Napier's Ahuriri district offers history with its coffee, says Matthew Wright.

Napier's West Quay, the former wool store district of Ahuriri, is a fashionable place to be these days. Bars, cafes restaurants and specialty food stores give this lifestyle district a character that stands apart from the art deco usually associated with the district.

There's nothing more relaxing than munching on bruschetta or sipping a glass or two of chardonnay in one of the West Quay bars under the Hawke's Bay sky, watching the harbour with its fishing boats, pleasure cruisers and yachts shuffling back and forth.

And, best of all, you're sitting on top of some of the most spectacular history in the district, involving Maori and Pakeha.

The harbour is one of Hawkes Bay's most historic sites, built atop former swamp and islands on the edge of the great Te Whanganui-a-Orotu Lagoon, which formed after Maori arrived in the 14th century on the back of a vast earthquake that dropped the coast.

It was a favoured dwelling place for Maori who flourished on the rich bounty of eels, fish and waterfowl. In 1824, a war party of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Waikato and Ngati Raukawa swept into the district and Ahuriri's defence was based on three island pa in the lagoon.

The occupants of Parapara underestimated the power of massed musketry and were shot down. Soon afterwards, Te Iho-o-te-rei was taken and Te Pakake filled with refugees. The defenders held off the attackers but Ngati Tuwharetoa built rafts and floated down the Tutaekuri river. After a ferocious struggle, the pa fell with many of the inhabitants killed and eaten.

That island has since been engulfed by reclamation and new buildings. Today, it is near one of Napier's best known art deco buildings, the former National Tobacco Co.

Napier arrived a generation after the battle, set up in 1853-56, again because of the harbour but it did not take long for ships to out-grow the shingly haven. That, however, did not stop the inner harbour growing. Wool stores sprouted and, for more than a century, were home to the raison d'etre of Hawke's Bay's settler world; the produce of the sheep.

The quay across the road from Shed 2 is where the sloop Veronica moored just hours before the earthquake of February 3, 1931, and the crew watched the wool stores spew bales into the road.

The ship was jolted when the harbour bed hit her keel and the captain, Commander HL Morgan, used Morse code to signal the Devonport Naval Base for help. He then sent men ashore to find parts for the radio receiver smashed by the jolt and, within minutes, had rescue parties heading into town.

The lagoon that once dominated the district from West Quay to Bay View disappeared, raised and drained by a violent uplift. The emerging marshland was seized as a gift from the sea by the harbour board and was turned into productive farmland with the help of Depression labour. It was subsequently claimed by Maori who argued the lagoon had never been sold to the Crown.

This turbulent, adventurous and exciting history is worth pondering during a quiet stroll around today's peaceful restaurant and lifestyle district.

Further information: Matthew Wright's book Historic Hawke's Bay and East Coast is published by Bateman and retails for $69.99.

Click here for more about visiting Napier and Ahuriri.