The Bay of Islands is often associated with outdoorsy pursuits: fishing, swimming, boating and diving. But with sunshine, seafood, sea views and local wine on tap, Russell is the perfect summer escape - even if your tastes run more to the culinary than the outdoorsy pastimes.
We have visited this small Northland town a few times over the past couple of years, but always for a day trip rather than a weekend. We decided to take the opportunity this time to stay at the Duke of Marlborough - a historic pub with the country's oldest licence - and I am glad we did.
Right across the road from the water, a lot of its rooms have amazing views. All are gorgeously decorated and there is something really magical about traipsing up a sweeping flight of stairs that has been host to the drunken footsteps of patrons for more than 150 years.
We would usually content ourselves with lunch on the Duke's front deck, looking out to the sea for the frequent sight of dolphins in the wake of a passing ferry. But this time, because there was a festival on, we decided to venture a bit further down the road. This is a compact town - roughly two main streets lined with shops, restaurants, bars and even a day spa in an historic old building.
It was the start of the local oyster season and the locals were marking the occasion with wine, oysters (even a shucking competition) and music. Though not as famous as their Bluff cousins, Kororareka oysters are no less delicious - and there a lot of people extremely passionate about their local shellfish.
Ben's Oysters, from Paihia, have some of the standouts available in the Bay. Local oysters are grown in farms right around the region and are said to be at their fattest in spring. We tried some of Ben's raw with lemon and salt and a dash of Tabasco. These were big, fleshy things that went down perfectly with a glass of local wine as we sat on the grass verge next to the sea.
Even the Tongan rugby team, in town as part of their New Zealand World Cup travels, dropped in - probably helping increase the two-dozen per person oyster average recorded for the festival.
I also took the chance to try some local olive oil and ingratiate myself with the owners of the only vineyard on the Russell side of the Bay of Islands - Omata Estate. The group of young people running this relatively new vineyard were clearly passionate about their work. I was even convinced to try their premium chardonnay and told that it is a "converter" - known for changing the minds of people who do not think themselves chardonnay drinkers. Omata offers tastings at the cellar door.
A wander around the township is always fun - there are some excellent antique shops, a great icecream shop, a couple of boutique clothes shops, an art gallery and historic buildings that are the only reminders left that this was once known as the hell hole of the South Pacific. Like hundreds of kids before them, children bored with the oyster festival were sticking their fingers in the bullet holes in the walls of the Christ Church - a vivid reminder of the shootout between the crew of the HMS Hazard and a Maori battalion.
We had dinner at Kamakura (now known as The Wharf, but with the same chef and owners) watching the last of the sun set on the water. We had never visited this restaurant before but were impressed by the menu, ordering starters of Szechuan soft shell crab and oysters from Orango Bay. We moved on to a main of venison kasundi and a Mediterranean free range chicken with tomato, paprika and saffron ragout with lemon and mint couscous. I can never go past a cheese platter so we also devoured a chef's cheese plate with a blue, brie and cheddar served up with spiced pear and fig chutney, before wandering back to the Duke.
We woke in the morning to what was probably the highlight of our weekend: Breakfast on the deck at the Duke.
I am not usually a morning person so I was outraged when my partner declared that I had to get up, but when I made my way down to the restaurant I could see why. The sun comes in at a perfect angle, lighting up the wood panelling and recesses of the bar with early morning rays. It was really magical to sit in the morning sunshine, cup of coffee in hand, and watch the town come to life.
About three hours' drive from Auckland, Russell is the ideal place for a great weekend getaway.
Russell is three hours' drive (242km) from Auckland.
On the way: Stop in for a coffee at Whangarei's newly refurbished Town Basin.