Bay of Islands: Winging it in Russell

The sky is the limit as a Northland town turns on the charm for a winter festival, writes Elisabeth Easther.
Russell Birdman competitors. Photo / Stephen Western
Russell Birdman competitors. Photo / Stephen Western

The rustle of spring has well and truly passed, but the Russell of winter is just kicking off.

Not only is this pretty little town one of New Zealand's most enchanting holiday destinations, famous for sweet bays, historic cottages and a church pock-marked with bullets, it is also home to a bunch of festivals that focus on food, jazz and walking, even bath tub racing.

The famous Birdman event hits these shores in July. As its name suggests, this fruity fiesta features imaginatively costumed locals hurling themselves off the wharf and into the sea.

Last year a fellow dressed as Baked Bean Man (complete with rear flare of orange gas) gave himself a good dunking to the delight of us all.

There was also a gang of Elvis impersonators, led by ardent Elvis fan Riki, from the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. They danced and sang their way into the briny ocean, followed soon after by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Batman.

A dancer from Canada drew loud cheers, a ninja from Japan (followed by a television crew) confounded us all. The kids were fond of Bumble Bee, the robotic Transformer whose suit was possibly the most impressive.

Aside from entertaining the crowds from the pier, entrants were also very seriously aiming for the longest flight - although it has to be said no one ever managed to defy gravity.

The festival is also determined to give everyone the old fashioned fun of the fair: throwing eggs, having our faces painted or, if you fancy (we didn't), entering the spaghetti eating competition and having your face painted in sauce. Entrants knelt as if in prayer to gobble up bowls of Watties' finest without using their hands.

We liked that the younger visitors were all encouraged to join the beach dig, searching for treasures in the sand as, thanks to the local Four Square, every single digger won a prize. And if all that wasn't enough, New Zealand's favourite pirate entertainer, Festus McBoyle, was also on hand, performing his nautical routine.

The local theatre troupe, decked out in period costumes, also kept us amused along with the popular Russell Ukulele Orchestra who strummed up a storm - giving us all a glimpse into what rowdy Russell might've been like back in the day when it was known as the Hellhole of the Pacific.

I'm not overly competitive but I had to give the dinghy race a crack. Be warned, it's harder than it looks. And this year the organisers have arranged a new angle (sorry) - a kids' fishing competition off the wharf on the Sunday.

The sight of all these wannabe birds hurling themselves into the water made us want to test our own wings. I recommend people pop over the bay to Paihia to give parasailing a go with the team from Flying Kiwi Parasail - this uplifting adventure is guaranteed to make you smile.

Strapped in securely, we floated up ever so gently from the back of the boat and it's just astoundingly peaceful. Suspended in space, being pulled behind the boat, we could go as high as 1200 feet above sea level. I'm told this makes this the country's highest parasailing outfit. From my viewpoint, soaring like a bird, the islands and sea were reduced to splashes of blue and green.

It's not at all scary. Holding hands, my son and I marvelled at being up so high. For some days afterwards we both enjoyed the most magnificent flying dreams and I have since fantasised about parasailing Cook and Foveaux straits.

It's so much fun I'd travel half way round the world by parasail if it was an option.

But don't just take my word for it, pop along for yourself and see what all the fuss is about - the Birdman Festival has plenty to crow about.

NEED TO KNOW

Russell Birdman: This year, the fruity fiesta hits these shores from July 11 to 13. Whether you're leaping off the wharf, lying on the beach cheering, fishing or digging up the beach looking for treasure, you'll find something here to tickle your fancy.

For Birdman jump priority viewing on Saturday take Darryl's Lunch Cruise. Fullers have a three-day ferry "ticket to ride" between Russell and Paihia for only $15 per person over Birdman weekend.

Accommodation: The heavenly Duke of Marlborough hotel has sumptuous suites for romantic getaways and more modest rooms for the budget-conscious traveller.

With chandeliers and harpoons for decorations and wallpaper to make William Morris green with envy, this historic hideaway is delightful.

If modern apartment living is more your style, try the Waterfront Suites, Heritage Hotel's boutique suites a ferry ride away at Paihia.

The luxury suites have terrific sea views from their balconies, full kitchens and a barbecue area if you want to do your own cooking.

Flying Kiwi Parasail: If getting high is on your agenda, this is what you need to do. The team at Flying Kiwi put safety first, only problem is, you'll never want to come down.

En route:

On your way north, stop off at Kawakawa or make the drive up to Kerikeri.

DIRECTIONS

Elisabeth was a guest of Blah Blah Marketing and Events.

- NZ Herald

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