Hawke's Bay's table of plenty is about to be extended, writes Alexia Santamaria.
Not sure if it's just me, but when I think of arts festivals, Wellington and Auckland are the first New Zealand locations that come to mind. I was delighted to find that Hawke's Bay also has an excellent one, increasing the lure of this — already attractive — region.
Spectacular countryside, great food, world-class wines and an exceptional performing arts event all in one spot; it's a no-brainer.
Spending a long weekend going from theatre performance to vineyard to dance performance to restaurant to concert was a whirlwind of fun. And the beauty of the Spiegeltent being in Havelock North, where I was staying, was that I could walk five minutes to many of the shows from the lovely Porters, Havelock's fancy boutique hotel (the festival takes place across eight venues spread across Napier, Hastings and Havelock). It was quite a contrast to the driving/parking/logistics-driven experience of attending a big city festival — which I also love for different reasons.
The Harcourt's Hawke's Bay Arts Festival will turn four this year and it's incredible that in such a short time it's become such a well-attended fortnight of festivities. This is possibly down to the man at the heart of it all, Pitsch Leiser. Born in Switzerland, he has lived in New Zealand for more than two decades and has worked in key arts roles in Auckland and Wellington, including lecturing in event management, directing Capital E in Wellington and working as the manager of Festival and Community Events in Auckland Council.
Leiser has also spent years working with the Department of Internal Affairs and the Office for Ethnic Affairs and this is definitely reflected in his curation. He knows a thing or two about how to pull together avibrant, popular festival and has done it many times all over the world. He believes a good festival needs to be a mix of interesting international big hitters and outstanding local talent — showcasing the stories and performances we want to see, but also the ones we need to see.
A long weekend wasn't quite long enough to see everything I wanted, but I certainly got enough of a taste to want to go back again this year. I was spellbound at Lyall Brooks' outstanding one-man performance in his political thriller,
A Prudent Man (particularly biting in the current international political climate); I laughed till I cried at kids entertainers' The Listies Make you LOL — anyone who says they are too grown-up for a well-executed fart joke is lying; I had to pick my jaw up off the ground several times at the acrobatic and dance prowess of Casus Circus and I lost myself totally in the dulcet tones of Reb Fountain as she sang with the Marlon Williams Band — if you've never seen her perform, you need to very soon. I also immensely enjoyed listening to Kate de Goldi and Susan Paris at the smaller Reader's and Writers festival event attached to the Arts Festival.
With 70 events by 52 acts in eight venues, four days was nowhere near enough to attend everything that appealed on the programme. One of the absolute highlights for me was watching Napier's Arts precinct come alive with exhibitions, live performance, interactive events and artists in residence in their first ever White Night. The galleries were all open and there was some stunning work from local artists. The futuristic laser show in Herschell St made us feel we were underwater — with its rippley wavey light blanket above our heads it had all the tourists and locals in awe.
And in between shows I had more than my fair share of excellent culinary experiences. It's amazing how a town like Havelock North can fit so many good eateries into a relatively compact space: great street food from Vagabond Jacks at the festival itself, exceptional coffee at Hawthorne Roastery, great brunch at Wright and Co, marvellous margaritas and Mexican at Mamacita, award-winning modern New Zealand dinner at Malo (conveniently right where I was staying) and proper Italian pizza at Alessandro's.
In Napier, seafood at Hunger Monger and wines tastings at
The Urban Winery were a total treat; and of course the vineyards were all merely a short drive so we popped into Black Barn for a quick tasting too.
Adding in a gentle walk through the trees at Te Mata peak, with its sweeping views of the area made it the perfect weekend and I struggled to drag myself to the airport to return to Auckland.
This year's October festival looks to be just as good.
Jetstar flies daily from Auckland to Napier
Porters Boutique Hotel is located smack bang in the middle of Havelock North, in walking distance of everything you could need. The restaurant, Malo, is highly awarded so you don't even need to leave the building to try some of Hawke's Bay's finest cuisine.