Twenty Four Hours in Russell, New Zealand


Photo courtesy of Phillip Trey

In November, 2018, I took one of the best trips of my life.

Now let me tell you how it ended.

After a miserable layover in Shanghai, a day at the world famous Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and over ten days of flying, busing, and driving all over New Zealand I found myself with a major head cold and a growing fear of going back to “real life.” After a semi-late night out dancing in Auckland, my friend Lucas and I packed up the rental car and headed North, to the Bay of Islands.

The tentative plan before arriving in New Zealand was to visit the wine country in the area, but after a very full trip already, the logistics of getting to and from wineries safely became less interesting than exploring the little town of Russell, population around 800, where our hotel for the night was located. Also, there was that terrible head cold leaving me fully miserable while also the happiest I’d been in ages. A veritable snot-covered, head-fogged, aching, beaming smile of a person.

After about a three hour drive and a quick ferry ride, us fairies arrived in Russell, a tiny old town that oozes the remnants of imperialism with its architecture. The narrow road looped into town and we glimpsed the two blocks of shops and restaurants. There were quite a few parked cars, yet the place felt very quiet with only a handful of others walking around. I think there were more people in the lobby of the Marina Bay Sands at 6am than there were in the whole of Russell.

Our lodging for the evening was The Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which has been operating since 1827 and received New Zealand’s very first liquor licence. For those who don’t know, the Duke of Marlborough was quite the figure in British history, having defeated the French in a definitive battle during the reign of Queen Anne. He and his wife’s reward? Blenheim Palace, one of the grandest estates in all of England, rivaling that of Buckingham Palace – in my opinion. So, seeing his name pop up in one of the earliest established British cities is not that surprising. In fact, it is said that:

The [original] owner Johnny Johnston was an ex convict come good, he became fluent in Te Reo and was very well regarded by the local Maori. This relationship led to Johnny being able to purchase the freehold site of the Duke – which was one of the first land sales to a European in New Zealand.

In the 1830s, Russell or Kororareka, as it was known then, was the biggest whaling port in the Southern Hemisphere [...]. Up to 500 whalers at a time would arrive in Russell after twelve months at sea, with Russell having no effective law enforcement agency, the scene wasn’t ideal. Prostitution was one of the area’s largest industries and many local women frequently entered into 3 week marriages.

Johnny quickly changed the name of his hotel to the Duke of Marlborough, at the time the Duke of Marlborough was the world’s richest man, so the name sought to bring respect, elegance and opulence to the “Hell Hole of the Pacific”.

All facts you’d think wouldn’t be on the brochure, but you can actually find all of this on the hotel’s website. Refreshing to see one embrace one’s history, the good and the bad.

We checked in late afternoon, and decided to walk around and look for a bite to eat. We found closed-for-the-day tourism offices, cafes, dessert shops, breakfast spots, and an open liquor store. While most places weren’t operating yet, we did discover an adorable outdoor place called Hone’s Garden. They weren’t serving dinner for a few more hours, but we snacked on olives and drank Rosé to relax and while away the time until a real meal. It felt like anywhere we went we never saw more than two or three people at a time, no one with an apparent agenda or place they needed to be, leaving the scenery for us to admire.

After catching up, looking through trip photos, and deciding what was next, we moved on from Hone’s Garden, deciding not to wait for dinner hours there, made reservations at the hotel restaurant instead – touted as the finest in the town – and set off for a mini-hike up to Kororareka Point Scenic Reserve. (I only learned what it’s called while researching this post. At the time, we looked up from the hotel and thought, “let’s see if we can go there.”)

Tipsy and on cold meds, my coughing-stuffed-up-dumb-ass suggested running up part of the way – the hill part. I also blame the fact that Lucas is a tall, chiseled looking, individual and I was acutely missing my own workout routine. I made it maybe two minutes before losing it and laugh-coughed the rest of the way up. The view, however, was completely worth it. The sight of the town of Russell, the bay, and off in the distance the town of Paihia, was simply breathtaking – and not just because I was literally out of breath. After many, many photos, and a few friendly words with the nicest lesbians, it was time to get ready for dinner.

The rest of the evening involved a wonderful meal, martinis, and many sunset photos on the pier a stone’s throw away from the hotel (if you check out my writer bio on the homepage you can see one such photo).

It’s been almost six months since my trip and I still think about it almost daily – particularly Russell. The entire trip was magical, but my mind keeps taking me back to the tiny town that felt like we were the only ones there. The exploring, the hiking, the company, the gazing at the sunset. It was short and it was sweet. I almost don’t want to go back again. I’d rather preserve the memories from the “Hell Hole of the Pacific” in time.

Almost.

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