When I arrived in New Zealand and people started recommending the Bay of Islands region, I thought how good could it be? Well, the Bay of Islands definitely earns its reputation. It is a stunningly beautiful region boasting a magnificent coastline that has picture perfect views around almost every turn.
Russell, which was formerly known as Kororareka, was the first permanent European settlement and sea port in New Zealand. The town has a fascinating history, being the place where the Maori and Eurpopean’s traded. The Maori were keen to trade with the Europeans, timber and food for firearms, alcohol and other items of European manufacture. Like many frontier towns around the world Russell earned a very bad reputation, a community without laws and full of prostitution, and became known as the “Hell Hole of the Pacific”. European law had no influence and Māori law was seldom enforced within the town’s area. When the colony of New Zealand was to be founded the Governor, Hobson, was reluctant to have Kororareka as the capital, mainly due to the bad reputation. Instead he settled in Okiato, which was eventually moved to Auckland.
Across the Kororareka Bay is Waitangi. The site where the treaty of Waitangi was signed. This is the founding document of the NEw Zealand nation.
Today Russell is a mix of cafe’s, restaurants & art shops, with a large amount of holiday houses which are perfect for a weekend retreat. The Duke of Marlborough Hotel is situated in town and boasts being the first licensed premises in New Zealand. It is a great spot for dinner, I recommend out on the deck, overlooking the beach & wharf. A couple of doors up from here The Wharf cafe is a good spot for coffee & breakfast.
Another great spot to visit is Helena Bay. Admittedly, it is about an hours drive out of Russell, but the food at the cafe & art store is absolutely worth the drive. I must add here that the art I have seen in the entire region is not really to my taste. In my view it is very much mass produced and aimed at the tourists that swell the population in the summer months, with the price tag to match.
However, it is hard not to relax in Russell, there is not much else to do. There are great walks along the water. I would recommend the Tapeka heads walk, which is about an hour round trip, which has amazing views over the Bay and its islands. (For pics from this walk see Tapeka Beach).
Russell is about a three and a half hour drive from Auckland, over the Opua car ferry. We are already talking about going back!