Elisabeth Easther dives into the history of the Marlborough Sounds' best kept secret.

Where is it?

In the northwest corner of the Marlborough Sounds.

Getting there: It takes about 15 minutes to cross French Pass by boat (after two hours of windy driving from Blenheim or Nelson) with the handy thing about taking the car ferry being you can navigate the 69km of road under your own steam. Better yet, bring your bike. Small planes and choppers also fly here, but are more expensive.

Origin of name: Named for the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville. Although d'Urville was a fan of retaining Maori place names so he would surely have preferred the original Rangitoto Ki Te Tonga. Rangitoto refers to red skies or sunsets and Tonga means south, differentiating it from Hauraki's volcanic island of the same name.


Population: About 52 permanent, rising moderately in summer.

Claim to fame: At 163sq km, d'Urville Island is New Zealand's eighth-largest island, about half the size of Great Barrier.

Island flavour: d'Urville attracts an interesting mixture of people, all drawn to a wild and remote life of adventure and extremes. Quite a few households aim for complete off-grid, self-sufficiency.

Island icon: A large bronze statue of Pelorus Jack was recently unveiled at Collinet Point to commemorate the plucky Risso's dolphin, who spent much of his life in the turbulent waters of French Pass. He was famous for guiding ships safely across the dangerous waters of Cook Strait from 1888 to 1912.

Enjoy kayaking adventures around the island. Photo / Supplied
Enjoy kayaking adventures around the island. Photo / Supplied

Hold please caller:

Your phone won't work everywhere, so make the most it.

Island slogan: The Sounds' Best Kept Secret.

Literary local: Jeanette Aplin, author of The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife and The Lighthouse Children's Mother lives here and writes great yarns.


True story: Angelina Criscillo left Italy's tiny Stromboli Island in 1906 and moved to the even more remote d'Urville Island following an arranged marriage to a fellow Italian. Angelina's grandson Gerard Hindmarsh has written a fascinating book about this remarkable woman, Angelina: From Stromboli to d'Urville Island: A Family's Story.

Best website: durvilleisland.co.nz
Big business: Tourism, farming and fishing.

An opportunity: If you want to move here, how about starting an avocado farm? The relatively pest-free environment and microclimate would make this a super fruity venture. Or offer bike hire over summer?

What's so good: Nature's right in your face on d'Urville, with loads of rare birds, geckos, and even a teeny tiny bat calling the place home.

Town fiestas: Aside from a few fishing competitions, the main events are the annual French Pass Christmas Tree Party and Te Towaka Sports Day.

Best reasons to stop: Diving, fishing, hunting, walking and getting stuck into nature.

Kids love: Frolicking in the great outdoors, spotting blue penguins, dolphins and glow worms. Snorkelling, shell gathering, rock pooling and swimming with friendly little sharks and monkfish.

Best park:

Nature's the king of the parks round here, land, sea and sky.

Best playground: The school at French Pass closed in 2012 and its modest playground can no longer be accessed. So it'll have to be nature again.

In tents: There are six DOC campsites on the island, all pretty rustic but oh so beautiful.

Best walks: You can walk for hours or take little 10-minute hikes. The Waterfall Track, (40 minutes return), The Schoolhouse Track, (a steep walk from the old school to the main road) or the Greville Harbour Walk, a big old bush track. The French Pass Lookout Track is also well trodden.

Best view: It's hard to choose just one when everywhere you look is so glorious but looking out to French Pass at sunrise or sunset is staggering. Or make your way to the highest peak, Wetekia (Attempt Hill) — at 726m high it offers panoramic perspectives and on a really clear day you can see across to Nelson, Kapiti Island, Mt Taranaki and Ruapehu.

Best swim: d'Urville has ocean and waterfalls, with many bathers voting for Penguin Bay because it has both. Greville Harbour is also ace for swimming, with its massive beach complete with towering sand dunes.

Greville Harbour is great for swimming. Photo / Supplied
Greville Harbour is great for swimming. Photo / Supplied

Make a week of it:

Driftwood Eco Tours

offers groovy five-day wilderness adventures featuring history, culture, flora and fauna.

Or try this: Organise for the people from the Wilderness Resort to pick you up from French Pass and take you fishing for your dinner. Then they'll drop you and your bike on land so you can cycle down to the resort. That night, your fish will be cooked while you enjoy all the delights of the resort.

Top shop: To be fair, Jonesy's Garage and Shop in French Pass is only open sporadically because of health reasons and will definitely be closed if it's raining. And fair enough too, Mr Jones has had enough of retail and is looking to sell the business to the right buyer. Huge potential for growth.

Cream of the coffee: d'Urville Island Wilderness Resort is the only real commercial establishment — happily they do a fine flat white. They also have a fully licensed bar and restaurant.

Best food: The Wilderness Resort — again — and they'll cook up just about anything you care to bring in from fish to paua, crayfish to scallops and also pig and deer. And if you arrive empty-handed, their seafood chowder is legendary.

Wet your whistle: Enjoy a drink on the Wilderness Resort's deck and gaze out to paradise as you imbibe. You can also fill your bottles there from the free freshwater tap at their jetty.

French explorer Jules d'Urville. Image / Supplied
French explorer Jules d'Urville. Image / Supplied

Best mountain biking:

Rated one of New Zealand's most enjoyable mountain-biking locations, there are plenty of tracks for all ages and stages.

Best adventures: Cycling, bird watching, fishing, kayaking, hunting for pigs and deer and dreaming of a better life.

Be a tidy Kiwi: Because there's no rubbish collection on the island, whatever you take in, you need to take out.

The verdict: Isolated, invigorating, enchanting.