An afternoon in Russell, Bay of Islands

I get such a kick out of the fact that Russell was formerly known as the ‘hell hole of the Pacific.’

I’m sure its unsavoury past fully justified the label, but it’s just so incongruous with the quaint, historic port town as it stands today!

I enjoyed my first visit so much that I jumped at the chance to hop on the ferry and head back to Russell when we returned to Northland last December.

Summer in December

Ferry view - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

With summer-in-December fully in swing (I’m still not quite used to the seasons in the southern hemisphere!), we were lucky enough to have immaculate weather for the duration of our Northland trip.

There’s something extraordinarily vivid about the colours in Bay of Islands. On this trip it was almost as though the sea and sky were competing for the ‘most astonishing shade of blue’ award.

While Ben was off visiting a railway, I took the ferry across from Paihia. There are a few different boats that do the crossing – tickets cost 12NZD return for adults.

View from the ferry - Russell - Bay of Islands, New ZealandKororareka Bay from ferry - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The view of Russell as the harbour pulls into view is so picturesque. Shallow water dotted with boats and a sweep of flaming pohutukawa trees extending along the coast…

Fun fact: Pohutukawa trees are known as New Zealand Christmas Trees here due to their festive crimson flowers.

Sweet penguin(?)

Welcome to Kororareka - Russell - Bay of Islands, New ZealandPier - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The maori name for Russell, Kororāreka, means ‘sweet penguin’, which I initially thought was a spectacular name. After all, who could argue that penguins are cute and adorable? Imagine my disappointment when I realised it actually means sweet-tasting penguin. (Legend has it a wounded chief requested some penguin broth and, presumably happy with the dish, remarked “how sweet is the penguin”. I guess the name stuck?)

On disembarking, you’re greeted by the pretty wooden sign above, which features the (poor) eponymous korora, or blue penguin.

You can just see the sails of the R. Tucker Thompson tall ship at anchor at the far end of the pier. Our time aboard was my favourite thing we did in Bay of Islands during our last visit, check out my account of that here, if you haven’t already!

Things to do in Russell

Pohutukawa aka New Zealand Christmas Trees - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The town is so small that there are really only three key things to see, as far as I can tell:

  1. Pompalier Mission and Printing Museum
  2. Christ Church (the oldest church in New Zealand)
  3. Russell Museum

Kororareka Bay - Russell - Bay of Islands, New ZealandThe Strand - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I’d checked off the Pompalier Mission last time, so this trip was all about Christ Church and Russell Museum. I couldn’t resist returning to The Strand, though – the road along the foreshore where the Pompalier Mission is located is so scenic, sandwiched between the deep blues of the bay and quaint, whitewashed cafés and restaurants..

The oldest church in New Zealand

Christ Church - The oldest church in New Zealand - Russell - Bay of Islands, New ZealandChrist Church - The oldest church in New Zealand - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The streets further inland aren’t quite so charming as the front, but they’re much quieter. Upon arrival at Christ Church I was fortunate enough to have the building and its grounds entirely to myself.

I’m an atheist, but am fond of religious history, art and architecture. The building was pretty unassuming as churches go: white clapboard, modest size, set amongst rows of gravestones and rosebushes. It’s exactly what you’d imagine an early settler church to be. Even though I didn’t spend too much time, it was worthwhile to see something so tied up with the history of the area.

York Street

York Street - Russell - Bay of Islands, New ZealandBlossom - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I took a quick stroll down York Street, parallel to the harbour, before making my way to the museum. There were a handful of shops to be found here, but my favourite thing by far was all the blossom on display! I don’t know what the tree above is, but its lilac-coloured blossom was so pretty. (Mystery solved: it’s a Jacaranda! Thanks Courtney 😀 )

Russell Museum

Russell Museum - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Entry: 10NZD

Unfortunately photography wasn’t permitted inside. It’s pretty small, which you’d expect with a local museum. There’s one main gallery with a couple of smaller rooms attached: one containing a one fifth scale model of Cook’s Endeavour, the other showing a terrific 13 minute video on the history of the town.

The collection encompasses quite a diverse array of items, covering the history of early Polynesian settlers, artefacts from whaling, war memorabilia and domestic life (postcards, books etc.). There are also some interesting medical pieces from Samuel Ford, New Zealand’s first resident surgeon and Russell’s doctor.

Over to you

Lemonade Ice Lolly - Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Have you been to Russell? Are you tempted by tranquil, historic spots like this or do you prefer places with a faster pace of life? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Enjoyed the post?
Pin the image below!
Russell - Bay of Islands, New Zealand


Linking up with:

Lauren, Van, Isabel and Marcella for Wanderful Wednesday.

Katy, Erin and Clare for Faraway Files.

Sarah, KarenLisa and Claire for Monday Escapes.

36 thoughts on “An afternoon in Russell, Bay of Islands

    1. Lorna Post author

      Awesome! It’s always fun to find places that you feel a connection to – I’m really keen to visit the Firth of Lorn in Scotland for that exact reason 😀

  1. Ruth | Tanama Tales

    Well, the former name of the place is not that attractive bur I am sure it was a big surprise to those who had the courage to visit. Ahh, I really like places like this. I am so into cute and charming islands. #WednesdayWanderlust

    1. Lorna Post author

      Same – cute and charming has me hooked every time! Yeah it was a rather unpleasant place back in the 19th century, but thankfully once the whaling industry moved out it turned into somewhere really lovely. 🙂

    1. Lorna Post author

      Same, it’s so small I don’t think it’s a particularly well-known destination. Which is possibly part of the attraction for me, come to think of it! 🙂

  2. Erin Gustafson

    No this place is RIGHT UP my alley. Quaint? Cute? Nature? Seaside? Check check check and check! Looks like perfection to me! Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin

  3. Katy Clarke

    I adore jacarandas too! I love the Bay of Islands but have never been to Russell. What a picture perfect town. I think I could spend an afternoon hanging out on the pier #FarawayFiles

  4. Lauren Bonheim

    For some reason your pictures aren’t loading (my WIFI is feeling testy today), but they way you describe this place is lovely. Sounds incredibly beautiful! Would love to get a look at that blue water 😀

    1. Lorna Post author

      Aw, sorry to hear that Lauren! The compromise between image size/quality and loading time is such a tricky one – I’m 100% guilty of erring on the side of quality and uploading rather hefty files! In the hopes that it loads better, here’s a miniature version of one of the photos, to give you an idea:

    1. Lorna Post author

      Thank you so much for your kind comment, Nano. 😀 I hope you have an incredible time here in NZ! Where are you headed?

  5. Olivia

    I’m a kiwi and whilst I’m not from Russell, it’s definitely my favourite place in NZ.
    If you’re ever there again you should 100% head up the hill behind Russell and have a look at the flagstaff, there’s a lot of history with a clash between Maori and European settlers which involved the flagstaff being cut down and resurrected multiple times. Also if you look closely when visiting the church there are bullet holes from the clashes as well. And lastly Long Beach over the hill from the main beach of Russell is beautiful also 🙂 (sorry for the long comment :P)

    1. Lorna Post author

      Thanks so much for your recommendations, Olivia! I remember learning about the flagstaff and its multiple iterations, but I never did get to see it. What else would make your list of favourite places in NZ? I always love to get travel advice from locals. 😀

      1. Olivia Holt

        Hi Lorna,
        I would also recomend Opononi (It’s small and there isn’t a lot of touristy stuff there but it has some cool history about a dolphin that was friends with the locals)
        Also Puheke beach which is on the Karikari peninsula is the most amazing beach I have seen in my travels here, it was also another hot spot for dolphins 🙂
        And one last recommendation is Great Barrier Island which is about a 3hr boat ride out from Auckland (There is a ferry that goes across, which may take longer). There’s a day walk on the island that goes to the highest point (Mt Hobson). It’s long and there’s an excessive amount of stairs but reaching the top is 100% worth it 🙂
        I haven’t had the chance to travel the South Island yet, and I’m a massive fan of boating and the ocean, so my recommendations are biased towards the water, but there’s lots more to see and do that I’ve left out in hopes to keep the list short 😛
        But any chance you get in New Zealand to see somewhere, no mater how small take it, it’s all worth it 🙂

        1. Lorna Post author

          I loved reading your recommendations, none of which I’ve visited! Definitely taking notes for future travels 😀

          We just spent a wonderful 3 weeks travelling around the South Island for Christmas, something we’ve been wanting to do for such a long time. I’m 100% with you about seizing any and all opportunities to explore this gorgeous country, even if only on shorter trips. It’s one of my resolutions for 2019 for sure. And I can only imagine how much better it would be to experience coastal areas with boating skills, or even just kayaking skills – I’m a complete weakling! Another resolution: get fitter for walking and kayaking purposes. 😅


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *