Russell’s seaside setting and ‘Old World’ charm makes it a pleasure to stroll along the esplanade. Quaint colonial buildings line the beachfront and pohutukawa trees provide welcome shade as you gaze at the yachts gently rocking on their moorings.
The town promotes itself as peaceful and ‘romantic’ in contrast to the commercial bustle of Paihia across the bay. That this quiet village atmosphere remains is quite remarkable given Russell’s turbulent history and its unique heritage as the country‘s oldest European settlement.
Originally a fortified Maori village known as Kororareka, meaning ‘how sweet is the penguin’, it became a haven for ship deserters and ruffians in the early whaling days, earning the title of ‘Hellhole of the Pacific.’
Today it is proud of its status as the site of our first capital (at nearby Okiato). Among the historic buildings is Christ Church, New Zealand’s oldest surviving church, still studded with bullet holes in its neat white weatherboards as a result of Hone Heke’s siege of the town in 1845, following his repeated attacks on the flagstaff on Maiki Hill. Pompallier House was our first industrial building as it housed the mission print shop. The original Duke of Marlborough hotel on the waterfront had New Zealand’s first liquor licence.
With this colourful history and its sheltered location in the Bay of Islands, it is little wonder that Russell is a maritime Mecca favoured by holidaymakers at the height of summer. Day-trippers arrive on the passenger ferry from Paihia just 15 minutes away. Flotillas of yachts sail in from Auckland and other places and the boaties gravitate towards the cafès and restaurants lining the Strand.
However Russell remains an ideal place for a quiet browse among the craft shops and historic buildings. The Bay of Islands Park office in The Strand can direct you to the local sights including; Flagstaff Hill, Tapeka Point, Pompallier House, Christ Church and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.
The fascinating history of this town together with its incomparable setting provides the visitor with double the interest. Plan to spend at least a day in Russell to explore this unique location and soak up the atmosphere.