive style,” according to the British Museum’s Sir Neil Cossons, OBE, who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about by name alone.

I visited Napier on Easter Sunday, on another gloriously cloudless autumn day. After coughing up the NZ$5 for the self-guided walking tour pamphlet, I set out to experience the city’s internationally-famous architecture.

And I was reminded, constantly and inevitably, of Miami. And Disneyworld. The remaining Art Deco buildings, and there are dozens, struck me as Miami without the bling, a sort of Disneyfied vision of a 1930s downtown.

From Napier I drove along the coast north to Gisborne, on Poverty Bay, famous for being more or less where the good Cap’n Cook touched New Zealand soil for the first time. Not surprisingly, there’s a statue of Cook and also of Young Nick, the cabin boy who first spied land. But my favorite statue was the one on Cook Plaza, on a hill overlooking the city. Despite the name of the plaza, the statue is not of Cook. It’s mysterious… a random guy, not in British naval uniform and bearing no resemblence to the good Captain. No one knows who the statue actually represents.

I like to call him Guy of Gisborne. This amuses me greatly.

I spent a couple days in Gisborne not because it was particularly interesting or pretty, but because it was the best place to get my Air New Zealand ticket sorted, and also because it’s the home of one of the country’s largest cideries.

Mmmm, cider. After doing their tasting of New Zealand ciders, I tried their Strongbow Cider. They are the country’s licensed producers of Strongbow, an English, low-rent cider that my British friends are horrified to learn I love as it is, in England, considered the gateway beverage preteens overindulge in. I’d seen Strongbow in NZ stores but never tried it because it was English, I knew what it tasted like and if I was going to buy booze it was going to be New Zealand wine… oh, how wrong I was.

At the cidery, I learned that, because they don’t have the same apples, they didn’t even try to recreate English Strongbow and, instead, brew the Kiwi version from different kinds of apples (Granny Smith and Braeburn) and… pear. It tastes completely different than English Strongbow and is amazingly delicious. I can’t believe I spent eight months in this country dismissing it. Although, for my wallet and liver, that’s probably for the better…

Once out of Gisborne, I headed northwest to the town of Whakatane (pronounced “Fa-ka-ta-ne”), which is short for the Maori phrase “let me act as a man.” Back in the day, a canoe, or waka, full of folks came ashore here and the men left the boat for a meet and greet with the locals. The tide pushed the waka, and all their women, out to sea and soon they were in danger of getting swept away. One of the women onboard called out “let me act as a man,” asking permission of the men to take the rudder, traditionally off-limits to a woman (oh, men and their phallic symbolism… get over it, boys). She grabbed it and steered the waka back to safety and there was much rejoicing. And the town got its name.

Whakatane was pleasant enugh, though for the first 24 hours I was there it poured, hellacious rain drenching everything except, miraculously, the interior of my tent, where I was able to stay dry and cozy..

By the time I’d left Gisborne, however, my mood had changed. The clock was ticking. It was time to head to Auckland, as soon as possible. To turn in my Nissan $*%^ Sunny, to do my seventh triathlon, to stalk Karl Urban…

To spend my last week in New Zealand in the city where I feel at home.

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