Kia Ora! Welcome to the site of New Zealand’s first capital, a forested place where kiwis and wekas still roam as they did before the first British settlers arrived.
Okiato, also known as Old Russell, was New Zealand’s first capital in 1840 until the government moved to Auckland the year after. The place is now sparsely inhabited, making it a safe haven for kiwis, New Zealand’s iconic flightless birds.
One remaining business of those early settlers’ days is the Omata Estate vineyard, so start your tour of the region here. This land was first owned by an early European settler, James Clendon, who ran a thriving trading post at Okiato until Lieutenant-Governor Hobson appointed it as the capital in 1840. A fire destroyed historic Okiato and the town never fully recovered.
Nearby Kororāreka picked up from where Okiato left it. Once a haven for rough ex-convicts and sailors, this former “Hell-hole of the Pacific,” transformed into a gem of a tourist town that was rebranded as Russell. Browse the town’s selection of restaurants, art galleries, shops and waterfront cafés. Don’t miss Christ Church which, along with its cemetery, is older than the nation itself. Tour the nearby Pompallier Mission and taste a pain au chocolat in its patisserie.
For jaw-dropping views of the wider Bay of Islands, hike or drive up Flagstaff Hill (Te Maiki), The flagstaff is historically and visually linked to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds across the bay as it flew the Union Jack when New Zealand became a nation. A local Māori chief despised this British symbol of power and hacked the flagstaff down, which led to a war of independence. The flag of the Māori Confederation of Tribes is now raised here on days of significant Māori history.
While you wait for your dolphin spotting cruise, sailing tour or fishing charter, watch kids jump off the Russell Jetty and chat to the fishermen. Upon return, get fish and chips or an ice cream and linger near the wharf until the sun sets.
You can get to this peninsula along the winding Russell Road from Whakapara, but it’s much quicker to take the vehicle ferry from Opua to Okiato or the pedestrian ferry from Paihia to Russell. If you arrive in Russell without your own transport, jump on a coach tour of the area’s historic sites, or join a guided kiwi spotting tour at night, to catch a glimpse of historic Okiato in a leisurely way.