NAPIER, New Zealand — The bar Monica Loves is located down a discreet cobblestone lane. You can’t quite call it “hidden” because there are giant windows that open to a patio in the warm weather. Nevertheless, with its bordello-meets-street-art décor, it has all the trappings of a modern speakeasy, the kind you’d find down a London alley or behind an unmarked door in the East Village. And, of course, the cocktail list, which features inventions like the Celery Mare (gin, cucumber, lime, cracked pepper, elderflower liqueur, and tonic) — is just as intriguing as anything offered at celebrated hipster haunts in Brooklyn or San Francisco.
But the fact is, you’re a hemisphere away and feels like you’re in a different era (and not just because of the drastic 17 hour time difference). Monica Loves is in Napier, a coastal town in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, a North Island region known for producing top-rate Chardonnays. Napier was decimated by a two-and-a-half-minute earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt almost entirely in the then-modern Art Deco style. Today, the wide streets look like a movie-set.
Most people go to New Zealand seeking the quietude of nature trails or a wild adrenalin rush. (The origin of bungee jumping, after all, can be traced to Queenstown.) But neither serenity nor a thrill ride were of interest to me. In the land of what oenophiles declare one of the planet’s most exciting emerging wine regions, I was on the prowl for cocktails. What I found along my tippling trail through the country was an assortment of passionate creative types blazing a path that puts this far-flung nation on the ever-expanding global cocktail map.
Being an outsider is what makes traveling a thrill. You notice things that you’d never detect at home, where routine is the norm. Hyper-vigilance is not a feature of complacency. When traveling, you pick up on the details that give a city its own personality, and if you’re paying attention, you understand how the bars in each municipality perfectly capture the mood of their environs.
That was powerfully apparent in Christchurch, a city still in the throes of renewal since an earthquake in 2011 splintered the streets and reduced historic buildings to rubble. The landscape is still a constellation of construction sites, but between new, engaging public art installments, huge murals, and a few shiny new buildings, the thrill of rebirth is palpable. That comes into stark relief at Dux Central, an expansive, sleek dining and drinking destination that opened in September. The spacious pub-like Brew Bar offers almost 200 beers, the more posh Emerald Room is a wine haven and there’s an upper level focused on dining.
I’d been tipped off to an intimate cocktail bar on the premises, but making my way through the boisterous bi-level courtyard, it seemed unlikely I’d find a quiet space anywhere nearby. But around the corner was a lone door with a light globe above. Charles Gillet, the jovial bartender and manager, proved me wrong when he welcomed me to the antique-chic Poplar Social Club.
With exposed brick, Victorian style wallpaper, and vintage elegance, I was overcome with an urge to settle into one of the couches with a martini and an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Thankfully, however, the menu — a mix of classic and neo-classic drinks — made for far more exciting reading. With a tone that’s as engaging and witty as his manner, Gillet penned descriptions of the pedigree of each drink. My selection called me like a Borcht Belt siren: “Ahh, the Morning Glory Fizz, a drink created for medicinal purposes. And by medicinal we mean to cure hangovers. Who woulda thought in 1895 George Kappler was like ‘Hmmm, what would fix this brutal hangover? I know — scotch, lemon, sugar, egg white, and a touch of absinthe. Yeah, seems legit.’ And funnily enough, it works. That’s what a mate said, anyway.”
Over the course of the next few hours, Gillet regaled me with stories of the city pre- and post-quake, the intense research he undertook to write the menu, and the international cocktail contents he was preparing for. And he suggested I visit James Crinson, a fellow competitor on the global competition circuit, at his bar in Wanaka, my next destination.
Wanaka is a lakeside escape that draws mountain bikers, nature lovers, and honeymooners. The idea of there being a hipster cocktail bar seems as probable as finding tranquility in Times Square. Yet there it was, like something out of a David Lynch movie: in the parking lot of a nondescript motel, I spotted an unmarked cement stairwell up to LaLaLand, a delightfully disorienting joint that feels like your childhood rec room (board games, retro ephemera, velour couches) and serves a tiki-centric cocktail menu.
James made me his signature drink, Te Anaka, a rum-and-egg-white formula lightened with fino sherry and honey water and shot through with a measure of tart lemon juice. As he worked, he explained that he created the drink for a competition held by Bacardi. He won the national heat and was off to represent New Zealand in San Francisco this spring. In this remote locale I realized that where once it was taken for granted that you’d find an Irish pub and a Chinese takeout eatery in any city around the world, today the craft cocktail bar has become just as much of a universal staple.
There was one more city to hit before heading back over the equator. Queenstown, which gives the impression of Aspen if Aspen were a beach town. Moneyed second-home-owners and young seasonal workers throng labyrinth of narrow streets, where you find funky bars around every bend. I slipped into Habana, a “boutique rum bar” adorned with retro photographs and kitschy religious knickknacks, and drank a perfectly constructed old-school daiquiri while locals lingered at outdoor tables over charcuterie.
That laid-back, rustic vibe seemed a world away later that night when, upon multiple recommendations, I stopped into The Bunker, a handsome wood-accented spot that blends a James Bond variety of classiness with the liveliness of an energy drink commercial. A DJ spun French electronic music while an Irish bartender made me a Manhattan, a decidedly American drink. Beside me, young vacationing tech guys from Spain drank gin and tonics. The moment, like many I found in this country on the bottom of our planet, was as exotic as it was familiar.