Captain Cook and Zane Grey Fell in Love with The Bay of Islands in New Zealand: You Will Too!

by | Jan 5, 2018 | Asia, New Zealand | 0 comments

Captain Cook, Charles Darwin and Zane Grey put the Bay of Islands on the World Map

We went to the Bay of Islands because it is a semi-tropical vacation paradise, with beautiful beaches, ocean vistas and delicious seafood.

If you have been following our adventures in New Zealand, you will recall that we landed in Auckland before dawn, found our rental car and drove to the top of Mount Eden for the sunrise. []

We then drove a couple of hours to Waipu to visit the Nova Scotia community that pulled up stakes in Cape Breton and moved to New Zealand. []


This is still the same day


We got back in the car for a couple of hours to drive to our final destination for the day, the Bay of Islands. The drive was breathtakingly beautiful. The hills were an impossibly verdant green, almost luminescent. They were covered with thousands of sheep, grazing on hills that look too steep for any two or four-legged creatures. However, to be honest, the drive was a bit harrowing for me … and I wasn’t driving. It was a never-ending roller coaster ride, up, down and around the hills, with blind curves and switchbacks. I think Norman found it a bit harrowing to have me as a passenger. We were both very happy to arrive in Russell, an idyllic, quaint and historic village with fabulous views over the Bay of Islands.


New Zealand is postcard beautiful

This is our first view of the Bay of Islands, about 10 miles from Russell

Ferry to Russell for boomervoice

The most direct route to Russell is by ferry. It is a five-minute ride and is very enjoyable

The most direct route is to take State Highway 1 from Auckland to Cape Reinga. About 45 minutes north of Whangarei at Kawakawa take SH11 to Opua, Paihia and Russell (via vehicle ferry). Although the road is windy, it is fully sealed and well signposted. At the top of the hill leading to Opua, turn right and head down to the vehicle ferry which operates a continuous service during the day and a reduced service at night. Bookings are not required and you pay on board.


On the other side (called Okiato) keep following the main road for approximately 7km to Russell. The road is fully sealed but not recommended for walking as there are no footpaths currently, although a walkway is under construction.


Mainland departure location: Opua
Russell peninsular location: Okiato
First ferry: Okiato 0640, Opua 0650
Last ferry: Okiato 2200, Opua 2150
Tickets:Purchased on board, cash, EFTPOS or credit card facilities available
Price:$12.50 one-way includes car and any passengers, walk on passengers $1.00 one-way

The ferry ride offers fabulous views of the houses that dot the shore

This is the view from our hotel

We stayed at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, aka “The Duke”, one of oldest hotels in the New Zealand and the first to receive a licence as a public house:

The Duke is located on The Strand, a lovely promenade on the beach and sports a huge balcony with bar and restaurantoverlooking the beach and the Bay.

I was surprised at how close the shore is to the road. If Russell were in Nova Scotia, it would be washed away by surging tides and storms. Apparently, the ocean is calmer in this part of New Zealand

We had lunch on the terrace at The Duke

On our first day in New Zealand, we had trekked to the top of Mount Eden, explored Waipu and drove to the Bay of Islands … and it was just lunchtime. My time-clock was so discombobulated, I didn’t know if I should have coffee or a G&T. I settled for water and it was just delicious. The water everywhere in New Zealand is as fresh as spring water. It reminds me of spring water we used to drink in Maryvale when I was a kid.

I ordered fish chowder and it was perfect. Note the big slaps of fresh New Zealand butter.

After lunch, I needed some R&R. Norman has more energy than me so he set off on his own to visit the Russell Museum to learn more about the great explorer, Captain Cook. He took pictures and wrote about his visit for this blog. I wish that I had persevered and gone with him to the museum … next time.

This is a 1/5th size model of The Endeavour

New Zealand was discovered by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. His voyage did not result in any European settling of New Zealand. At the time of Tasman’s arrival, New Zealand was already inhabited by indigenous peoples, the Maori, who had migrated to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia starting around 1280.

Tasman’s first encounter with the Maori’s was violent and resulted in several deaths. Tasman named the area: Murderer’s Bay. In a good marketing move, it was subsequently renamed Golden Bay.

Famed English Explorer Captain James Cook visited the Bay of Islands on the first of his three, great round-the-world voyages.

Cook anchored his ship, The Endeavour, in the Bay of Islands for about a week in 1769. He and his crew explored the Bay and its islands.

Unlike Tasman, Cook found the Maori willing to trade and interact. Cook recorded the following observations: “The inhabitants of this bay are far more numerous than any other part of the country that we had before visited . . . they seemed to live together in perfect amity.” He then concluded that the Bay: “offers us good anchorage and refreshment of every kind.

Cook encouraged further explorers to use the Bay for anchorage and for obtaining provisions and supplies. This endorsement from Cook soon drew Europeans to the Bay as the main destination in New Zealand and supply point. They traded manufactured goods for food, water and timber with the local Maori.

Russell flourished and by 1840 it officially became the capital of New Zealand.


Russell is the oldest European settlement in New Zealand


Unfortunately, the next era in Russell’s development ruined its reputation as a peaceful oasis


This is an overhead view of whaling ship

Russell evolved as a major port during the whaling era. Hunting wales for oil that was used in lamps was a very lucrative business and, like a gold rush, attracted adventurers, thieves and the desperate. With the whalers came excess drinking and fighting, murders and prostitution. Soon tranquil Russell was transformed into the Hell Hole of the Pacific.

An official report to the Governor described Russell as: “a vile hole, full of impudent, half-drunken people.” The situation got so bad that the Capital was moved to Auckland.

This is a model of a whaling Dingy and Harpoons

With Russell’s once pristine reputation now well and truly destroyed, it remained a backwater while Auckland flourished as the new capital. Through complete lack of interest, Russell’s colonial buildings were undisturbed, thereby preserving its colonial past.

When the world discovered this forgotten colonial backwater, Russell woke up to find itself a major tourist destination.

This is a photo in the Russell Museum of Zane Grey and his record catch

Famous adventurer/writer Zane Grey is best known for his novels about the western frontier. He became the first millionaire author. He was also a great fisherman. Russell was rediscovered by the world when Grey caught a world record 450 lb. striped marlin in the Bay of Islands. The publicity surrounding that record catch attracted sports fisherman from all over the world. The rich and famous flocked to the Bay of Islands and Russell.

Grey established his own fishing camp for sport fishermen on an island in the Bay. He wrote many articles in international sporting magazines, highlighting the uniqueness of New Zealand fishing, [On a side note, Grey also fished in Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, for many summers.]

With the help of Zane Grey, Russell completed its metamorphosis from Capital to Hell Hole to Tourist Paradise

After visiting the Russell Museum, Norman strolled past this church, the oldest church in New Zealand

Charles Darwin visited this church when he was on his famous scientific voyage aboard The Beagle, and resulted in his seminal work on evolution, The Origin of Species.

After spending a couple of hours exploring the Russell Museum and the quaint village, Norman returned The Duke to rouse me from my R&R. We had time for a hike before dinner. We set out to find a view over the bay.

Russell is famous for its pristine natural beauty

After a long flight and a long drive, we were happy to set off on a late afternoon hike to the top of Flagstaff Hill.

There are two routes to the top of the hill, depending on whether it is low tide or high tide. I hardly knew what day it was, let alone what the tides were doing so we stuck to the high tide route.

The path was well maintained, for the most part. We only got a little bit lost once.

I kept my eyes peeled for kiwis but did not spot any

I didn’t see any kiwis but they could have been hiding under these giant ferns

In the middle of the forest, we came upon this stunning plant in full bloom

This is the view from the top of Flagstaff Hill

This is the view of Russell from the top of Flagstaff Hill

It was getting late in the day so it was time to head back into town before it got dark

Would you like to take a sunset stroll on The Strand?

We had a fabulous dinner on the terrace of The Duke with a perfect view of  the sunset over the Bay. Luckily, we had booked a dinner reservation from Toronto, as otherwise we would not have gotten a table that evening, as many were turned away.

With its fabulous location and beautiful colonial design, The Duke is the jewel in the crown on The Strand. Lots of couples and families came out to take a walk on The Strand to watch the sun set over the bay. Many stopped for a drink at The Duke, but soon even the huge bar was too packed, so the wait staff started to take drink orders directly from the street. They even brought glasses of water to the children playing on The Strand and the adjacent beach. I can’t think of many hotels anywhere in the world that would do that. It was characteristic of the vibe of Russell, pleasant, family-friendly and inclusive. It was fun watching this this from our table on the front row of the hotel balcony enjoying a great seafood dinner, while listening to be live musicians playing on the balcony.

There are passenger ferries that leave from the main pier on The Strand in Russell to other towns on the Bay. From the pier, you can also catch boats for sightseeing or whale and dolphin watching.


Russell is a charming colonial town set on a beautiful, warm, tranquil ocean bay. What’s not to like?

We just caught a glimpse of the sun before it set behind a fog bank

It is not often that I have a picture of sunrise and sunset on the same day. We saw the sun rise over Auckland and set over the Bay of Islands. It was a great first day in New Zealand!


Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray