If you want to chill out and get away from it all, Russell – Kororareka – could be the place for you.
Situated in the idyllic Bay of Islands in the region of Northland, this pretty, genteel town was the first European settlement in New Zealand and the site of the country’s first capital. It’s hard to believe it today, but it was once known as the ‘hell-hole of the Pacific’ due to the boorish behaviour of its early inhabitants and visiting traders in the 1800s. Fortunately, today’s residents are far more civilised and enjoy the ironic humour levelled at their town’s former reputation.
Russell’s scenic waterfront is a great place to stroll along, or you can simply take a seat and watch the boats and people coming and going. There are plenty of boutique shops, cafes and restaurants to enjoy. For those who like adventurous sports on water and in the air, there is plenty on offer in the area, but this being a ‘slow travel’ blog, I’m going to concentrate on my favourite non-adventurous aspects of Russell.
Cruise ship warning
Just a quick word of warning: large cruise ships often anchor near Russell during the cruising season. Now this is great for the local economy, but it can result in the attractions I’m about to describe becoming very busy indeed. If your itinerary is flexible, you might benefit from checking the cruise ship schedule before planning your trip. Sites like cruisemapper can help with this.
1. The weather
The Bay of Islands is situated in Northland, which is the mildest region of New Zealand on a year-round basis. It’s known as the ‘winterless north’ for this reason. In summer, temperatures can reach above 30 degrees, but there’s always a cooling breeze from the sea. As with many sub-tropical areas, however, it can rain cats and dogs here, so it’s best to go prepared with your wet weather gear.
2. The Duke of Marlborough
When I first visited New Zealand in 1997, Russell was my first port of call and ‘The Duke’ my first overnight stay. Freshly arrived from my busy life in London, I felt like I had stepped away from the rat race into a gentler world and time. I woke to the sound of the sea lapping outside and, eventually, slow bluesy music coming from the bar downstairs. Pure relaxation.
Since then, The Duke has been expanded and refurbished, but the lovely old building retains its elegance and charm. If you stay here, you really need to secure a sea view room to make the most of the experience, but they are not easy to come by. Very early booking is essential. Visit out of season if you can, because it gets extremely busy in summer, both in the hotel and in the bar/restaurant, which is open to visitors. If you do stay, take a moment to enjoy the artworks in the corridors. You’ll find a mix of historical prints and contemporary artists’ works.
3. The R. Tucker Thompson
Although I talk about boat trips in a separate section below, the R. Tucker Thompson deserves a special mention. It’s a traditional gaff-rigged schooner, owned by a charitable trust which takes local teenagers on educational 7-day trips. Public sailings take place on varying days of the week from November to April. You can either choose to do a full day sail with morning tea and barbecue lunch included, or a ‘sundowner sailing’ in the late afternoon with shared antipasti platters served (there is a bar on board).
I’ve been on the RTT three times now and I absolutely love it, as does my husband. There’s nothing quite like sailing on a tall ship! The crew are fantastic and encourage participation from those who want to ride the bowsprit, climb the rigging or take a turn at the helm. If this sounds challenging, there is plenty of help, coaching and encouragement on offer!
4. Pompallier Mission and gardens
Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier established the headquarters of the French Catholic Mission in Russell in 1839. All that remains on the site today is The Printery, a traditional rammed earth building. It’s a fascinating place to visit as you can see early examples of printing and tanning technology and tools. The surrounding gardens are beautiful and can be visited on their own if you don’t want to go inside the Mission. A cafe in the grounds serves delicious French pastries.
5. Boat trips
The Bay of Islands is a very scenic area with lots of coves, inlets and islands to explore, and wildlife to see. One of the best ways to appreciate the area is by taking a boat trip. Aside from the R. Tucker Thompson, there are plenty of cruises on offer in more modern craft, taking in local attractions like Cape Brett, the ‘hole in the rock’ and idyllic islands like Urupukapuka. You can swim with dolphins and if you’re lucky you might spot some orca – killer whales – too.
Alternatively, you can simply hop on the ferry across to the town of Paihia for around $7 one way. The trip takes around 15-20 minutes. Ferries run regularly, so you can choose to spend a whole day at the other side, perhaps including a visit to Waitangi (see below). Or you could just enjoy a leisurely couple of hours exploring Paihia. Zane Grey’s bar and restaurant on Paihia Wharf is owned by the same people as the Duke of Marlborough, and is a very pleasant place to have lunch or a drink overlooking the waterside.
The Bay of Islands might not spring to mind when you think about well-known wine regions in New Zealand. However, there are two boutique wineries just outside Russell – Omata Estate and Paroa Bay. Both are well worth visiting, not only to taste the wine, but the food. The restaurants at these wineries are top-rated on TripAdvisor, and both enjoy stunning locations with views. Paroa Bay also offers luxury accommodation. I haven’t stayed there myself, but I like the look of it! The restaurant, Sage, is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, 12 noon until 8 pm.
Omata Estate serves wood-fired pizzas and platters, and is open from 11 am until 6 pm. If you want to enjoy the wines without driving, Omata offers courtesy transport, which needs to be booked in advance.
If you don’t manage to squeeze in a visit to the wineries during your time in the Bay of Islands, you can usually find their wines on the wine lists of Russell’s best restaurants.
Russell’s own small pebbly beach is a great place to relax with kids and picnics. However, there are lots of other gorgeous beaches in the area. A 20-minute walk over the hill will take you to Long Beach, a stretch of soft golden sand between two headlands – see picture below. There’s a lovely view out over Oneroa Bay to Roberton Island. Although there are no shops or amenities here – it’s purely residential – there is usually a coffee cart during the summer months, with a few tables and chairs available for customers’ use. There’s also a toilet block for changing.
Tapeka Beach is another attractive spot, with fine white sand and safe swimming. A 30-minute walk over Flagstaff Hill will take you there.
8. Russell Museum
If you’d like to learn more about early Maori-European contact (including Captain Cook’s visit), the ‘hell-hole’ days and the development of Russell through the centuries, the museum is well worth a visit. There are fascinating displays, historic photos and exhibitions which help bring the history to life. The museum is located in the centre of the town opposite Christ Church, and is easy to find.
9. Other attractions in the area
As the Bay of Islands was the location for some of New Zealand’s most important early historic events, there is plenty to see in the area. You can visit Waitangi, where the famous Treaty was signed on 6 February 1840 by Maori chiefs and representatives of the British crown. A visit to the Treaty Grounds is a must, and I suggest allowing plenty of time as there’s lots to see.
You can visit the home of the first British resident, James Busby, and its delightful gardens. There’s also the meeting house with its beautiful carvings, the huge ceremonial waka, the Maori carving studio and two museums – including a new one. I have not yet been to the new one, which commemorates the Maori armed services, but my cousin tells me it’s well worth a visit.
The Treaty Grounds themselves are lovely to walk around and spend time in. You can take refreshments either from the coffee cart or in the Whare Waka cafe, which serves fantastic food. I’ve always enjoyed memorable meals there. Sometimes you can attend a traditional Maori concert and try a hangi, which is a dinner cooked in a traditional earth oven. Definitely worth the experience.
Also worth a visit is historic Kerikeri, the largest town in the area and the location of the nearest airport. In the 1800s, Kerikeri was home to the Maori chief Hongi Hika. He allowed European missionaries, led by the Reverend Samuel Marsden, to establish a mission station there. The Mission House (also known as Kemp House) and the Stone Store are the oldest European buildings still standing in New Zealand today.
The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway runs from Kawakawa to Taumarere. It’s a steam railway run by volunteers, and is one of the coolest train trips I’ve ever done. If you’re a train buff like me, you’ll love it. A round trip takes about 50 minutes, and what’s unique about it is that it runs down the actual main street of Kawakawa town!
While you’re in Kawakawa, visit the public toilets. These are not just any public toilets. People come from all over the world to see them. They were upgraded and re-designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1999, along with local artists. The exterior has colourful, eccentric columns and the roof has trees growing on it. The interior walls are decorated with tiles, bottle inserts, coloured glass and ceramics. The toilets were given a ‘Premier Creative Places’ award in 2000.
There are many other scenic places around the Bay of Islands, such as Haruru Falls and Rainbow Falls. After many years of discovering New Zealand, this is still my absolute favourite region. I hope you enjoy it and end up loving it as much as I do. If you’re keen for more ideas on what to see in Northland, our friends at Angelthewanderlust have some great suggestions for a 5-day road trip itinerary.
If you are interested in New Zealand, you might like my posts on Marlborough Sounds, Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand English, Dunedin, Wellington street art, best beaches in Wellington, Whanganui and Queenstown.
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