Northland Stories and Tips

Entry 3 - Russell, The Bay of Islands

The Duke of Marlborough, Russell Photo, Northland, New Zealand

On our second day in the Bay of Islands we drove around to Opua and took the car ferry across to Okiato and Russell. The ferry may cost $12 ($10 per car and driver and $2 per passenger) each way but it is definitely much quicker than driving around the country roads to Russell.

First stop once we hit the other side is Okiato which was the site of the first capital of New Zealand – Russell was thought to be too unsavoury at the time and was often called "the hell hole of the Pacific". We followed the sign posts to the location and nothing but grass, a small pile of stones, fencing and signage - Note - do not expect a building of any kind when you reach the site, the site is now a historic reserve with an old well that has been fenced off. There is some signage dotted around at points of interest to inform the visitor of what used to be located in particular areas – nice location though, great for a spot of lunch or to let the kids out for a run.

From Okiato we followed the main road around to Russell where we parked the car and found a lovely café, called the Waterfront Café, on the water front to have some morning tea – a large coffee each, one large slice of lemon meringue pie and one large slice of cheesecake, all with cream no less – not for the faint hearted or anyone on a diet.

We continued down the road, on foot (Russell’s small enough and flat enough for that) and stopped off at an interesting little art gallery/shop, located in the same building as the Russell Museum (the gallery is on the water side and the Museum is on the main street side of the building), selling Artworks by Maori Artists before heading to Pompallier House. Russell has a number of galleries and shops that all appear to have unique and different items.

Next stop was to the Pompallier Mission House -

Wow, this place was really interesting – I kept thinking it was just going to be another museum like all the rest but, boy, was I wrong. The Pompallier Mission House was built in 1841 after the Mission was established by Bishop Pompallier and it has been fully restored to its original layout.

Back in the day it was a working printery – used to print bibles in English and, most importantly, in Maori - with everything manufactured on site from the process and tanning of the leather, for the covers of the bibles, to the printing and assembling of the books. What’s more they have now restored it to a fully functioning printery again with some of the products available at the small gift shop.

The price of admission includes a full guided tour of the joint and it is worth it. The guide will take you through every process the Mission fathers and other helpers would have undertaken to produce the bibles – the process of working the leather, the process of setting up the texts, etc., for printing, the process of binding and covering the books and there is a very interesting explanation on how the walls were constructed.

After the guided tour you can stroll around the Mission museum - a narrow room at the rear of the house which has displays of various items found around the local area - and the surrounding grounds which includes a small orchard and a small uphill track to the top of the property.

Then it was on to the Christ Church - Te Whare Karakia o Kororāreka -

The Christ Church is the oldest existing church in New Zealand and has been kept in excellent condition. Building of the church started in 1835 and the first service was held in 1836. The services were carried out in both Māori and English and probably still are to this day.

I loved the colourful, decorative cushions that are placed on all the pews. Apparently musket bullet holes can still be found in the walls in certain locations. It was also great to stroll around the surrounding graves – some of them date way back and there’s an interesting one from ship sinking, during the wars with the Maori’s.

Then it was time for a lunch/afternoon snack at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel -

We’d stopped to ask a shop owner if they could suggest somewhere to have a late lunch/early dinner and they suggested ‘The Duke’ as well as a couple of other places. We choose ‘The Duke’ and they were spot on – no-one better than locals to know where good food can be found.

Located on the waterfront the current Duke of Marlborough Hotel sits on the site of the very first Duke of Marlborough Hotel – the current building is the fourth on the site, apparently due to fires – during the Maori wars and raids most of Russell was burnt to the ground with the exception of the Mission. The first Duke of Marlborough Hotel was the first licensed establishment in New Zealand. In 1840 all hotels selling alcohol had to have liquor licenses. According to the waitress a small part of the original building remains.

The Hotel has a lovely warm feeling as soon as you walk through the doors, and that’s not just from the warm sunshine pouring through the windows. As most of the latest building appears to date back to the early 1900’s, or so, they have furnished the dining and bar areas to match that period in time. I particularly liked are the old photographs and curios hanging from the walls.

For lunch we ordered two large coffees and the sea food and meat platter which included battered fish fillets (fresh), calamari, salmon, beef, pork, bacon, dipping sauces, olives, a bit if salad, bread and cheese – the plate was huge, this was more than enough for the two of us, and it only cost $65.

We were even cheeky enough to ask if we could take a look at some of the accommodation that was available – very nice, with an assortment of rooms at varying prices depending on the season – some with water views (most expensive), some with little roof top gardens (middle range pricing) and the cheapest with a window overlooking the neighbours.

Last stop for the day was Flagstaff Hill –

Flagstaff Hill is located on Maiki Hill, just east of Russell, and we decided to drive it as it was getting late and dusk was setting in. The flagstaff was cut down a number of times, by the Maori if memory serves me well, in 1844 - 1845. Apparently it flies New Zealand’s original flag a number of days during the year.

Am I glad we made the effort to go up there – the views of the entire area are just fantastic with an also 360 degree outlook over the area – Russell, the Pacific Ocean, The Bay of Islands, Paihia, etc. - and at sunset it is just amazing – simply beautiful.

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