Russell: Northern lights

By Susan Edmunds

History is served up with gorgeous scenery and great food on a road trip to Russell.

Russell's Duke of Marlborough Hotel opened in 1827. Photo / Supplied
Russell's Duke of Marlborough Hotel opened in 1827. Photo / Supplied

There are few better ways to take a lesson in New Zealand history than sitting next to a beautiful harbour, wine glass in hand, picking at a plate of tender calamari.

We were drawn to Russell, New Zealand's first capital, on Sunday by the promise of lunch at the waterfront Duke of Marlborough Hotel and my desire to check out some of the most historic places in the country.

The drive takes about an hour from Whangarei, through typical little Northland towns such as Hikurangi and Hukerenui, to the Bay of Islands.

We got to the ferry wharf in Opua just before midday. Car ferries do the 10-minute trip across the water all day, until about 10pm. Once on the other side, it's a short drive into the township of Russell, or Kororareka.

We bundled out of the car and made a beeline for the Duke of Marlborough. The pub opened in 1827 and claims to have the oldest alcohol licence in the country. It's had a few renovations, including the deck with superb views across to Waitangi, but it's much as it would have been over 150 years ago.

With the fire blazing, chandeliers hanging from high ceilings and lots of wood panelling, it was hard to imagine many places more tempting for a winter lunch. We ordered drinks and settled in next to the window, watching the boats shift on their moorings.

After a warming and tasty lunch, we ventured out for a walk around Russell.

One of the most famous local landmarks is the Christ Church. It's the country's oldest church, built in 1836, and reportedly the oldest building still used for its original purpose. Charles Darwin was among those who made donations to have it built, hoping to bring some religion to the "hell hole of the Pacific".

Five or six eerie bullet holes right through the weatherboard are the result of anti-government Maori forces clashing with about 45 crew members from the the HMS Hazard in 1845.

We finished off our mini-tour with a walk up Flagstaff Hill, another site of early unrest. It's here that Hone Heke took to the famous flagpole three times in his efforts to chop it down (reinforcing means modern-day protesters can't follow his example). There are lots of tracks to the top and amazing views over the Bay of Islands.

Late afternoon, we took the ferry back through Opua and headed to Whangarei, stopping for a drink at the charming Hukerenui pub on the way.


Getting there: Russell is 85km from Whangarei if you take the road all the way - driving to Opua and taking the car ferry across takes about 15 minutes off the trip.

Where to stay: The Duke of Marlborough Hotel is at 35 The Strand, Russell, phone (09) 403 7829. Restaurant opens at 12pm, dinner served from 5pm. Accommodation available.

Further information: Christ Church - To Whare Karakia o Kororareka, is at 1-3 Church St, Russell. Sunday services are at 10am.

- NZ Herald

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