I’m in Russell and it’s time for lunch. Well, in fact, it’s way past lunchtime, but I’ve been sidetracked wandering the charming streets of this tiny Bay of Islands village and I have suddenly realised that I’m starving.
Fortunately, I know exactly where to go. The Duke of Marlborough Hotel occupies a prime position in the heart of Russell, just along from the ferry wharf. With a wide sweep of veranda overlooking the water, there’s nowhere I’d rather be on a Sunday afternoon. My table sits in a stream of late autumn sunshine, so there’s no need for the gas heater that the waiter offers to turn on. I relax into my chair and drink in the scene; glistening white yachts bobbing just offshore, a tiny ferry chugging across the bay, the hotels and houses of Paihia draped across the hills in the distance. Sipping a cold beer to a laid-back soundtrack of Morcheeba, it’s all I can do to stop myself letting out an audible ‘aaah’!
‘The Duke’ is a landmark in Russell; an especially historic site in an especially historic place. In 1840, The Duke of Marlborough Hotel became the first licensed hotel in New Zealand, although it had actually been serving alcohol since 1827. At that time the town (known then as Kororareka) was a notoriously lawless place; a popular stop for sailors, merchants and escaped convicts from Australia, it was sodden with alcohol and brimming with crime. In the midst of this colourful era, The Duke of Marlborough began trading and it has been in operation ever since (although the building itself has burnt down and been rebuilt several times – the present incarnation is the fourth).
Sitting here on a quiet Sunday, it’s hard to imagine drunken sailors staggering along these streets. One thing’s for sure; the food then wouldn’t have had a patch on what I’m eating now! Special spots like this can sometimes rest on their laurels when it comes to furthering their modern-day reputation, so I was pleasantly surprised when the food turned out to be fabulous!
A big bowl of creamy Seafood Chowder (packed with prawns and local fish and mussels) was accompanied by beautiful crusty bread and, for dessert, the Crème Brûlée was utter perfection with its amber lid of toffee! The service was fabulous too. The English waiter had been won over by Russell’s charms and he was now a loyal champion of his adopted home. So it was a lovely afternoon all round and I lingered over my flat white as long as possible, leaving just in time to hustle down the wharf and catch the ferry back to Paihia.
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel will be closed for a couple of months over winter 2010 and will reopen for the summer season with a major facelift; the interior will be fully refurbished, updating the dining area and accommodation to a luxurious standard. I, for one, can’t wait to return next summer and see The Duke’s next incarnation!