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French Pass & D’Urville Island, Marlborough Sounds road trip

French Pass, Marlborough winding, narrow gravel road with the promise of surprises around every hairpin bend. What a place to go. Hang on to your seatbelt as the road trip delivers cliffside soaring exhiliteration with views to match, sheep deciding they have the right to wander at will and an extraordinary island in the Tory Channel, Cook Strait at the end of the journey. Find time to explore, it’s brilliant and a bucket list destination. A New Zealand’s beautiful road journey. For details about things to do in Marlborough, check out Marlborough guide, things to do for ideas about Havelock, Blenheim, Marlborough Sounds, Queen Charlotte track and perhaps a wine tour. Remember to check the frequently asked questions section about French Pass, Marlborough for tips and best places to go.

1 day to several days
0 nights to several nights

Trip Overview

TOP SIGHTS, HIGHLIGHTS

  • Impossible to get lost, there is only one road in and out (with the option of a detour to Bulwer Bay)
  • Impossibly glorious contrasting Marlborough Sounds, South Island scenery
  • Need a driving thrill, hairpin bends to make you gasp, then this is the road for you
  • Clifftop driving New Zealand style minus European stone buildings or soaring mountain peaks as a backdrop.
  • Scenery is folded rolling hills, sunken river valleys (aka the Marlborough Sounds) and lots of lush, dense original bush interspersed with tussock clad farmland (+ sheep).
Start Rai Valley, Marlborough
Finish Rai Valley, Marlborough

NOTE

Disclaimer

  • Don’t like winding, hairpin bends and feel very icky … consider options
  • The distance does not look long (65 km) for a day trip, that is deceiving as you will be averaging less than 40 km for considerable periods and stopping for photos
  • Peak summer season you could be behind an enormous SUV towing a boat! I kid you not … take some deep breaths and enjoy the views as you crawl behind the summer indulgence.

BEST TIME TO GO

Year round

(if possible avoid summer school holidays due to the potential of road congestion)

Start Rai Valley, Marlborough
Finish Rai Valley, Marlborough

Route map

State Highway 6, Rai Valley turnoff, Ohiwa Bay, Croisilles Harbour, Elaine Bay, Piwakawaka Track, Elaine Bay, Squally Cove, French Pass, D’Urville Island (detour Bulwer)

Rai Valley Turnoff

Rai Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand @AllTrails
Rai Valley @AllTrails

You have travelled from either Nelson / Picton on the major highway connecting the two towns. From Picton you will travel through the picturesque Rai Valley and have a convenience store / grocery / petrol station fill up if necessary. From Picton you have already been spoiled with the charms of the Pelorus River Scenic Reserve. The Reserve is a Marlborough, South Island highlight. Pelorus is a pocket sized gem with a beautiful river, gorges, waterfalls and walks. It is your appetiser for the main event, the signpost for French Pass.

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Okiwi Bay, Marlborough

Okiwi Bay in the Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough, New Zealand @Marlborough New Zealand
Okiwi Bay in the Marlborough Sounds @Marlborough New Zealand

Okiwi Bay offers visitors plenty of outdoor activities. Okiwi Bay is fishing heaven, snapper, moki, blue cod, kingfish, scallops, crays and scenery as a backdrop. Charter operators service the area for visitors without a boat. The holiday park hires guests scuba tanks, weight belts, scuba Air fills and kayak hire. Things to do include bush walks in virgin native forest, & bird watching from your accommodation or in the bush and on the water. Dense forest climbs up the steep harbour creating a sense of privacy and remoteness.

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Okiwi Bay to Elaine Bay

The beautiful Elaine Bay in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand, South Island. A white boat in front and some in the back

The road climbs the hills and valleys of the coast with dense bush or farm clearings on either side. The road is now unsealed with dense bush and glimpses of the sea. The seascape is amazing with its colour variations from pale blue to deep forest green. The bush is interspersed with rolling bare farmland stripped of any bush or trees. The land contours up and down the hills plunging into the distant bays.

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French Pass Lookout

View over French Pass, Marlborough Sounds

This track takes you to a viewpoint over historic Te Aumiti/French Pass, where the tide rushes back and forth like a river. At 40 metres elevation is the perfect viewpoint of the tidal flows.

French Pass Lookout Track

  • 10 minute short walk

French Pass village, a collection of weather beaten holiday houses, a store with a fuel pump, a tiny disused school (1885) now a memorial hall and a wharf.  In the bay is a Department of Conservation campground. The beach is stony.

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Department of conservation camping ground French Pass, Marlborough

French Pass Camping Area, Marlborough, New Zealand @mattvbrierley
French Pass Camping Area @mattvbrierley

This scenic camp is a great base for boating, fishing, swimming and kayaking and is the gateway to Rangitoto ki te Tonga/D’Urville Island.

Facilities

There is a boat ramp next to the campsite and a jetty nearby.

  • Flush toilets, sinks and cold showers available.
  • Wheelchair accessible with assistance.
  • Water must be boiled, treated or filtered
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Waihinau (Bulwer) Bay

Detour

Port Ligar, Marlborough, New Zealand @Marlborough New Zealand
Port Ligar @Marlborough New Zealand

The detour to Bulwer Bay is more brilliant Marlborough Sounds scenery. There are very few lookout points on the narrow, winding gravel road. The road to Bulwer is definitely a road much less travelled. The drive from the turnoff to Bulwer takes around 55 minutes on a no exit road. You cannot get down to sea level as most side roads are on private farmland.

TIP

The sign for Port Ligar is misleading. You will, much later on the dirt track see a sign for Port Ligar – No Beach Access’, Port Ligar is a farm and it’s surrounded by private farm land.

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