Everybody knows that Russell is a perfect gateway to the Bay of Islands region of New Zealand. All the cruise operators start their tours from here, taking visitors daily to all the famous landmarks such as the Hole in the Rock, Roberton Island and the Black Rocks.
There are so many things you can do here. It’s the perfect place to see dolphins, whales, seals and birds. You can go fishing, snorkelling, parasailing and diving; in short, you can spend all day on the water for some amazing adventures. You will never get bored.
Non-Cruise Activities in Russell
However, what do you do when you rock up in Russell only to realise that your family is not up to the job? What if it dawns on you that any penny spent on a boat-based activity will be a penny wasted as your family will be sure to get seasick and not enjoy the trip at all? Have you ever been in a situation like this?
What you need to do then is you have to put together a backup plan. This way you can still enjoy the beauty of this place and have a good time with the family.
You would think that Russell and the Bay of Islands are all about the water, but let me show you that there are plenty of other activities that are perfect for non-cruisers, families with little kids, and less adventurous visitors. I promise you will have a wonderful time in Russell. This little town is after all probably one of the most beautiful places you will find in New Zealand’s Northland region.
Beautiful Russell, Bay of Islands
Looking at Russell today, it is hard to believe that this picturesque little town used to be one of the most anarchistic corners of New Zealand. Life was rough here back in the day. The majority of citizens would have been people you wouldn’t want to meet after dark: whalers, seal hunters, ex-convicts, prostitutes. Russell was known as the “Hell hole of the Pacific”.
It really is hard to believe these days given how pretty the houses are, how well maintained the gardens, how quiet the streets and the waterfront. Just walking down these streets is a pure pleasure. The Strand with its giant fig trees, benches and pebble beach is probably one of the most relaxing places you will ever find. When strolling, look out for the pretty policeman’s house right on the beach which dates back to the mid-1800’s.
The Most Beautiful Sunset
While you are on the Strand, hurry to secure a dining table in one of the many waterfront restaurants and pubs, for example at the Duke of Marlborough’s or at The Gables. Russell has the enviable advantage of facing west, perfect for a dinner in the warm glow of the setting sun. Or maybe you just spread a picnic blanket and enjoy some treats from the little supermarket near the wharf while the kids skip stones across the water.
The Oldest Church in New Zealand
I can never walk past churches when travelling without even a tiny peek inside.
Christ Church in Russell is said to be the oldest church in New Zealand, built in 1836. If that doesn’t convince you to pay this little church a visit, then maybe the fact that it’s yet another perfect example of a pretty New Zealand church. I did find quite a few when road tripping the North Island. Have a closer look and see if you can find the bullet holes in the timber. Walk among the graves to read the headstones. Have a look inside at the somber and plain interior. http://www.oldchurch.org.nz
The Russell Museum
One of the highlights of my visit to Russell was a visit to the local museum. Don’t expect this to be a multi-sensory interactive 4D experience; it is a small town after all. The Russell museum is still a great place to visit if you want to know more about the history of this place. As you know recall, Russell was an important puzzle piece in the emergence of New Zealand as a nation. In particular the Maori exhibition is insightful, and so are the bits and pieces collected from previous generations of Russell citizens. Proudest piece of the exhibition must be a huge replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour. http://russellmuseum.org.nz/
Swimming in Oneroa Bay
While the harbour side of Russell is good for swimming too, it is definitely a good idea to check out stunning Oneroa Bay. Just follow the Long Beach Road for around 15 minutes and you will arrive at a beautiful sandy beach on the other side of the peninsula. Just grab a coffee from the mobile coffee van and watch the kids have a great time in the water.
Book Binding at the Pompallier Mission
Life for missionaries is hard and sometimes pretty miserable. One can only imagine what it must have been like for the brothers of the Pompallier Mission to be stuck in a place like Russell. Remember it was home to sinners, murderers, cheaters. Part of their mission was to translate religious texts into the Maori language. They are also know for binding the most beautiful books.
Their house, the Pompallier Mission is surrounded by stunning award-winning gardens and sits right on the waterfront. When you visit, the staff will show you how to print and bind books the old way, just like the French missionaries used to do it here some 150 years ago. http://www.heritage.org.nz/places/places-to-visit/northland-region/pompallier
Hiking to the Flagstaff Pou Kara
The Bay of Island region is not short of sights that are historically significant. The flagstaff site right outside of town is one of these places. At the time that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the flagstaff was flying the Union Jack. With deteriorating relations between the Maori and the white settlers, this seemed to have been quite confronting. Over the years, the Maori cut down the flagstaff a number of times to show their discontent with the British settlers.
Acts of sabotage that would eventually trigger the eruption of the so-called Northern War.
The flagstaff hill is a popular tourist spot these days as it offers great views of the bay. If you do get lucky you might even spot a shy Kiwi along the way.
Ferry Trip to Pahia
The wharf in the middle of Russell is the stepping stone to almost all excursions in the bay, but you can also take a passenger ferry to Pahia on the other side. While Pahia is lacking the cosy and relaxed feel of Russell it is still a good day trip destination. The ride on the ferry is short and can be managed even by people who are prone to sickness. And it is an inexpensive way of seeing the bay from another vantage point.
Treaty Grounds at Waitangi
Another reason why you would want to take the ferry to Pahia is because it gets you closer to the Treaty Grounds of Waitangi. This is one of the most significant historic sites in New Zealand, practically the place where New Zealand as a nation was born. This was the place where the Maori and representatives of the British Crown signed a treaty to declare British sovereignty over New Zealand. It secured the Maori ownership over the land, yet gave the Queen the sole rights to purchase lands.
From Pahia it is an easy 25 walk up to the site. You will not just find a museum here. You can also take part in a guided tour that will explain to you all the intricate details and aspects of the fascinating Maori culture. http://www.waitangi.org.nz/
Car Ferry to a Famous Toilet
It is just a 45min drive from Russell to one of the most famous public toilets in the world.
The Austrian artist Hundertwasser used to live in the tiny rural town of Kawakawa. He was a significant contributor to the remodelling of the public toilet of this little town. Hundertwasser is known for his fluent and vivid designs, using lots of colours, and bringing nature back into the structure. His buildings in Vienna and other places around the world are legendary. I wrote about the Kawakawa toilet here.
Another reason why you should do the trip is because it gives you a good reason to make use of the car ferry that connects Okiato with Opua. Just a short 10 minute ride, yet good fun and quite an experience.
These are my 10 favourite things to do in Russell, Bay of Islands, besides heading out into the bay on a cruise. If you are looking for an inexpensive accommodation, I can warmly recommended the Russell TOP 10 Holiday Park which has west facing premium sites with views. It is very close to town and to the beach, and the kids loved to explore the grounds with the instructions of a treasure hunt. I am not being paid to say this, just letting you know where we stayed.
Make sure you scroll further down for more photos of Russell, NZ!