Russell: It's a top town

Elisabeth Easther finds New Zealand's former capital is still a capital place.

Once dubbed the Hellhole of the Pacific, the historic township of Russell offers plenty to see and do, from picturesque walks to museum visits.
Once dubbed the Hellhole of the Pacific, the historic township of Russell offers plenty to see and do, from picturesque walks to museum visits.

One of New Zealand's most enchanting holiday destinations, Russell is famous for its plethora of sweet bays, pretty little cottages and a bullet-riddled church. But it has its share of quirky festivals, too.

Sailing into Russell from Opua aboard our good ship Kuga (on the car ferry) we found we were just in time for the colourful Birdman Festival. Imaginatively dressed loonies hurl themselves off the wharf. Baked Bean Man (complete with rear flare of orange gas) was a particular crowd-pleaser, ditto the squadron of Elvis impersonators.

Even without a special event, the region will keep you occupied for as long as you care to stay; we've already earmarked Russell's other festivals that celebrate food, jazz and walking (see below).

Our base for the weekend was a super-comfortable three-bedroom home in Tapeka Bay, the picturesque pair of coves with million-dollar views around from Russell. No shops, no distractions, just plain paradise with pohutukawa for climbing and rocks for pottering.

Kayakers and boaties also love it here, and I am told that fans of geocaching will want to keep their devices handy.

It would have been tempting to never leave the bay, in favour of the old-fashioned fun the children made for themselves, but the prospect of a dolphin encounter was too much to resist. Explore NZ's Dolphin Discovery cruise is a wonderful jaunt. While on it we learned that the Bay of Islands comprises approximately 144 islands, which made us ask the obvious: what, officially, is an island? Apparently, to qualify for island status, a landmass needs to have grass, trees or vegetation. Lesson learned.

Barely 30 minutes out of Russell we found dolphins, a huge pod of them frolicking and turning it on for the tourists. I tried to keep my squeals in check, but it was almost impossible to stay silent. Dolphins, like fireworks, make most people spontaneously exclaim.

There was more to this outing than cetaceans, as soon we were ploughing past shearwaters, shags and gannets, with their pretty yellow bonnets - good times for bird nerds here. But the thing that made our cheeks ache most from smiling was the seagull that hovered above our heads, matching our boat's cruising speed, taking little pieces of potato chip from our fingers. He looked more like a floating puppet than a real-life wild creature.

We entered an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, briefly, admiring two magical properties on the privately owned Moturua Island. Talk about paradise - tan sand, verdant bush, even a flagpole. The skipper and crew provided excellent commentary - I had no idea rats can swim up to 3km, which makes predator control an ongoing issue on these island sanctuaries.

The Cape Brett Lighthouse also tickled our fancies; you can walk there and stay at the DoC cottage or take a water taxi or your own boat if you prefer. Seeing this dwelling clinging to the barren rocks, it's hard to believe that one of the lighthouse keepers brought up 15 kids on the side of that cliff, and grew most of their own food there, too.

Back on land, keen to learn more, we took a turn around the Russell Museum. We were particularly taken with the one-fifth scale replica of Captain Cook's ship Endeavour. It's staggering how tiny the real thing must have been, when you think of the voyages it undertook. Christ Church, over the road from the museum, is not only New Zealand's oldest church it's also the country's only house of worship to boast bullet holes in the woodwork. The embroidered kneelers also took our fancies, with their avian and nautical themes.

We had barely any time left to goggle at the gift shops and daydream in front of the real estate agents' windows, enjoy icecreams or fish 'n' chips on the seafront.

It's funny to think that Russell used to be known as the Hellhole of the Pacific, because today it's nothing but a slice of heaven.

Bay of Islands Walking Weekend

Discover the beauty of the Bay of Islands on foot in the inaugural Bay of Islands Walking Weekend October 4 to 6. Choose from 22 walks, some including trips out to the Bay's islands.

Weekend has one prize package for two people worth more than $600 to give away. Stay two nights at Russell's iconic Duke of Marlborough hotel (includes continental breakfast), join the gentle four-hour guided Romance Walk to Long Beach and a shorter evening Kiwi Walk. Enjoy a picnic on Long Beach on the Romance Walk, before strolling back along the beach to Russell for a drink at Russell Boating Club alongside Matauwhi Bay. The Kiwi Walk is through native bush with glow worms, native fish and tui - hope and pray you see or hear rare North Island brown kiwi or North Island weka. Take a trip for two on Explore NZ's Discover the Bay "Hole in the Rock" cruise.

Visit boiwalkingweekend.co.nz for more walks and events.

To enter, go to nzherald.co.nz/weekend, enter your details and key words Bay of Islands Walking by midnight Wednesday September 25.

Need to know:

Tapeka Point Holiday Home: holidayhouses.co.nz/properties/2179.asp or call (09) 4037113 to book.
Dolphin Discovery Cruise - Explore NZ: explorenz.co.nz/Dolphin-Discoveries
Russell Museum: russellmuseum.org.nz
The Bay of Islands Walking Weekend: boiwalkingweekend.co.nz. From October 4-6.
Ford Kuga: We did enjoy test driving the Kuga, a four-wheel drive with more bells, whistles and room than any car I've tried. But the thing we loved most was that it cost less than $50 in diesel to fuel our 760km-plus road trip.

Elisabeth and her family were guests of Blah Blah Marketing and Ford.

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