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
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.
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…
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
The town is so small that there are really only three key things to see, as far as I can tell:
- Pompalier Mission and Printing Museum
- Christ Church (the oldest church in New Zealand)
- Russell Museum
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
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.
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 😀 )
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
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!
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