History is alive and well but the present also thrives, writes Natasha Jojoa Burling.

Heavy drinking, prostitution and general lawlessness among the sailors and whalers earnt Kororāreka the label, the "Hellhole of the Pacific" but nowadays it's "Romantic Russell" and life moves at a more sedate pace. It's where we began our Bay of Islands mini-break.

Russell is a small town, packed with history. Many buildings have plaques outside with inscriptions about when they were built and what they were used for. There are so many that some card has put one up on one building saying that nothing historical ever happened there.

We reached Opua about three and a half hours after leaving Auckland and the pace instantly changed. We took the car ferry to Okiato, a $13, 10-minute journey across the Waikare Inlet, past the local oyster farms, before an easy drive to our accommodation on the other side.

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The Duke Motel is in the centre of town, close to the wharf, where you catch boats to the Hole in the Rock and Paihia.

Taira, the captain of our three-hour Hole in the Rock Dolphin cruise, gave an informative and witty commentary. He showed us a good swimming beach, Long Beach, over the hill from Russell, which we visited a couple of days later and loved. He also pointed out a nudist beach, Donkey Bay or Waitata Bay, which we opted to miss.

This cruise gives you a snippet of the great historical importance of the Bay of Islands. We heard about sites such as Assassination Cove, where French explorer Marion du Fresne and his 26 crew were killed in 1772. We saw the twin lagoons on Roberton Island (Motuarohia), where Captain Cook anchored the Endeavour in 1769.

The boat often goes through the Hole in the Rock of Piercy Island (Motu Kōkako) but the swell was too big for us to attempt it. We spotted three or four dolphins, swimming around the boat and leaping out of the water. The water was too rough to get in with them so, instead, everyone lurched from one side of the boat to the other taking photos.

Fortunately, Te Maki (The Orca) is a stable boat. It has upper and lower desk, seating inside and out and USB ports for charging devices, always handy for travellers.

We docked in Russell and walked along the reddish-brown pebbled beach, then chatted to a man who was gutting a kahawai he'd just caught. As the sun set, the town was tinted pink; just gorgeous.

The next day we caught the car ferry back to Opua and drove to Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Museum, where we met our guide, Rihu, a descendant of one of the Ngāpuhi chiefs who signed the Treaty. She showed us around the grounds, introducing us to talented carver Arama, who puts a modern spin on traditional designs. We walked down the hill to see Ngātokimatawhaorua, the largest waka in the world, at 35m. The Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Diana have all had a ride in it and it's officially part of the Royal Navy.

Then it was up the hill to the Meeting House, built in 1940, for a Māori cultural performance, which our family loved. The performers come outside for photos afterwards and are friendly and down to earth. We spoke to the lead musician, Taora, who lives with his family and some workmates in a house at the grounds.

Ivy Copeland's 1932 drawing Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, on display at The Treaty House museum.
Ivy Copeland's 1932 drawing Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, on display at The Treaty House museum.

The Treaty House was revamped in October, with rooms that were once hidden, now reopened. The update has proved successful — the Treaty House is a finalist in this year's New Zealand Museum Awards. Inside you'll find historical objects, large images and modern audio-visual technology. In the parlour, where James Busby and others made the finishing touches to the Treaty, several screens play different images simultaneously and there are two further rooms showing the life of Busby, his wife and their six children.

Excerpts from documents on the walls include a quote from him saying the more trouble his children were, the more he loved them, much more than when he had had servants to cook for them.

The Museum of Waitangi, which opened in February 2016 and won the Best Museum Project Award that year, traces the first interactions between Māori and Pākehā through to the signing of the Treaty and onwards. There are borrowed objects, such as a christening gown given by Queen Victoria to her Ngāpuhi godson Albert Victor Pomare, which is still sometimes used by the family. The museum houses Ivy Copeland's 1932 pastel drawing, Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi — a copy of an unfinished 1890s work by Louis J Steele — depicting the drama of the event. It also has an electronic copy of the Treaty that visitors can scroll through. Another touchscreen has a huge number of historical photos and information. It's at kids' height and they'll enjoy expanding, shrinking and moving them around.

The exhibition also includes significant objects, like the pouwhenua, or land marker post, carried on the Māori Land March of 1975. It's suspended because its guardians vow it won't touch the ground until all Māori land claims are settled.

I'd been to Waitangi as a child so wasn't expecting much but I was pleased to find it blew my expectations out of the water. It's fascinating, and will keep both young and old entertained.

WHERE TO EAT

According to its signage, the Duke of Marlborough Hotel has been "refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827'. The Duke has burnt down a couple of times in its colourful history but is still going strong, keeping tourists, locals and notables fed and watered; Winston Peters held his election night party here. Paintings depict the history of the area and the hotel, and it's cosy=inside and out as there's a large covered deck across from the beach.

The Duke's restaurant manager worked at Euro with celebrity chef Simon Gault, as well as other big Auckland eateries. He went through the menu and the ingredients with us, which made the choice easier. It's big on local seafood, such as those Waikare Inlet oysters, and smoked Bay of Islands mullet. The seafood chowder was top notch. My squid salad was with baby cos lettuce, serrano ham, manchego cheese and dates, a great combination of flavours. We had tuna loin and lamb rump for our mains, along with fish and chips for the kids.

Our desserts included cake with pineapple confit and coconut sorbet, as well as chocolate cake with tonka bean creme anglaise, cardamom and pistachios.

The Duke's owners are also the proprietors of Charlotte's Kitchen across the water at Paihia Wharf, which has more of a modern, bistro feel. There's some overlap of the menus, including the oysters. We went for lunch and tried the natural and tempura ones, which were delicious and fresh as can be. The fish was on a coconutty kumara and miso paste. The steamed pork bun with kimchee and hoison sauce was a good twist on an old favourite.

FACT BOX
STAYING THERE
The Duke Motel, 7 Wellington St, Russell.

PLAYING THERE
Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise, Waitangi Treaty Grounds & Museum, waitangi.org.nz
DETAILS
visitboi.co.nz