New Zealand’s oldest European settlement, Russell has a sleepy tranquillity that belies its tumultuous past. A picture-perfect seaside town it is situated on a peninsula across the bay from Paihia and can be reached by road, passenger ferry or car ferry.
Russell, or Kororareka as it is also known, was an established Māori settlement long before Captain Cook arrived in 1769. It’s said to have gained its name when a wounded chief asked for penguin soup and upon tasting the broth, said ‘Ka reka ko korora’ (how sweet is the penguin).
In the early 1800s European and American ships trading with the local iwi (tribes). Russell offered a safe anchorage, and quickly became a popular port of call for sailors, whalers and traders – as well as deserting seamen, runaway convicts, grog sellers and prostitutes. In no time the small harbour had been transformed into a lawless and bawdy port, known as the ‘Hell hole of the Pacific’.
As befits the town’s image, it was a Russell tavern, the Duke of Marlborough, that received New Zealand’s first ever liquor licence in the 1840s; it still hangs over the bar today. Some missionaries dared to venture into this vulgar place – Christ Church, the country’s oldest surviving church, was built there in 1835, and the Marist society led by Bishop Pompallier set up their headquarters in 1839.
After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Governor Hobson chose Okiato, just to the south, as New Zealand’s first capital. He renamed it Russell after Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time. A year later Hobson changed his mind and made Auckland the capital. Over the years Kororareka, as Russell’s port, adopted the name in its stead.
Russell is easily reached by ferry – catch one from the Paihia wharf and cruise across the Bay to explore the township. The Russell mini-tour is a great way to get an overview of the key attractions. Delve further into the town’s history at the Russell Museum, or wander around Christ Church, reading the fascinating gravestones in the cemetery outside. Visit Pompallier House, an architecturally unique built as a printing house and tannery by the Catholic mission.
Go fishing off the wharf, enjoy a swim in Kororareka Bay or climb over the hill to Oneroa (Long Beach) or Tapeka Point. Bicycles and boats are available for hire, or charter a boat for a fishing or sailing expedition.
If you have the time and energy, seeing Russell and its surrounds on foot is a great way to go. Wander up Flagstaff Hill to see the famous flagpole, complete one of Russell’s several heritage trails or do the Coastal Walk from Russell to Okiato. Find out more about Bay of Islands walks.