Eli Orzessek enjoys the new romantic charms of the Pacific's former trouble spot.

It's not every day you eat dinner alongside a former prime minister.

Well, not quite "alongside", but close enough — and who really wants to eat with a politician anyway?

But at the Duke of Marlborough, just as we're tucking into our entrees and admiring Russell's beautiful waterfront, Dame Jenny Shipley is seated one table down from me and my girlfriend.

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It is quite satisfying to be seated next to a table that's worthy of a head of state, sipping on cocktails and slurping down oysters as the sun slowly sets over the water. And the staff here treat you as though you're just as important.

Once known as the "hellhole of the South Pacific", the town is now more commonly referred to as "Romantic Russell", which is definitely more the vibe tonight. Back in the early days of New Zealand, Russell attracted drunken sailors and their consorts — after a fair few drinks, I can quite easily imagine them stumbling down the promenade.

As we stroll around the town the next day, Russell's status as a hellhole couldn't be more consigned to history. It's pretty damn charming on a Sunday morning, with a smattering of tourists exploring the quiet streets, while kids paddle on the waterfront.

With a few hours to kill before embarking on a dolphin cruise, it's the perfect opportunity to get to know Russell better. I haven't visited since I was a kid, when I was dragged against my will to a bunch of historical landmarks. Although I do remember a preserved rat taking my interest at Pompallier House.

These days, I'm quite partial to a spot of history, so we take an entirely voluntary visit to the tiny Russell Museum, which holds a number of artefacts and taonga from the area. Along with menacing shark jaws, the museum contains a small stuffed bird with an interesting back story. It dates back to 1845, when Pakeha families left Russell during the Battle of Kororareka.

As one small girl left with her family, she grabbed her pet cat, which had just caught a bird near the boat ramp. During her voyage to Auckland, a sailor who happened to be an amateur taxidermist stuffed the bird and gave it back to her — several generations later, it was gifted to the museum and even immortalised in a children's book by Dorothy Butler.

After that encounter, I'm amped to see the famously preserved animal, so we start to walk to Pompallier House, the former headquarters of the French Catholic mission.

But on the way, a sign diverts us to a crystal shop up a stony stairway — which appears to be a converted shed in someone's back yard. Filled to the brim with various sparkly stones, sage sticks and other witchy goodness, the shop is empty when we arrive and start to browse, until someone eventually wanders over from the house. So trusting — but I feel they'd be able to work up some sort of mojo on any potential thief anyway. Plus there's a giant dog behind the fence connecting the shop and the house — although he seems more interested in licking than biting.

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After purchasing a shimmering moonstone (great for travellers) and some tarot cards, we continue on to Pompallier House for a guided tour. Despite being the youngest in the group by several decades, I find the history of printing is a lot more fascinating to me as an adult.

On this site, church texts were translated from Latin to te reo Māori, then printed and bound. The guide takes us step-by-step through the 19th century printing process and we even get a chance to operate the Mission's original printing press and print an image of the room we're in.

At the end of the tour, I rediscover my old friend Mr Rat down a corridor at the back of the house. But after all those dead animals, it feels like time to see some live dolphins.

Boarding the Fullers GreatSights ferry at the wharf, we're unfortunately told the weather conditions mean we won't be going through the Hole in the Rock — but there is a guarantee of a replacement tour if we don't manage to see any of the Bay's most famous marine mammals.

As we take to the sea, the slight rain that has been bothering us all morning peters off, but the first 45 minutes or so is spent endlessly circling the same areas, in search of an elusive pod of dolphins that was spotted in the morning.

Finally, after a friendly tip-off from a rival dolphin tour company, we're in the right spot. The pod — complete with an adorable baby dolphin — frolic and leap incredibly close to the boat.

The delighted crowd hang over the side of the boat and I'm seriously focused on keeping my phone in my hand while simultaneously trying to get clear photos of these majestic creatures. This is the closest I've seen dolphins and they seem to genuinely enjoy performing for people.

However they're difficult little buggers to photograph — as anyone trying to get that perfect snap of a leaping dolphin can attest.

When we return to the wharf, I've got a phone full of grey blurs and splashing waves — but a head full of perfect memories that are bound to bring me back again and again.

Checklist

ACCOMMODATION

The Duke of Marlborough

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DETAILS
Fullers Greatsights offers a range of activities in the Bay of Islands. For more information, go to dolphincruises.co.nz