The Bay of Islands that shaped our Nation, our people
Ratna Venkat –
In New Zealand, we have a beautiful Māori saying, “Ka mua, ka muri,” which means that in order to move forward, one needs to look back.
In other words, the future is not clear but the past is, and if we permit ourselves to be guided by those who have lived before us, we will learn valuable lessons to help with our journey into the future.
The Bay of Islands
Our recent trip to the Bay of Islands on the east coast of New Zealand’s Far North (about 250 km from Auckland) was a stark reminder of this Māori proverb, particularly when visiting the small, yet significant towns of Russell, Paihia and Waitangi; towns that contributed towards the making of our nation.
Taking us back in time to the earliest discovery of Aotearoa (Māori name for New Zealand), from its very first settlers to the official ‘birth’ of a nation, the Bay of Islands are deeply engraved in New Zealand’s historical timeline.
A place encoded with so much heritage, culture and political changes, along with its bonus of warm blue-green waters, white sandy beaches and abundant native wildlife, it is little wonder that this humble sub-tropical region consistently attracts visitors from around the world, as well as from other parts of New Zealand.
Hole in the Rock
One of the best ways of exploring the Bay’s 144 islands is by taking a cruise either from Russell or Paihia, for which various packages are offered to the public depending on areas of interests and specific preferences.
The voyage we took (and would recommend) is ‘Fullers GreatSights: Hole-in-the-Rock Dolphin Cruise,’ with inclusions such as passing through the hole in the rock (hence the name), dolphin-watching and a brief stopover at Urupukapuka Island for breath-taking views overlooking Otehei Bay, suitable for walk and trek enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, we could not cruise through the hole in the rock due to poor weather conditions that day, but we were lucky enough to witness a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming by our catamaran, and putting on a show of their impressive acrobatic antics for us!
With the largest viewing decks in the Bay, the ‘Hole-in-the-Rock Dolphin Cruise’ is ideal for people of all ages who wish to get close to these majestic creatures in their natural, unprovoked habitat.
The catamaran skipper, licensed by the Department of Conservation (DOC), provided us an informative commentary throughout our cruise, and assured that they do not influence the dolphins or other marine mammals in any way; that they swim towards the boat out of their own will and curiosity.
Other attractions in this cruise package include locating the spots of the first Māori voyager, Kupe who set foot in the Bay, followed by Captain James Cook, the first European to arrive at the Bay, the historic Cape Brett Lighthouse, and native birdlife such as pied shags, gannets and oystercatchers residing on cliff tops.
‘Fullers GreatSights: Hole-in-the-Rock Dolphin Cruise’ is guaranteed to be the best half day one will have in the Bay. For bookings, please visit
After returning to Russel Wharf from our cruise, we boarded a coach for another adventure of New Zealand’s past, named ‘Fullers GreatSights: Russell Mini Tour.’
As the name suggests, this is a one-hour mini guided tour around Russell, a now peaceful law-abiding town that was once notoriously known as “Hell Hole of the Pacific,” given the bad reputation it had for being a lawless trading centre full of drunken whalers, prostitutes and escaped convicts from Australia.
Chris McIntyre, our guide, took us back in time to several of these iconic locations, now a part of Russell’s unique heritage, while sharing his local insight of the town.
Place of Many Firsts
We were surprised how little we knew about New Zealand’s early history before boarding the Mini Tour, especially Russell’s many firsts (and oldest) sites in New Zealand.
The first permanent European settlement and seaport, along with being the country’s first Capital.
In terms of infrastructure, Russell proudly holds Christs’ Anglican Church as the oldest surviving church, ‘The Duke of Marlborough Hotel’ as the oldest licensed hotel, bar and restaurant, and Pompallier House as the oldest industrial building and licensed pub in New Zealand.
Big Little Town
Interestingly, Russell generates its own water supply by totally depending on its rainfall, which is why the water tastes different yet pleasant compared to other cities in New Zealand.
McIntyre also mentioned that the town holds many expensive holiday homes of which 60% are owned by wealthy people residing overseas.
New Zealand’s most expensive rental accommodation, called ‘Eagles Nest’ is also based in this ‘big little town.’
The coach tour’s other attractions include climbing atop the Flagstaff Hill overlooking the stunning views of the Bay, as well as meeting a group of friendly wekas, New Zealand’s native birds that resemble the kiwi birds.
‘Fullers GreatSights: Russell Mini Tour’ is a great way of visiting these areas of past and present which cannot be easily explored on foot.
To book online, please visit https://www.dolphincruises.co.nz/bay-of-islands-tours/discover-russell/ and www.visitboi.co.nz/
The Dining experience
Keeping up with the historical theme, a perfect way to wrap up one’s sightseeing in Russell is to dine at ‘The Duke of Marlborough Hotel,’ a heritage hotel, bar and restaurant located a few metres away from the site of the Mini Tour.
The restaurant’s intriguing name was coined in the 1830s by Johnny Johnston, ‘a convict-turned-good man,’ who was regarded highly by the local Māori people.
The Duke of Marlborough at the time was the world’s wealthiest man, and Johnny’s decision to give the hotel this new name sought to bring sophistication and opulence to the so-called “Hell Hole of the Pacific.”
A recipient of many awards, the restaurant menu offers the best of locally sourced seasonal produce, presenting a new take on classic favourites, including a range of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Motel with Nautical theme
Russell’s history and culture has always been associated with its neighbouring sea and the vast ocean.
‘The Duke Motel,’ managed by the owners of ‘The Duke Marlborough Hotel,’ and located within walking distance, is a beautiful boutique motel that has sustained this nautical theme across the nine self-contained rooms it offers.
Ranging from two-bedroom units to studios in an open setting with two spacious barbecue areas and an outdoor heated swimming pool, this accommodation is perfect for couples, families or those seeking an extra special stay while exploring Russell and the rest of the Bay.
For more information on ‘The Duke Motel,’ please visit http://www.dukemotel.co.nz/
- Fullers GreatSights Cruise- A breath-taking view along the Bay
- Fullers GreatSights Cruise- Dolphins create waves on the Bay waters
- The Russell Mini Tour with Chris McIntyre is a must
- The Duke of Marlborough- New Zealand’s first and oldest Hotel
- The Duke Motel- A good home in Russel
- A boutique property with nautical theme- Ratna Venkat at the Duke Motel
- Locally grown figs and honey at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel
- Newport Handcrafted Chocolates- to eat and to drink- at Russell