Sunday, February 22, 2009


Bay of Islands
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While traveling New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, you can always find a place to stay in Pahia, that small tourist town where the bus stops. Because Pahia has a good-sized wharf, cruise ships anchored in the bay shuttle their people to shore to check out the nearby Treaty House, try a fresh seafood meal, book a sightseeing trip, or buy that souvenir for mom. If you’re traveling by auto or RV, why not stay in Russell? This small village, once the capitol of New Zealand is tucked away and harder to reach, but it’s quaint, packed with history and you can easily get yourself back to Pahia on the small passenger ferry. When you explore the bay, those sight seeing trips can be booked just as easily from Russell.

Captain Cook anchored around Kororareka headland in 1769 and gave the Bay of Islands its English name. Abel Tasman poked around those waters over a hundred years earlier. In 1642, he said some unfriendly words about the local inhabitants, traveled south and spotted the Southern Alps, then headed north up the Tasman Sea to check out those Tasmanian Devils.

According to Maori legend, those unfriendly Polynesians arrived in New Zealand in the 10th century. As they had no written language, it’s hard to prove one way or the other. Eager to escape food shortages and war, they found plenty of food, though not much good red meat. They were not vegetarians. Tough Old Lady Cove reminds us what can happen to a nagging mother-in-law. The Maori brought kumara– a sweet potato-like vegetable that grows best in a warm climate. Although Maori settled throughout New Zealand, the majority of them kept their kumara happy and settled in this semi-tropical section of New Zealand.

Police Station
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In the early 1800's, Russell, originally named Kororareka or sweet penguin by the Maori, was known as the "hell-hole of the Pacific." With its rowdy night life, it became a popular port with Pacific whalers. When British convicts were brought to New South Wales in Australia, those now empty ships needed cargo for the return trip and the British government needed to train seamen for the Royal Navy. So, they offered money to encourage Americans to join the whaling fleet. An American captain on the British boat William and Ann first hunted whales in New Zealand waters in 1791. By 1838, Kororareka was an international port with more or less 100 ships anchored at any time. Whalers picked up supplies, repaired their ships, and gave their men a chance to get rough and rowdy in this best little "hell hole of the Pacific."

During the early 1800's, whaling was a major part of the European economy. Whale oil was used to light city streets and lubricate machines. Sperm whale oil was odorless and could be used indoors. Spermaceti, a liquid wax from the sperm whale’s head, was used to lubricate precision instruments and to make smokeless candles. Sperm whales were hunted in open water. Black or right whales were hunted in bays or near the shore not only for their oil, but for the baleen which hangs inside their mouth to filter food. Baleen, the same material as human fingernails, was used for lady’s corsets. Ambergris (grey amber) found in the sperm whale’s bowel was used as a base for perfume and also an aphrodisiac for those European males excited by all that plump perfumed flesh squashed into those lady’s corsets.

Russell Harbour
Flagstaff Hill
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On Maiki Hill, above this sheltered village stacked up the hillside overlooking the bay, you can still find a flagpole where the Union Jack was raised by the British and occasionally lowered by the Maori. In 1845, after New Zealand’s capitol was moved from Russell to Auckland, the rowdy sailors slipped away and a financial recession hit the Bay of Islands. When the government didn’t offer a stimulus bailout, the local Maori protested and took over Russell. The Union Jack was lowered rather roughly for the fourth time. In 1857, the flagpole was replaced by the son of Kawiti, one of the Maori Chiefs in this Battle of Kororareka. A piece of this original flagpole is in the Russell museum. The United Tribes flag of 1834 is still flown 12 days a year.

The only way to get to Russell for many years was by a coastal steamer that brought supplies and passengers twice a week. During the depression years of the 1930's, a coastal road from Whakapara was built by government public works crews. "The Back Road" as it’s still called is windy and scary. "Best driven at night so you can see the headlights coming and get out of the way," we were told. We drove it once. Once was enough. If you have a rental vehicle, your insurance might not cover you if you’re on this road. Don’t miss that last vehicle ferry from Opua.

Tourist guides would call Russell unique and charming. Those are hokey but accurate words. The Duke of Marlboro Hotel on the waterfront has been up and down almost as many times at that flagpole. The (5th) Duke, built in the 1870's, burned in 1931. You can’t keep a good Duke down, so if you’re pub hopping, stay a night or two at the Duke. If you’re RVing or booked some where else, at least stop in for a drink and a meal. We’ve had Christmas dinner there– an elegant English meal worth every penny. The Duke of Marlboro is one of many New Zealand historic hotels.

Pompallier House
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Built in 1841, Pompallier, New Zealand’s oldest surviving Roman Catholic buildings, is now a museum. You can easily spend a day in the Russell Museum digging through photos and remnants of history, so don’t cut your time short in Russell.

If you’re RVing or on a budget, stay at the Holiday Park. It’s one of the nicest RV parks in New Zealand. Surrounded by flowers and perched on a hill, it overlooks the bay. You can walk the short distance to town, book one of the scenic cruises near the wharf, or catch the passenger ferry to Pahia and check out the other tourists. The Holiday Park has rooms as well as RV spaces. Bring your own bedding and towel for a cheaper rate. If you have a tent, a large grassy area– usually fully booked during the holiday season– is available. Russell and this RV park are popular with Kiwis, so book ahead in January.

Slip back into history in this sheltered little town of Russell. Roam around the beach, sip a brew in The Duke, or climb the hill for a panoramic view of the Bay of Islands and Motuarohia just around the Kororareka headland where James Cook anchored. Just don’t mess with that flagpole. It’s caused enough commotion in this once rowdy, now sleepy little town.

Lyn Harris

RV in NZ: How to Spend Your Winters South in New Zealand

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goooooood girl said...

your blog is so good......

PureCommonSense said...

What a beautiful view that must be. And so much rich histor, too. The weather does indeed look warm enough for a tent.