Standing in the playground hand-in-hand with her younger sister who had started school just that morning, poet Lauris Edmond watched as their classrooms disappeared in a cloud of red brick dust. "It was like the end of the world."

Soon after the bell for playtime on the hot, muggy morning of February 3, 1931 - "Five minutes later we would all have been crushed and the child population of Napier and Hastings almost wiped out," Edmond wrote later - an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale instantly split Hawke's Bay history into Before and After.

Two minutes and 49 seconds of violent shaking centred just 15km north of Napier felled every chimney in the area, destroyed all but a handful of the Victorian and mock-Gothic buildings crowding Napier's narrow streets, lifted 3000ha of land out of the sea, and killed 258 people in Hawke's Bay.

Four minutes after the initial huge shock, overturned Bunsen burners in three chemists' shops started fires that swept through the city's wooden buildings, unchecked by the fire brigade because all the water pipes had been fractured.

"It was the death of the city," said the daughter of Arthur Bendigo Hurst, a professional photographer who made the decision, which haunted him for the rest of his life, to record the devastation instead of pitching in to help dig out survivors.

His photographs are on display in Napier, in the Hawke's Bay Museum's excellent Earthquake section, along with a 35-minute video of interviews with Lauris Edmond, Hurst's daughter and other survivors, voice recordings, newspaper facsimiles, geological information and vividly personal items rescued from the ashes, such as a pocketful of coins fused together by the heat.

Hanging in one case is the brass ship's bell from HMS Veronica, a small British warship which was moored in the harbour and was temporarily grounded when the seabed rose up. Crew from the ship were ashore within 10 minutes of the quake, beginning a huge rescue operation and earning the city's gratitude. The bell was rung on the 50th anniversary of the earthquake and will be incorporated again in this year's 75th commemoration ceremonies.

The death of the old Napier was followed in remarkably short order by the city rising like a phoenix from the ashes, but in a new form: Art Deco.

The philosophy behind this new style of architecture and decoration was perfect for the occasion. Its recurrent motifs of sunbursts, speed lines, lightning flashes and leaping women symbolised the new spirit of the 20th century, which looked forward to a bright new age of technology, independence and progress.

Napier became a magnet for newly graduated students of architectural design and men so desperate for work in the Great Depression that at least one is known to have cycled there from Wanganui.

In just two years, the city was transformed into a place of wide streets, cantilevered verandahs (supporting posts had shown themselves to be hazardous), a spacious Marine Parade and a harmonious collection of mainly Art Deco buildings, interspersed with Spanish Mission, another style popular in the day.

The city has been described by the Chairman of English Heritage as a unique example of a planned and cohesive townscape, the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world.

There is a great variety of things to see and do in and around Napier and Hastings, such as trundling out to the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers on a tractor, cycling in an increasingly wobbly manner around the wineries, driving up Te Mata Peak for the view and the hang gliders, following the trail around art and craft galleries, dining well or taking the kids to fling themselves down the water slides at Splash Planet and marvelling at the giant squid in the National Aquarium.

But no visit to the area is complete without going on one of the daily Art Deco Walks, which begin at 10am from the Information Centre. In a one-hour meander around the city centre, you will receive a potted history of the earthquake, a description of the origins and expression of the style in question, see examples of the motifs including a Maori version and, depending on your guide, be treated to an eclectic mix of gossip, anecdotes, speculation and bad jokes.

All the tours finish up at the Art Deco shop in the splendid old Fire Brigade building for refreshments, a video and a browse through a great collection of Jazz Age memorabilia.

Locals and others outfitting themselves for the annual Art Deco Weekend come here and to shops like Chris Wiig's where, hunting for a particular Christmas present, we were astonished when the helpful assistant hauled out a great carton of colourfully striped elastic braces. "We get them in specially for the Weekend," he explained, waving an arm at racks of striped blazers and straw boaters.

The usual four-day programme of dinners, jazz concerts, vintage car tours, dances and the Great Gatsby picnic will be extended this year to include the 75th anniversary of the earthquake. The programme begins on February 3 with commemorative services and displays in both Napier and Hastings, picking up steam when the Survivors' Weekend begins on February 12 with exhibitions, parades and associated events.

The Art Deco Weekend proper starts on Thursday, February 16 with concerts, cocktails and a silent movie and continues in a similar hedonistic vein with dinners, dances, antique fairs, plays and a picnic until Sunday, February 19, when the Veronica bell is marched from its temporary position in the Sunbay to the Cathedral for a Thanksgiving Service. Many of these events are free, but Deco dress (which can be hired) is encouraged.

Although there is a smaller winter Art Deco festival in July, February is the time to visit Napier this year, whether you enjoy history, fine wine and dining, dressing up, jazz, art, sunshine or all of them. Booking is essential.


Getting there
Fly with Air New Zealand (an hour from Auckland) from $188 return and hire a car from Hertz (www.hertz.co.nz). To drive there, allow six hours.

Where to stay
Tourism Hawke's Bay (www.hawkesbay.com) lists accommodation options, from hotels through B&Bs to backpackers.

What to see
The Art Deco tour and shop are a must and so is the museum's 1931 earthquake display. The National Aquarium has a giant squid and big kiwi as well as sharks, turtles and a crocodile. Bike DVine is recommended for pedalling around the wineries or Art Deco suburbs. Browse the weekend Farmers Markets, go shopping, tour the wineries, visit Hastings and Havelock North, take a trip out to the gannets at the Cape or to a lavender farm, relax at OceanSpa

When to go
Any time is great, but this year the 75th anniversary festival of special events begins on Feb 3 leading up to the annual Art Deco Weekend, Feb 16 to 19.