Sailing into the Queen Charlotte Sound on the Interislander ferry and docking at Picton is many travellers' first experience of the South Island.
The sight of the bush-clad peaks rising out of sea-drowned valleys rarely fails to impress, but Picton is more than a jumping-off point to the South Island: it's the gateway to the majestic Marlborough Sounds, one of New Zealand's most scenic destinations — and that's saying something.
Beyond the busier Queen Charlotte Sound are the relatively less-visited Kenepuru, Mahau, and Pelorus Sounds. With various DOC-administered and private campgrounds, approved sites for self-contained motorhomes, and 50 DOC-managed reserves around the sounds, it'd be easy to cruise your way overland through Marlborough's many jagged arms and inlets for weeks and never get tired of the place.
From Picton, take the scenic route to Havelock: the Queen Charlotte Drive. The 30km winding waterside road offers a prelude to the rest of the sounds, but with a bit more traffic: native bush reaching right down to the water's edge, sheltered bays calling out to fisherfolk and kayakers, and layered views of the headlands, outcrops, and islands that comprise the sounds.
If driven without stopping, it takes about an hour to drive between Picton and Havelock, but it's tempting to pull over at every opportunity. Fortunately, there are many well-positioned stopping bays and scenic lookouts.
If you're in no hurry to reach the western sounds, it's worth spending some time camped at spots along the Queen Charlotte Drive. Momorangi Bay and Ngakuta Bay are idyllic settlements, with bush-clad hills rising on three sides, and the calm blue waters of the sounds on the other.
There's a little more at Ngakuta Bay, but Momorangi's serviced DOC campground offers the added attraction of a glow-worm grotto, and 5am summer dawn chorus from the surrounding bush. It's so loud it's sure to wake you up, though you're unlikely to mind — just remember that the dawn chorus is said to be a whisper of what it was when Captain Cook visited the Marlborough Sounds in the 1770s.
The Queen Charlotte Drive is quite rightly popular and well-travelled, but for a true motoring adventure, continue to the French Pass.
The pass is a turbulent channel of just a few hundred metres between the mainland and D'Urville Island. It's a hazardous place to sail, as the rushing waters travel at the rapid rate of eight knots, creating whirlpools, eddies, and strong currents above a shallow reef. The drive to the French Pass Lookout takes 90 minutes to two hours from the SH6 turnoff at Rai Valley, depending on how many photo stops you make.
After travelling through several kilometres of forest, with slivers of view teasing here and there, the landscape opens up to panoramic views of Pelorus Sound to the east, Tasman Bay — even the edge of Golden Bay — to the west, and large D'Urville Island across from the mainland.
The road cuts along the edge of high farmland for several more kilometres, and can be a challenging drive. A reward for making it all the way out to the French Pass Lookout is a DOC campground at the small settlement of French Pass, in Admiralty Bay. Here there's a beach that's safe for swimming — a fact that shouldn't be taken for granted in these parts — and a place to buy fuel and some provisions. Tours to D'Urville Island also depart from here.
Travellers with a very large motorhome may want to stop part way along this road and not go all the way out to the French Pass Lookout: shortly after Elaine Bay, the road turns to gravel, and there are hairpin corners, drop-offs, and steep gradient aplenty. If you're towing, consider leaving your sleeping quarters behind at campgrounds at Okiwi Bay or Elaine Bay, making the drive out to the end a day trip only.
An alternative base for the trip out to French Pass is Pelorus Bridge, just west of Havelock. The Pelorus River runs from the Richmond Ranges into Pelorus Sound, and at the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve it's a cool, pristine waterway with pebbled swimming spots surrounded by bush.
If you have the daredevil nature of a teenage boy or a dreadlocked European backpacker, join them jumping off the cliffs into the river — or just watch from a distance. Pelorus Bridge can get quite busy on a hot summer's day, but the serviced DOC campsite offers access to quieter swimming holes where the general public don't tend to go. There are also hiking trails right from the campsite.
While travelling the Marlborough Sounds, you may spot mussel farms strung out in the water, suspended by black buoy drums. Havelock is the greenshell mussel capital of the world — as the town's welcome signs inform visitors — and the fat, tasty molluscs are served at marina-side restaurants with views of bobbing boats.
Seafood lovers should make time for a mussel lunch or dinner in lovely Havelock, accompanied by a glass of wine from New Zealand's largest wine-producing region. But the Marlborough Sounds seem a world away from the Marlborough wine country, which are a delightful story of their own.