Part of Russell's town centre was shut down on Tuesday thanks to a bomb scare that one local described as the biggest thing to hit town since Hōne Heke cut down the flagpole in 1845.

A bomb threat was made by phone to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, on the waterfront, at about 10.45am, prompting police to evacuate the hotel and the adjacent Commodore's Lodge. Once extra police arrived — the town has just one resident officer — the cordon was extended to include Cass St and The Strand as far as Kent St.

About 20 staff and 100 delegates attending an oral health conference were in the hotel at the time.

Senior Sergeant Peter Robinson said the area was evacuated as a precaution after the caller claimed there was a bomb in the building. A thorough inspection of the hotel by an officer and one of the owners had found nothing suspicious or out of place.

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Combined with the non-specific nature of the threat, that gave police the confidence to deem the area safe and allow people to return at about 1.30pm.

Police inquiries into the origin of the phone call were continuing, he said. It was too early to say whether the call originated within New Zealand or overseas.

Police were grateful for the patience of and assistance from locals, tourists and other emergency services, he added. Eight officers were involved, along with firefighters from the Russell and Paihia brigades. St John Ambulance medics were on standby.

Duke co-owner Riki Kinnaird said it was the first time such an incident had occurred at the hotel.

"This kind of thing may have been common in the 1800s, but not now," he said, but the hotel's procedures for such an event had worked well, and the police and fire crews had been "awesome".

He singled out local Constable Mike Gorrie for special mention. He had arrived on the scene quickly, and his guidance and presence had been very reassuring.

"It's just really disappointing we've been the target of something like this. It's affected more than just our business; half of Russell was cordoned off," Mr Kinnaird said however.

Meanwhile, the conference delegates were taken by ferry and a local tour bus to Charlotte's Kitchen, a Paihia restaurant. Passenger ferries were suspended during the scare but the car ferry continued operating.

At Russell School, a few blocks from the Duke, principal Melissa Jackson took advice from police before letting the children out of their classrooms for lunch. Extra teachers and parents were placed around the school grounds as a precaution, and the lunch break was cut short.

Many Cass St businesses remained closed even after the cordon was lifted. One that did reopen was Bay of Islands Ink, where tattooist Dante Regeling was surprised to see at least six police cars and three fire engines turn up. His business was not greatly affected, but the food outlets across the road had been packed when the order to evacuate came.

"It was probably the biggest thing that's happened here since Hōne Heke cut down the flagpole," he said.