From hellhole to heavenly: exploring Russell

Today I'm off to learn about Russell, one of the places in the Bay of Islands where past and present collide in unusual ways.

Unless you’ve got plenty of days to spare, the one-hour Russell Mini Tour is hands down the best way to experience this fascinating little town.

I step off the ferry and stroll along the wharf. Right at the end of it my Russell Mini Tours van awaits to transport me into yesteryear – and beyond.

Our guide is a seasoned local who knows everything you could possibly want to know about Russell, or Kororareka as it was known until the 1840s.

He fills us in on the meaning behind Kororareka (literally ‘how sweet is the penguin’, said to have been exclaimed by a visiting chief who was fed a delicious meal of little blue penguin) as we cruise slowly along the main street. With the harbour just over the road and native pohutukawa trees lining the street, the gorgeously refurbished villas, cafes and restaurants on the waterfront have the best view in the house.

It’s hard to imagine this tranquil, inviting scene having anything other than a quiet and orderly past – but nothing could be further from the truth.

From 1800 onwards, the early whaling and logging industries brought an influx of European and American sailors looking to anchor and trade with local Māori. Kororareka quickly became a popular port with these rough-living fellows. Unlike Paihia over the harbour, with its devout missionary community, Kororareka became a bawdy, violent place, full of drunken sailors on shore leave and prostitutes specialising in three-week ‘marriages’. The town quickly became known as the ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’.

Not far from the wharf, its gleaming white weatherboards looking innocent in the sunshine, is the infamous Duke of Marlborough. Opened in 1827, the Duke was the first licensed pub in New Zealand. Back then it was known as ‘Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop’ and was run by an ex-convict. Over the years Johnny worked hard to leave his past behind and make his pub into a respectable watering hole. A new, high-falutin’ name was all part of the plan and today, his legacy lives on in one of the top-rated dining experiences in the region.

Our guide has a knack for telling tales and we are hanging on every word as he details the rough and rowdy times of the old days and how law and order were restored in Russell. We also drive by all several more prim and proper historic sights, like Christ Church (the oldest church in New Zealand) and Pompallier House (site of Bishop Pompallier’s Catholic Mission and the oldest industrial building in New Zealand).

As well as these official landmarks, our guide points out local treasures like the general store (still run by the Baker family, seven generations on), New Zealand’s oldest petrol station, and most endearingly, his own house! This tour is turning out to be a very entertaining mix of formal sightseeing presentation and the kind of ‘tour of the town’ you get when you visit a friend.

After cruising around town for a while, we venture further afield. The van climbs the steep, winding road to Flagstaff Hill, high above the township. During the 1840s, Māori cut the British signal flagstaff on this hill down – four times – in protest against the new government. The tale of Hone Heke and his compatriots is well worth a listen as we enjoy stunning 360-degree views out over the whole Bay of Islands.

After drinking in the views for a while, we meander back down the hill and over to the other side of Russell. While the harbour beach is picturesque, locals know the best place for a swim is Oneroa (Long Beach) facing out to the wider Bay of Islands. This sheltered crescent of golden-white sand is perfect for families and has that classic ‘Kiwi beach’ feel. Sit on the sand and gaze across the water to beautiful Motuarohia Island, and glimpse enticing views of more islands further out to sea.

We continue through the back streets of Russell and over to Matauwhi Bay – an even quieter side of Russell, with guest cottages and private homes tucked away in the trees. All too soon we are making our way back along the waterfront and our tour is coming to an end.

An hour is the perfect amount of time to get a taste of Russell’s history and present. And with the rest of the afternoon to myself I’m free to wander the town and visit some of the sights we visited in more detail – to see the bulletholes in the walls of Christ Church for myself, or enjoy the peace and quiet of the Pompallier Mission grounds.

Or maybe I’ll drop into the Duke and raise a glass to Johnny Johnston and the ragtag reprobates of Russell’s fascinating past.

Book a Russell mini-tour.

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