Tucked away in the picturesque Bay of Islands is the quaint little seaside town of Russell, the oldest European settlement in New Zealand.
Part of Russell’s charm is feeling like you’re stepping back in time, from well-preserved historic buildings to the idyllic countryside. When the fog rolls into the sleepy town, it’s easy to imagine a kraken rising from the calm seas to devour one of the many bobbing ships anchored in the bay.
With scenic walks and views, well-curated galleries, tasteful cuisine and plenty more, it’s the perfect romantic getaway or holiday escape for the whole family.
Keep reading to find out why Russell is a must-do if you’re visiting the Bay of Islands!
History of Russell
If you thought this idyllic town had always been as peaceful as it currently is, think again. Once bearing the moniker of the ‘hellhole of the Pacific’, Russell’s colourful past has seen gunfights, raids, brothels and more.
Russell’s history begins long before Captain Cook’s arrival when it was an established Māori settlement known as Kororāreka. Part of the bountiful Bay of Islands, Kororāreka was one of the many bustling settlements dotting the coastline along with a number of significant pā (fortified villages) guarding the bay.
Did you know? The Māori name Kororāreka comes from a broth made with little blue penguins (kororā) that was given to a wounded Māori chief. It is said that upon tasting the broth, he then spoke the words ‘ka reka ko kororā’ which means ‘how sweet is the penguin’.
When Captain Cook arrived in 1769, his reports of a rich and plentiful land led to an influx of international ships. This brought sailors, whalers and traders whose rowdy activities led to a lawless port.
However, it also brought with it the more respectable missionaries, who built the still-standing Anglican Christ Church in 1835.
When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Governor Hobson chose Okiato (which was just south of modern-day Russell) as the first capital of New Zealand. Over the years, Kororāreka adopted this name for its own as Russell’s major port.
Unfortunately, the relationship between a Māori faction and the colonial government soured in the years following the signing of the Treaty. This eventually lead to the Northern War, a major conflict that kicked off the New Zealand Wars.
Despite its tumultuous history, Russell is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Bay of Islands.
What to do in Russell
1. Climb Flagstaff Hill
If you’re up for a bit of a hike, you can’t miss the iconic Flagstaff Hill towards the north of Russell township.
There are two ways to get to the top. At low tide, you can access the Flagstaff Hill Loop Track from the northern end of The Strand. Alternatively, you can also continue up the narrow Wellington Street until you reach the high tide entrance to the track on the left.
Once you’ve walked through the dense forest, continue along Titore Way until you see a sign on the right pointing to the end of the track. Keep climbing to reach the summit of Flagstaff Hill summit (Te Maiki).
It is here that the flagpole was famously cut down four times in protest of British rule during the Northern War.
From the top of Flagstaff Hill, give yourself enough time to take in the stunning 360-degree panorama of the Bay of Islands. Crystal blue waters and endless rolling hills… it’s easy to see why this historic reserve was in such high demand!
2. Book dinner for two at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel
Book a romantic dinner at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, the very first establishment to ever hold a liquor license in New Zealand.
Not only does this iconic hotel offer some of the best waterfront views you could ask for in the Bay of Islands, its history and character will truly transport you back in time. Although the original building itself has been burned down twice, the third and current version was built in 1875.
This fine dining establishment is the perfect way to celebrate a special occasion. While they’re well-known for their incredible fish and chips, they also offer incredible seasonal menus that hero local ingredients with an elegant touch.
3. Buy some wall art
It would be incredibly hard to miss the exquisitely curated art boutiques that are scattered around the town. If you’ve got some money to burn and a list of people to buy gifts for, this is the perfect place to head.
Wander along Russell’s streets and discover hand-crafted jewelry, prints and paintings of dramatic landscapes, fascinating trinkets and plenty more.
With some incredible goodies and creative art unique to Russell, you won’t take long to find something to remember your trip by.
4. Look for musket ball holes
When you’re in Russell, you can’t miss a visit to the Christ Church, the oldest church in New Zealand that’s still in use.
This is the first building to be registered by Heritage New Zealand as a historic building and has seen famous visitors, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
You’ll find this iconic Anglican church at the beginning of the aptly named Church Street. However, look a little harder and you might even spot the musket ball holes in its walls from 1845.
5. Visit the press
Pompallier Mission and Printery was part of the Catholic mission in New Zealand, creating prayer books in te reo Māori which not only spread the religion but also helped develop literacy.
You can take a tour of the restored printing press with passionate and knowledgeable guides and find out more about how important the printery was during Russell’s early days.
Pompallier Mission also features the ever-popular French Coffee House, a charming establishment perfect for a spot of tea and a tasty French pastry… or two. This is your chance to relax by the peaceful waterfront or play a game of petanque on the lawn.
Make sure you also wander the nearby award-winning gardens. Lovingly curated in Victorian and Edwardian styles, these gardens are a lush wonderland with a trail out the back that leads to incredible views of Paihia and Waitangi.
6. Wander the pier
Though a visit to the pier probably won’t be the #1 thing you do in New Zealand, it’s still worth a quick wander while in town.
The pier is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset.
It’s also a popular spot for local fishermen and women. This means it’s also a great spot to chat to locals, so pop over and strike up a conversation with a friendly Kiwi.
How to get there to Russell
The adventure begins before you step into this charming town. With a population of fewer than 1,000 residents, Russell is just across the harbour from the larger township of Paihia.
It’s well-connected by ferries and roads (though it takes a lot longer to get there by road).
If you’re based at Paihia, head to Paihia Wharf and catch a passenger ferry which is a short 15-minute ride to Russell.
Car and passenger ferry
You can also bring your car via the vehicle ferry at Opua which operates throughout the day and at a reduced service in the evening. To get there from Auckland, follow State Highway 1 towards Cape Reinga until you reach Kawakawa then follow State Highway 11 to Opua. From there, you’ll catch the car/passenger ferry before continuing the drive to Russell.
If you’ve got time (and fuel) to spare, you can take the more coastal route using Old Russell Road. Turn off State Highway 1 at Whakapara where you can follow along the meandering coast and stop by the occasional scenic beach.
Tips for visiting Russell
It’s incredibly easy to catch the passenger ferries from Paihia to Russell and vice versa as they leave frequently from each port. If you’re catching the vehicle ferry, there’s no need to book and you can pay your fare on board. Just be careful not to miss the very last ferry service!
Most people who travel to Russell usually spend the day there and base themselves in Paihia, which is known as the gateway to the Bay of Islands. Find out about all the things to do in Paihia while you’re there.
Once you’ve enjoyed your quintessential fish and chips on the beach, head up north across the bridge to get to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This is the perfect place to brush up on your knowledge of New Zealand’s history and what made it the country it is today.
With plenty to do for the day there including two museums, a carving studio, a whare (meeting house), the largest waka (war canoe) in the world and more, we recommend saving at least two to three hours to spend here to make it worth it.
Of course, there are also the many incredible beaches and falls tucked away all throughout your journey as you explore the north of Aotearoa.
If you ever explore Russell and its many charming qualities, you’ll find it very hard to let go of the peaceful feeling it leaves in your heart and soul. So pack a pair of comfortable shoes and get ready for an unforgettable road trip!