Russell is a nice day trip from Paihia - just take the passenger ferry from the wharf
Russell is among the most popular destinations in the Bay of Islands, having a good share of lovely clime, interesting history and riveting entertainment, besides being a gastronome's delight.
Then and now
Being naturally a safe anchoring place for sea-farers, Kororareka, now known to the world as Russell, was inhabited chiefly by Maori till the early 19th century when it became known to the rest of the world. This area, being a hot-spot for whalers, frequently attracted whaling expeditions from Europe. The local Maori tribesmen, eager to trade for European goods, supplied them with food and timber. Soon enough, Russell started acquiring its share of European residents, mainly ex-convicts and the like. As was inevitable, the collection of the dregs of society, the influx of money through trade, peppered with trigger-happy thugs and general licentiousness, eventually led to utter anarchy, earning it the appalling appellation of \"Hell-hole of the Pacific\". The area surrounding Okiato, about 7 kilometres from Kororareka, was made the new capital and was named Russell in honour of the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord John Russell; but it was Kororareka which eventually came to be known as Russell. Russell was also put on the historical map in 1845 when Hone Heke, the Maori chief who famously felled the flag-staff carrying the Union Jack four times, plundered the township.
Today, in stark contrast to its fiery history, Russell is a placid little town of a population of about 1100 which caters to the needs of tourists, explorers and sailors. You can also walk to the famous flagpole (looking over to Paihia on the beach, turn right (walk along the beach at low tide), and uphill - you'll soon find it and while you're there catch some beautiful views over the bay.
The sub-tropical climate that the Bay of Islands enjoys is mild, even known locally as the 'winterless north'. That not only makes this an ideal destination for winters but also makes it a favourite haunt for weekenders. Summers are when outdoor recreations like fishing, swimming and boating render the place full of life and vigour. Spring and autumn see Russell at its unhurried best, with little or no crowd, clement weather and plenty of activities to indulge in. For swimming and gamefishing watch for the current to turn and bring warm water from the equator - the sea temperature goes up a few degrees in the space of a few days, and you can even see the change in colour of the sea from a high viewpoint.
Get an Eyeful of Sights
Among the elegant and historical buildings are Pompallier House, Christ Church, and the Shrine of St. Peter Chanel.
The Pompallier House, named after a Catholic missionary who established the first Roman Catholic mission in the town of Karorareka in 1838, housed the missions printing press. The original clay-mud-ash building was later renovated and remodelled in 1877, enclosing the original structure entirely, revealing the elegant piece of architecture seen today. It also houses tokens from the Pompallier, Callaghan and Greenway families, whaling activities and interesting early pictures of local panorama.
Christ Church is the oldest church in New Zealand, and has witnessed several historical events of the island. Not only was the proclamation of the Crown, announcing New Zealand to be a part of New South Wales, read out there in its capacity as the public hall, the Treaty of Waitangi was also signed across the bay. Serving the role of a courthouse, it hosted a sensational murder trial. Heke's attack on Russell saw the churchyard double as a battleground. It still sports scars of the battle, the cannon-ball hits, holes from musket balls etc.
Shrine of St.Peter Chanel, was erected in the memory of the Marist missionary who was martyred by natives in 1841.
Russell Museum houses those artefacts relating to the Maori/European aspect of the town's history, including a scaled model of the Endeavour, Captain Cook's ship. Also, the role of the town as a port of call for whaling ships is recorded through the articles that were in use by them.
Starting at the Ngaiotonga Saddle, the Russell walkway is planned to extend to Whangarei. The Scenic reserve includes a lot of native trees including the kauri, whose gum was a valuable commodity, and whose wood was exceptional for ship-building (many of the boats still on the water in the Bay are made from local kauri wood).
Long Beach, a sandy beach 800 m long, is located near Russell (head over the hill away from Paihia) and more suited for swimming than the town beach. A long usually quiet beach awaits you, keep exploring around the rocks for some good quiet fishing and snorkelling spots. There's also a kiwi reserve on Long Beach - around sunset you can sometimes hear their sharp short cheeps!
An interesting time of year around here is when the classic sailing regatta takes place - turn up early and you may get a ride as crew, and don't forget to buy your meal ticket at the yacht club - a really delicious hangi of local produce will be waiting for you after the races.
These days Russell is usually quiet from early in the evening, making it a good spot for couples or young families. Not always though - some of NZs biggest-name acts come through here to play in NZs oldest pub. If you're after more nightlife, head over to Paihia - passenger ferries run late, but check before you go.
For the Gourmet
This place is a food lover's delight. From fine dining in New Zealands first restaurant on the water-front, to DIY ingredients to fix up your picnic pack, the town has a sumptuous and varied range of edibles suiting all palates and all pockets. The French tradition of wine-making, first brought over by the missionaries with their wine stocks from France, continues to this day - get to know some locals and you'll probably get to know their homebrew! Otherwise try out the waterfront bars, some great sunsets await.
In all, Russell is a destination that can provide agreeable accommodation for tourists and nature explorers.