Russell

A pretty, seaside town with a colourful history, golden beaches and a range of bach accommodation from the humble to the sublime.

Russell, photo brewbooks

Russell, formerly known as Kororareka, was New Zealand’s first permanent European settlement. In the 1830s, this was a lawless trading centre where whalers, seafarers and merchants mixed with adventurers, deserters and escaped convicts from Australia. Kororareka was nicknamed “the Hellhole of the Pacific”, hard to imagine now, as with time, Russell has become a picturesque holiday destination.

Historic places in Russell include Christ Church (1835-6), the oldest existing church in NZ, which is still used today. Before the church was built, missionaries from Paihia used to row across the bay to take services in private homes. They purchased land in 1834 from Kororareka chiefs Rewa, Wharerahi and Moka, and agreed that Maori and Europeans should have equal rights of burial.

In 1841 the capital was moved from Kororareka to Auckland, a change that led to a downturn in power and economic advantages for Ngapuhi chiefs.

Maori grievances led to the Battle of Kororareka, in which chiefs Heke and Kawiti attacked the town on 11 March 1845, felling the flagpole for a fourth time and burning much of the town. Scars from stray musket and cannon balls can still be seen on the church today. The graves in the churchyard include those of Tamati Waka Nene, early settlers and whalers. 

Pompallier Mission was built in 1841, by the French Roman Catholic Bishop Pompallier. Built of rammed earth, it is the only surviving building of the French Catholic mission headquarters to the Western Pacific. It is now restored to its original French Lyonnaise layout and houses a working printery. Visit Russell Museum – Te Whare Taonga o Kororāreka, for a look at Maori and European history and a scale replica of Cook’s ship Endeavour.

Walk up to Maiki or Flagstaff Hill, where Ngapuhi chief Hone Heke and his allies cut down the flagstaff four times in protest against the government. There are beautiful views over the Bay of Islands. If you fancy getting out on the water and sailing on a boat that looks historical at least, the tall ship R. Tucker Thompson has cruises running from Russell.

Pretty cottages, cafes and restaurants are in abundance in Russell. Some restaurants are in historic buildings. The Duke of Marlborough was New Zealand’s first licensed hotel - ” the Duke” is the fourth hotel on the site: “Refreshing Rascals and Reprobates since 1827”.

“The Gables” was built by a shoemaker in 1847. It has been used to hide sailors who jumped ship, been a bordello, a Salvation Army Boys home, and is now a top restaurant. Whether you choose fish and chips or fine dining, take a wander along the Strand afterwards to enjoy the sea views and atmosphere of this beautiful place.

Read our guide to Paihia and Bay of Islands

Where to stay

Bay of Islands

What to do