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Helena Bay Gallery

Taking the long way to Russell

I’ve only ever been to Russell on the ferry from Paihia. Which means I go on foot, which means (remembering I’m rather lazy) that I only ever explore a couple of streets of Russell. But this was the weekend that we’d change all this by going the long way to Russell.

It was my birthday weekend and we were driving (just me and James) from Whangarei to Kerikeri and wanted to do some exploring along the way.

Over breakfast at Lupton Lodge we decided on Russell as a stop. We looked up routes on maps on James phone. We rejected the first 2 quicker options of getting there and decided to take the coast road up to Russell.

Alternate Route to Russell

A quick check with the owner of Lupton Lodge and our neighbours from Helensville at the table next to us and they confirmed it’s a great way to travel (but lots of winding roads which indeed there were).

A later search shows it’s known as the Secret Coast Road – which of course if I had of known at the time would have increased the temptation ten fold!

The drive up to Russell on the coast road is what I’d call the true Northland – and it’s the type you only see away from the main highways. In parts there are pigs and cows wandering over the road – little pigs squirming their way under fences, oblivious to the seldom seen car. There’s even a dead cow, skinned hanging to cure on a tree.

There are native forests spilling out on to the corners of the road before opening to pristine empty bays. And everywhere there are signs reminding us that Kiwi live here. It feels very much like the paradise it must have been when in the early days of New Zealand.

Bay outside of Russell

There are very few spots to spend money along the way, but so many to spend time. One of the stops that you’ll not only want to spend not only time and money is The Gallery at Helena Bay.

Gallery at Helena Bay

It’s full to bursting of amazing NZ artists – jewellery, art, homewares and sculptures. There’s so much that it spills out in to the gardens and frames the amazing view below.

Helena Bay Gallery

You can also stop for a coffee here and stretch your legs as you stroll around the amazing gardens.

Helena Bay Gallery

And I can confirm there are frogs in the pond. This became a recurrent theme of this holiday of me hearing but not being able to find the frogs. But we definitely did find them here!

Helena Bay Gallery

Finally, after a fair few “can we just stop here for a minute” from me we arrive in Russell.

Coming in from the “other side” of Russell you see just what a playground this place really is. Each bay opens up to more sensational houses adorning the hills around us as we see more and more boats heading out around the islands. You really are spoiled for choice in the luxury stakes being this close to all this and Russell.

Both James and I have fond memories of shopping in Russell. James as a little boy when his Dad’s boat would moor by Russell and he and his sister would get their hands on a bit of cash and head into the town to shop up a storm. For James any memory of his Dad (who he lost at 12) is precious so Russell definitely falls into this camp for him. My memories are far less meaningful in comparison and come from later years discovering shop after shop of carefully curated treasures. This trip was no different as I dipped in from shop to shop and James went for his own walk of remembrance down by the water. One of the things I really love about Russell is that when they support local they actually support local Northland makers and creators with so much made in Russell and the surrounding areas.

Shops in Russell

So I did what any self respecting Kiwi would do and supported those local businesses too! I bought little gifts for the kids (to go with the rocks I’d found them earlier). And then when I realised I’d accidentally bought 2 presents for one kids I levelled up and bought them two. And then I bought myself some amazing rose epson salts (which came in very handy after climbing through caves the next day!)

After a coffee we went to check out the view from the top of Flagstaff Hill. Yes, you can walk up it. And yes, we drove up it. Remember here you are talking to the girl that found a way to cheat her way up Rangitoto. By way of karmic payback the heavens did open up the minute I finished walking up the small hill from the carpark to the top of the hill to look out over Russell.

Flagstaff Hill Russell

To bring it back to a more serious note, I felt at odds with myself up on Flagstaff Hill. I find out later that it’s the site of much unrest, of 6 flagstaffs cut down, home to wars and too many wrongs on the part of early settlers. To me it felt like that unrest, past wrongs still not put right persisted and despite the view before me I didn’t feel like staying. Mostly it makes me feel guilty for not knowing more about what happened around here. So rather than do it the injustice of my terrible recounting of history I will instead resolve to find out more and embrace more of our Maori culture.

So quick mood change – from there we made our way toward the car ferry (another thing I didn’t know existed until this weekend).

On the way we drove past a sign in Okiato pointing to the site of the first capital of NZ.

I don’t even need to tell you what I said. James, somewhat over the million stops, finally gave in to my rather sarcastic “I guess I’ll just see it next time I’m driving past” and in a minute we were in front of a rather unremarkable fenced off well in a suburban cul-de-sac.

First capital of NZ

Okaito it seems had a rather brief stint as being the capital with only one year in the job. This well, the plaque told us (and remember here this is my potted history and known to be rather sparse), was the only remnant left of the first capital of New Zealand after the former Government House burned down in 1842.

It’s only a minute to the ferry and the road literally drives straight on to the back of a boat.

Car ferry Russell

From there it’s a quick 5 minute trip to Opua where you drive off again. Too easy.

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