Travel writer Lisa Jansen calls in at Okiwi Bay, Elaine Bay, French Pass and D’Urville Island.
Did you know that the Marlborough Sounds make up about 10 percent of the total coastline of New Zealand? Created by a combination of rising sea levels and land subsidence, the steep green hills, countless picturesque bays and blue oceans are among New Zealand’s most stunning scenery. One particularly beautiful part of the sounds is the drive up to French Pass, via Okiwi Bay and Elaine Bay.
Whether you start your journey from Nelson in the west or Havelock, Picton or Blenheim in the east, make sure you stock up on food, petrol and fresh water as options will be limited once you leave. When you’re ready, make your way to SH 6. Just before the Rai Valley when coming from Nelson (or just after, when coming from Blenheim), turn north onto Ronga Road. Follow this road, which is sealed and suitable for most vehicles, for about 23km until you reach Okiwi Bay, your first stop.
Okiwi Bay Holiday Park and Lodge is a great place to spend a night, with spacious sites, well-maintained facilities and a small shop. NZMCA members can also park up at the private POP (charges apply) further down the road, which doesn’t have any facilities but offers views over the bay.
Okiwi Bay is an ideal spot to relax and unwind. Take a stroll along the waterfront or watch the boaties come and go at the boat ramp. For those who like a bit more action, boating, kayaking, paddle boarding and other water sports are all popular here. The Goat Hill Track (three hours return) starts at the western end of Okiwi Bay at the intersection of Hope Drive and Wharf Road. It’s highly recommended for those who want to get their heart rate up while enjoying native bush and glorious views over the bay.
Once you’re ready to move on, make the short 17km (30-minute) drive to Elaine Bay, where you will find a basic DOC campsite in a beautiful location. If you’re lucky to get one of the waterfront sites, you will probably be entertained just taking in the scenery. However, if nothing else, make sure you tear yourself away from the views and venture down to the little jetty in front of the campsite, to meet the local stingrays. Usually best seen at lower tide, some of them are of impressive size. As the water is incredibly clear, you can sometimes even see them swim around the bay from the top of the campground.
If you’re feeling active, Elaine Bay offers several options. Hire a kayak from Explore Pelorus Sea-Kayaks just up the road from the campground, to experience this dazzling part of the world from the water. If you prefer to stay on land, you can find walking tracks on either end of the bay – both only a short walk from the DOC campground. At the north-western end, the easy Piwakawaka Track (45min one way) takes you over a small hill to a gorgeous little bay. At the south-eastern end, the 14.8km Archers Track takes you all the way to Penzance Bay. But you don’t have to go that far – even those who just walk the first few kilometres are rewarded with superb views of the sounds. The first section of the track is also suitable for mountain biking – as is the rest for those with advanced skills and willing to lift their bikes over a few fallen trees.
French Pass is a small settlement with only a few houses, a small shop and a basic DOC campsite. It can get very busy in summer, so if you’re planning to stay, make sure you book your campsite before driving up.
From Elaine Bay, it’s only a seemingly short 26km to French Pass. However, it’s best to plan plenty of time for the drive, partly because of the road conditions, but mainly to have time to enjoy the vistas.
The road is fully sealed all the way to Elaine Bay, but this changes shortly after turning back onto Croisilles-French Pass Road. However, for the most part, you can view ahead quite a bit, meaning you can see oncoming traffic early and pull over where there is space. Nevertheless, the road might not be a good idea for those travelling in large buses or motorhomes.
If you’re travelling with a caravan, it might be advisable to leave the trailer in Elaine Bay and make a day trip up to French Pass. Still, French Pass is a popular spot for boaties who tow their boats up there without issues, so it probably comes down to driving skills and confidence.
Often described as one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives, the road to French Pass is an excellent example of the saying ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’. Not that the destination isn’t amazing! But it’s the sight of green hills and bright blue ocean over to D’Urville Island that will take your breath away. Try to make the drive on a sunny day, and allow time to pull over and take in the views.
Things to do
French Pass is also famous as the place with the country’s fastest tidal flows, reaching up to 8 knots. This natural spectacle is best seen from the French Pass Lookout. You will pass this on your drive, just before you get to the little settlement, and you can also walk back up along the road (about 1km).
From French Pass, you can get a water taxi over to D’Urville Island where you will find hiking and mountain biking tracks of various lengths, and even a restaurant to refuel afterwards.
If you have the time and enjoy adventuring down gravel roads, you could make a detour to Port Ligar on your way back, for more spectacular scenery and views away from any crowds.
When the time comes, return the same way you came. You could make another stop at Okiwi Bay before returning to civilisation, to restock for your next adventure.