Kia ora: Russell

History was written here, writes Elisabeth Easther

The once notorious whaling base has evolved into a destination of considerable charm. Photo / Northern Advocate
The once notorious whaling base has evolved into a destination of considerable charm. Photo / Northern Advocate

Origin of name: Originally called Kororareka, which translates as "sweet little blue penguin", supposedly for a chief in the area who called for such a bird to be roasted for him as he lay dying. Later renamed Russell after Lord John Russell, secretary of state for the colonies and later Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Population: 816 (2006 census).

Where is it: In the Bay of Islands, about three and a half hours' drive from Auckland (232km) or 90 minutes from Whangarei.

The town slogan: In the 1800s it was "Hellhole of the Pacific". These days they prefer "Romantic Russell".

The town mascot: The Duke of Marlborough Hotel, historic icon.

Interesting historical fact: This place is bulging with history. Deborah Challinor's excellent novel Kitty begins there in 1839 and is like being transported.

A group of local actors regularly dress up and put on historical re-enactments of the wild times. Great fun. hellholerussell.com

Main employer: Tourism. Boating, B&Bs, hospitality, and all that stems from holidaymakers making holidays.

Source of pride: The colonial feel and historic origins. Also, if you need a volunteer, you'll find one in Russell. People here pull their weight.

Town competition: Russell Birdman (July 19-21) is held every year, is fruity fun and includes drag racing, as in people dressing up in clothes commonly worn by the other gender, and racing along the waterfront over obstacles and completing challenges. There are fishing competitions, a flower show, a jazz festival in August, a regatta at Labour Weekend and a country music festival. Russell rocks.

Best place to take the kids: Anywhere on the waterfront. Climb the pohutukawa, clamber on to the historic cannon, swim, fish, eat icecreams or fish and chips. Idyllic and safe.

Best place for a drink: The Duke of Marlborough. Not only is it beautiful, it was NZ's first hotel with a liquor licence.

Best food: The Gables is New Zealand's oldest restaurant (circa 1847) and one of the oldest buildings in Russell. Listed with the Historic Places Trust, it's been a bordello, a bakery, a Salvation Army boys' home, and once upon a time, a place for sailors to hide when they'd jumped ship. Now it's all about fine dining. Also, Sally's Restaurant on the waterfront for a warm family meal of home-cooked food. The RSA does really good seafood chowder. The Swordfish Club, one of the oldest in the country, is also highly regarded.

Most famous local(s): Internationally noted photographer Laurence Aberhart lives here, as does John Boulter, lead tenor in the BBC's Black and White Minstrel Show.

Best flat white: Kapai, excellent icecream, too.

Best local website: russellnz.co.nz

Best museum: Russell Museum is filled with taonga and exhibits telling the stories of Maori and Europeans. One marvel is the 1/5th scale replica of Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour. Pompallier Mission is also fascinating with its working printing press.

Best walk: Try the Cape Brett Track, The Russell Forest Walks or the islands of Moturua and Motuarohia (Roberton Island, of the famous massacre) if you're feeling frisky. Urupukapuka Island is awesome. Russell is the base for the Bay of Islands Walking Festival with good reason. boiwalkingweekend.co.nz (first weekend in October).

Best view: Flagstaff Hill, it's a nice walk up there too. And Tapeka Point is a heavenly bay that even the meanest soul will sigh over.

Best place to pull over: Come in past Christ Church, stop the car, check out the musket holes in the church. Fascinating gravestones: whalers, sailors, every stone a story.

Best playground: The waterfront. Kids can play, while parents sit, drink and eat, and watch the little ones frolic.

Here for a short time: Definitely grab a drink at The Duke. Grab some fish 'n' chips from The Crusty Crab and eat them on the beach. Pompallier Mission is also a must.

Best-kept secret: Long Beach, just 15 minutes' walk from Russell or two minutes by car. The water's so clear and the sand so white, it's paradise. Adding to the pleasure, in summer, there's a crepe and coffee cart.

Fabulous wildlife: Dolphins come right up to the beach, there are kiwi in the bush and glow-worms.

When a local has visitors from abroad: They take them on the R Tucker Thompson. It's like a tall ship from a picture book with its billowing sails, rigging and elegant lines. tucker.co.nz. All water sports are huge round here and there are loads of charters to choose from. Kayaking is also popular.

Safety warnings: Russell used to be dangerous, it isn't anymore.

Locals say: Russell's still the capital of NZ.

Visitors say: Visiting Russell was a capital idea.

- NZ Herald

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