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Why would anyone choose to visit a place known as the “hell hole of the Pacific”? Somewhere that was once full of brothels and unsavoury bars, the scene of numerous violent uprisings? I pondered these questions as we crossed the Bay of Islands on the ferry from Paihia. But the sight of yachts on the water and the smart buildings on the Russell waterfront were enough to convince me that things might have changed since the 19th century.

Historic buildings of Russell, New Zealand

Russell is full of well kept historic buildings

The Former Capital of New Zealand

Sacred Maori site in Russell, New Zealand

Russell was originally a Maori settlement. Here we have a sacred place where the dead were washed.

Formerly known as Kororareka, Russell was a Maori settlement for some centuries before the arrival of Europeans. But in the early 1800s it started to be frequented by whaling ships, and later by commercial vessels from around the world. Sailors spent their shore leave in Russell and the town soon adapted to provide the traditional activities for sailors with time to spare and money to spend. It is no wonder that when the naturalist Charles Darwin visited in 1835, he reported that it was full of “the refuse of society”.

Maori art in the Russell Museum

The Museum contains artworks illustrating Maori myths

For a short while Russell was the capital of the new colony of New Zealand. However the capital soon moved southward to Auckland, and Russell went into decline. Poverty and violence followed, and the flagstaff on nearby Maiki Hill was felled by Maori warriors on four separate occasions as a protest against the British.

But Russell has come a long way since then. Perhaps the first step towards its rehabilitation was the landing of a swordfish in 1913. This might not seem like a significant event, but it led to the Bay of Islands becoming an important destination for big game fishing. The American writer Zane Grey, a keen fisherman, was a regular visitor and helped to publicise the area. Although many of the old buildings remain, Charles Darwin would hardly recognise the place now. It still attracts hordes of outsiders but today the visitors are tourists keen to explore the town’s heritage and to frequent its restaurants.

Following the Russell Heritage Trail

Pompallier Mission, Russell, New Zealand

You will spot Catholic icons as well as old machinery at the Pompallier Mission

We picked up a Heritage Trail booklet at the Information Centre. There are a number of trails to choose from, covering the surrounding coastline and countryside as well as the town itself. We followed the town trail, taking in sites of Maori significance, historic buildings and the site of the old fish factory. Our first stop was at the Russell Museum, where we watched a video showing the town’s history and learnt about the settlement of the area, first by the Polynesians and then by the Europeans. I particularly enjoyed the displays of Maori art in the museum.

Gables Restaurant, Russell, New Zealand

The Gables Restaurant is one of the oldest buildings in Russell

Then it was to the Pompallier Mission, built in 1842 to house the Catholic Mission’s first printing press, which printed hundreds of books in the Maori language. Although the building was later converted to use as a tannery, its religious origins were still apparent. It was slightly disconcerting to see Catholic icons side by side with the old machinery!

Like all good walks, this one ended with lunch. We had an excellent meal at The Gables, on the waterfront. As I enjoyed my pea and ham risotto with scallops (highly recommended), I studied the history of the building. Built in 1847, it was once a hiding place for sailors who had jumped ship. It was later used as a shop, then as a Salvation Army boys’ home, before becoming the smart restaurant that it is today. Not too dissimilar to the changing fortunes of Russell itself.

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