Rachel Grunwell

Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Romantic Russell delivers on all its promises

Rachel Grunwell finds plenty to keep her busy on a weekend in Russell.
Russell has come a long way from its days in the 1800s as the 'Hellhole of the Pacific'.
Russell has come a long way from its days in the 1800s as the 'Hellhole of the Pacific'.

Perusing the Herald's property sections, Cindy Pagel would often remark to her husband Al they should check out Russell because "the place looks like paradise".

When they finally arrived at this seaside spot in the Bay of Islands, it lived up to those idyllic-looking photographs and "romantic Russell" (as Al calls it) stole their hearts.

They bought a place on a lush green hillside, overlooking endless sky, sea and pretty little moored boats.

"It's one of the most idyllic locations imaginable," raves American-born Cindy, who has also lived in Mexico and Gisborne, but claims she will only ever leave this place "in an urn".

The Pagels' Russell pad is also a north-facing and sheltered waterfront location that is perfect for running their Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) business, Blue Penguin SUP. One of Cindy's favourite daily activities is to paddle to the Russell village for an espresso.

The tall ships race is held in January. Photo / Stephen Western
The tall ships race is held in January. Photo / Stephen Western

And now the couple wants to share their passion for this place and their favourite sport.

They have built a stylish loft to hire out that looks out over that magnificent view. It is specifically designed for couples wanting a weekend escape to do some "serious grounding" and water sports.

I took my husband and then-baby son Finn here one weekend. It's a 3½-hour drive from Auckland up State Highway 1, before continuing along State Highway 11 (if you've turned left into Kawakawa you're heading the wrong way). Then, it's a quick car-ferry ride from Opua ($10 for car/driver and $ for each passenger each way). The ferries run regularly throughout the day until late.

Sometimes places aren't what they claim to be, but the Pagels aren't fibbing about Russell.

It's peaceful and pretty and you can't beat being out on a SUP on glass-like water as the sun fades. As I paddle into lots of nearby bays I marvel as much at the multimillion-dollar mansions hidden on the hillsides as I do at fish doing flips into the air. Cindy says dolphins sometimes delight, too.

Celebrities are known to pop their heads up also. Opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa loves these waters for fishing. She owns a house nearby and Cindy has seen her on "a serious-looking fishing boat".

A lot of the owners of local mansions are internationally acclaimed artists, novelists or the likes of Team New Zealand crew.

Word is that the luxury lodge up the road, Eagles Nest, dubbed as "somewhere between seven stars and heaven", has accommodated Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart, Susan Sarandon, Bill Gates and Demi Moore, to name a few.

The Bay of Islands region includes Kerikeri, renowned for orchards; Waitangi, the birth place of the Treaty of Waitangi; Paihia, a favourite party place for teens; and Russell, a whaling station in the 1800s and called '"the hellhole of the Pacific" because of its bawdy past, brothels and "bad" girls.

Finn Buckley at Christ Church in Russell.
Finn Buckley at Christ Church in Russell.

But now Russell is simply cute, and also historically rich. The place was briefly the country's first capital, then called Kororareka. The picturesque white Christ Church is the oldest existing church and has a suitably eerie graveyard.

And of course there's also the country's first licensed hotel, the Duke of Marlborough Hotel where I rate highly the villa-like atmosphere and top food and service. I ordered the tuna after the waiter told me "it's so fresh that you don't need teeth because it just falls apart in your mouth". It delivered on the promise.

The Duke of Marlborough Hotel was the country's first licensed hotel.
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel was the country's first licensed hotel.

We loved discovering Flagstaff Hill (it's a short walk to the top and overlooks the Bay of Islands) and soaking up the white sands and beautiful vista at Tapeka Point.

We loved our seaside summer weekend escape. Next time I hope to fit in some more things we missed, like the local vineyards and fishing, and my older kids would love to see the Bay of Islands Tall Ships Race in January. This starts from stunning Russell Wharf and after watching the spectacle of ships there's a hangi feast at Russell Boat Club.

Sounds awesome and I bet this event lives up to its rep too.

DIRECTIONS

FURTHER INFORMATION

For Blue Penguin SUP lessons, tours, sales, and to stay at The Beach House Loft, contact Cindy Pagel on 021 588 770.

Sally's Restaurant is beach-side and serves great Allpress coffee.

For more info on Russell, restaurants, and events like The Tall Ships Race see russellnz.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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