New Zealand has never done historic pubs very well. We're just not old enough to foot it with the 16th-century boozers that grace the English countryside.
Which makes the Duke of Marlborough all the more remarkable. And given that the finest of those English pubs tend to be remarkably old (The Bell Inn, in the wonderfully titled town of Aldworth, was built in the 15th century and has been owned by the same family since the 18th century) it's fitting that The Duke sits near the centre of New Zealand's origin story.
A storied old building, with fabulous ocean views and a kitchen turning out high-end meals; pubs this good — and this beautiful — are usually found in the UK, probably in some glorious seaside town in Cornwall.
The Duke started life as "Johnny Johnstons Grog Shop" (what a name!) back when Russell was known, just as evocatively, as "the Hell Hole of the Pacific". It's been shelled by the British navy and burnt down twice. Johnny, an ex-convict, ran the hotel around the time that the Hell Hole of the Pacific became the Capital of New Zealand. In the 1920s, with the prostitutes, politicians and whalers mostly gone, Zane Grey called The Duke home while chasing marlin in these waters.
A friend of mine was stabbed there — albeit accidentally — as recently as the 1980s, when the New Year's Eve hoolies were legendary. Around that time, yuppies would fly up there by seaplane from Auckland for seriously long lunches.
Today, I can't think of a better place for a seriously long lunch. But the Duke has moved with the times and is seriously smart. There are polished native timbers, and a proper, grown-up winelist built around New Zealand wineries, with Northland admirably represented. (Take a bow if you knew someone in Mangawhai produces award-winning Gewurtztraminer and Viognier.)
We took the proprietor's lead and kept it local too, knocking back beers from McLeod's Brewery of Waipu in between oysters from Waikare Inlet, just around the corner. I've had these oysters before — and met some of the people who harvest them; "food heroes" the great Cornishman Rick Stein would call them.
The food here is a clear step up from any you'd expect in even a quality Kiwi pub, but still very much of the pub ilk. Back in Blighty, they call it a gastro-pub.
Sitting on The Duke's wonderful covered verandah, we unleashed the kids to play in the sand of Russell's waterfront, out where Johnny Johnston must have cooled his feet and Zane Grey must have slung his trophy marlin.
We wondered, idly, over another beer if the local council might be wise to pedestrianise surely the prettiest waterside road in New Zealand — I don't imagine the rush hour commuters of Russell would complain too loudly.
Getting there: The ferry from Paihia runs every half hour from 9.30am to 9.30pm. Or make a weekend of it and stay at The Duke.