There's a lot more to this lovely area than just art deco buildings, writes Janet McAllister.

My imagined Napier is painted pastel candy colours: soft pink, creamy mint, hazy blue. Flat, white art deco terraces shimmer in the sun. Nothing bad ever happens here. Well, not since 1931 anyway.

The reality, for once, matches the mirage - at least it does when you're staying in The Dome's large, luxury Cape View apartment overlooking Marine Parade in the middle of town.

For $895 a night, the bathroom floor tiles are heated, the cushions are by Dick Frizzell, the dinner plates are so luxury they don't fit in the dishwasher. It's probably the best accommodation in town.

But don't take my word for it. Prime Minister John Key stayed and in the guest book he wrote: "What a magnificent property."


The very next page, musician Tiki Taane translated Key's real estate-ese into, "What an awesome whare," and signed himself "the future Prime Minister of New Zealand".

Hannah Tamaki - Mrs Bishop Brian - had "a lovely time" here five days before she failed to become Maori Women's Welfare League president.

It was hard, but we finally dragged our feet off the deep-pile carpet and on to Napier's stony, unswimmable shoreline to explore its surprisingly numerous attractions.

First up, the National Aquarium of New Zealand, disguised as a giant slater. The presentation is a little cheesy, but the creatures - including exotics and local land animals (tuatara, kiwi) - are fascinating. Watch the loach fish throw stones around with their mini-tentacled Dr Zoidberg mouths. Check out the blind Mexican cave fish which, creepily, have no eyes. There are also blue penguins and a travelator tube through shark-infested waters.

We then wandered north past a cute miniature roading system for kids on bikes, complete with working traffic lights.

Next stop was the Museum Theatre Gallery (MTG), recently relaunched with an $18 million extension. MTG offers decorative and fine arts, Maori taonga, and earthquake history, and we could have happily spent half the day here - there's a lot to see. Poignant earthquake object award goes to the lifesize plastic infant-doll which rescuers carefully dug out of the rubble thinking it was a live baby.

Having stuffed our brains with natural history and culture - and our mouths with excellent alpaca burger and salmon roulade at the funky, red-walled Cafe Divine - it was time to get physical. Hawkes Bay has capitalised on being mostly as flat as a flapper's pancake make-up by creating 180km of bike trails, including - of course - between wineries.

We rented easy hub-gear rides from Brian Fisher of Fishbikes, who is a bit of a clown but knows his stuff. After a pretty harbour-edge trip to a beer at Bay View's Snapper Cafe and back, we soaked in the lovely beachside outdoor hot pools at Ocean Spa.

Then it was time for tasty tapas at the Masonic Hotel: chicken lollipops, duck dumplings, prawn toast and chocolate brulee.

The next day, we ventured further afield. We didn't quite reach Cape Kidnappers - there's no road - but enjoyed a stumbly beach walk in its direction, below tall, oppressive sandstone cliffs. A delicious lunch at rustic Clearview Estate Winery, five minutes drive away, served as reward. We continued the tapas theme with sardines, pork and smoked fish rillettes, washed down with two lovely chardonnays, the dramatic Reserve and lighter Te Awanga.

Luckily, I wasn't driving as we headed for Te Mata Peak - the road up is Bond-film steep, winding, fenceless and flanked by sheer drops. But if you survive, the view is all the more spectacular for the adrenalin rush.

The final (unscheduled) stop on our itinerary turned out to be the most curious: the unbelievably chi-chi New World supermarket in Hastings. The fruit and vege section boasted two television screens, and hothouse courgettes for $32.99 a kilo. A shark jaw gargling a blue liquid fountain decorated the fish section. Was this about the fluoride debate? The servers laughed obligingly. Here, as everywhere in the Bay, the locals were actively friendly.

Friendly locals, sharks (dead and alive), hot pools, art, bikes, wine - what more could one possibly want? Oh that's right: art deco. We nearly forgot.

The Dome apartments, Corner Marine Parade and Emerson St.

The National Aquarium of New Zealand, Marine Parade (south). Open daily 9am to 5pm.

MTG, 1 Tennyson St. Open daily 10am to 6pm.

Cafe Divine, 53 Hastings St. Open daily 7am to 5pm.

Fishbikes, 22 Marine Parade.

Ocean Spa, 42 Marine Parade. Open daily until 10pm.

Masonic Hotel, 2 Tennyson St.

Clearview Estate Winery, 194 Clifton Rd. Haumoana.

Further information: The second summer Hawkes Bay Food and Wine Classic is on from November 1 to 9 with 10 days of great ways to sample the best of local and national cooking, wine and scenery.

Janet stayed courtesy of The Dome Apartments.