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Russell, NZ: A Bay of Islands Town Rich in History
Tucked away in the Far North District of New Zealand, the small town of Russell serves as one of the country’s most historically significant locations. It also happens to be a favoured tourist retreat. Visitors arrive to discover an easy-going town stocked with historic landmarks, friendly locals, and some of the best fishing around.
The First European Settlers
The town of Russell has the distinction of being the site of New Zealand’s earliest permanent European settlement, with travellers first arriving in the early nineteenth century. Then known as Kororāreka, the town developed into a major seaport, emerged as a centre of commerce, and was even considered as a choice for New Zealand’s first capital city.
The arrival of the British led to conflict with the native Māori and Ngāpuhi populations, a conflict that would eventually be brought to a close with the signing of the Waitangi Treaty in 1840. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which lay directly across the water from Russell and can be reached by ferry, continue to be one of the top tourist attractions in the region.
Unrest still existed after the signing of the treaty though, and would lead to the Flagstaff War in Russell itself. Between 1844 and 1845, Ngāpuhi chief, Hone Heke, cut down the British flag that stood on a hill outside of town. Ultimately, a treaty was signed and the British refrained from raising the flag again. Today, a flagless flagpole stands atop the hill to signify this historic agreement and has become one of the town’s top tourist attractions. It’s worth pointing out that the sweeping views on offer from the hilltop location are as popular as the flagpole itself, if not more so.
Russell’s Historic Locations
A stroll around Russell quickly reveals the town’s historic landmarks. Situated on Church Street, the Christ Church may not be as sizeable or grandiose as some of the country’s other holy buildings, but it does boast the accolade of being one of New Zealand’s oldest surviving church. Built in 1835, the Grade I listed building, and its accompanying graveyard, are a must-see for first time visitors.
A short walk from the Christ Church, the Pompallier Mission also has an extensive history. Over the years, the building – originally constructed as a Catholic mission in 1841 – has been used for printing, tanning, and storage. Today, it’s a working museum and is considered the oldest surviving industrial building in New Zealand.
Travellers interested in the town’s history will find a number of intriguing exhibits at Russell Museum, located just around the corner from the Christ Church. Amongst the portraits, statues, textiles and other exhibits celebrating the town’s Māori and European heritage is a model of Captain Cook’s Endeavour sail ship, perhaps the most popular item on display.
Russell has long been associated with maritime activities and adventures, with sailors, merchants, and naval soldiers all touching down on dry land here. Fortunately, the town today is not quite as debauched as it was in the eighteenth century, a time in which it was crudely referred to as the “hell hole of the Pacific”.
Today, charter fishing trips are wildly popular with locals and visitors alike. The waters surrounding the region are rich with fish, from snapper to marlin. Plenty of local operators offer trips out onto the waters, with some even offering to pick you up from your hotel. If fishing’s not your thing, you can still head out for a sight-seeing excursion. With plenty of craggy coastline and picturesque beaches to take in, you’ll be glad you did.
Kayaking, diving, and snorkelling are other popular pursuits in the local area, all offering a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the region, not to mention immerse yourself in the peace and quiet. Meanwhile, it’s possible to swim with dolphins in these parts, something that many travellers get a kick out of.
The Town Today
While the history of the region plays a massive role in the appeal of the town, Russell is by no means stuck in time. Wander around the town centre and you’ll discover an array of galleries, boutiques, restaurants, cafés, and hotels, all of which add a modern feeling to the place.
Many of the town’s most popular restaurants and cafés are located along The Strand, a seafront walk that stretches almost the entire length of the town. One such establishment that warrants a visit is the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, an historic property that claims to have opened in 1827 and holds New Zealand’s first liquor license.
A number of nature reserves can be found just outside the town centre, as can several beaches. Tapeka Point Beach to the north is considered one of the best in the region. It’s ideal for swimming and sunbathing, but also offers a number of scenic walks nearby.
Exploring the Bay of Islands
Travellers planning to spend a few days in Russell should give major consideration to exploring the Bay of Islands at large. Between the picturesque, remote islands (Tortore Island is a favourite) and pleasant holiday towns (Paihia, Kerikeri), there’s plenty to see and do here. Vice versa, those travellers staying at a hotel elsewhere in the Bay of Islands would do well to book a daytrip to Russell.
Price rangefrom AU$59to AU$2,576
- Hotel The Duke Of Marlborough Hoteldeals from AU$128
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- Hotel Motel Russelldeals from AU$114
- Hotel Hotel Russell Cottagesdeals from AU$155
- Hotel Commodores Lodgedeals from AU$142
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