Away from the bright lights of Nelson, Elen Turner heads down a spectacular side road to the notorious French Pass
A relatively recent transplant to the Top of the South, I'd seen the boats towed from Nelson turning off State Highway 6 in the Rai Valley every time I drove to and from Havelock for a mussel lunch. But it's hard to tell around here which turn-offs lead to private farmland and dead ends, and which to otherworldly beautiful road trips that are among the most scenic in New Zealand.
The Croisilles Harbour–French Pass Road is definitely the latter (with plenty of the former sprinkled in along the way, too). But because this is a detour from the highway, not a highway in itself as are other Must Do road trips in the South Island — Haast Pass or the road to Mount Cook, for example — to take it, you have to know it's there.
As well as the obvious — Croisilles Harbour, in the outer western reaches of the Marlborough Sounds, and the notorious French Pass — the road offers almost everything one might want from a New Zealand road trip. Sea on the full spectrum from lapis to jade, bush-walk detours and campsites, dramatic undulating farmland that meets the shore, livestock on the road, the forest-covered mountains of the Marlborough Sounds, sheer cliff drop-offs that can make a driver laugh or cry, and roads both sealed and unsealed that constantly remind you that "driving in New Zealand is different".
But a particular selling point of this particular road trip is that it can be done in a day from Nelson, if you need. Overnighting at Ōkiwi Bay, Elaine Bay or French Pass town is also possible, and even recommended.
How to find one of NZ's most beautiful roads
The sign board at the highway turn-off at the Rai Valley heightened my sense of anticipation for this trip: Marlborough's answer to the "London that way, Cape Town that way, Tierra del Fuego that way" signs at Cape Rēinga and Bluff. Ōkiwi Bay, 22 km. Elaine Bay, 39km. Bulwer, 80km. French Pass, 60km. That was our final destination. Sixty kilometres didn't sound very far, but I'd watched amateur videos on YouTube in preparation for this road trip, so I knew what to expect. We'd be lucky — nay, reckless even — to average 50km per hour on this road. Years of living outside New Zealand had turned me into a rusty driver, so driving all the way out to the French Pass felt a bit like trial by fire.
Fog rose from the paddocks in the early morning and the road followed the small Ronga River. Not too early, but it was almost winter, so early enough to get a good start on a long day of driving. As the road rose into the hills separating the Ronga River Valley from Croisilles Harbour, the fog thickened. So much so that at one point I had to stop—was it an intersection, of rural sorts? I couldn't see far enough in front of me to tell.
But almost as soon as I'd stopped, unsure of how to continue, the fog cleared and I saw it was just a curve in the road. I was glad no cars had been following close behind to notice my faux pas, but there was no real danger of that around here. It didn't seem to have occurred to anyone else that a day trip from Nelson to the French Pass was a perfect way to spend the first post-lockdown weekend. Over the course of the day, the joy and invigoration that comes from being surrounded by gorgeous nature was surpassed only by the joy and invigoration of being allowed to, again.
The first stop is at Ōkiwi Bay, with a campsite and collection of smart high-end baches, but little else. Dense forest covers the steep mountains that rise around the settlement at Ōkiwi Bay, as in Picton but more so. Flat coastal land in the Marlborough Sounds is rare, so settlements are small and come close up the shore, but hardly spread on to the hills because there is little need, with such a small permanent population. This would have been an ideal place for a pit stop, particularly because of the playground, but my 2-year-old was napping in the back. As all parents know, you don't wake a sleeping child on a road trip.
Driving from Ōkiwi Bay
After Ōkiwi Bay, the road rises into the hills again, away from the sea, and there are rare glimpses of the Sounds either side from clearings in the bush. But, after about half an hour, the road forks at the turn-off to Elaine Bay, and this is where the "real" adventure begins. The road to French Pass is mostly unsealed after the turn-off, and continues through forest for a while, with some intermittent views east to Fitzroy Bay and the Tawhitinui Reach of Pelorus Sound.
Once the road leaves the forest and starts to wind along the shorn, farmed hills overlooking Fitzroy Bay, Hallam Cove and Okuri Bay, the calls of "hang on a sec, I've just got to stop for a photo" became more frequent. Luckily, I was both driver and photographer, so did this whenever and wherever I fancied.
I was reminded of a poem I had painted into my School C Art portfolio: "There was light on the water, and land on the light. Thick folds of corrugated hills rising from the deep blue of long-sunken river valleys, thrown into shadow by the cool almost-winter sun". Whoever wrote those words — 20-plus years later, I neither remember nor have the painting any longer — must have been inspired by driving to the French Pass.
Or, perhaps they hiked here, or rattled along a barely there track on a horse cart. The French Pass Road was built in 1957. The feat of engineering connected the scattered residents of these parts of the outer sounds to the Rai Valley by road for the first time. Many of the strewn inhabitants of the Marlborough Sounds still live far from any roads and rely on their own boats and services like the Pelorus Mail Boat to connect with Havelock, Picton and further-afield Blenheim for basic supplies.
The road to D'Urville Island
D'Urville Island, just off the tip of the South Island, and the French Pass become visible long before the road reaches the end of the peninsula, because here the road slows cars to a crawl. Not just because of the unsealed nature of the road, but from the sheep that wander freely beside and on it. This is farmland, primarily, and travelling through it feels like being a guest on someone's (very large) property. Many small side roads down to beaches and bays declare no public access. So, of course, the sheep get right of way here.
A Department of Conservation sign marks the French Pass Reserve, just before the tiny hamlet of French Pass (which is nothing much more than a campsite, a general goods store and a school-cum-community hall). To reach the French Pass Lookout, park on the road and walk a short distance down a track through the bush. From the lookout, it's clear why this narrow channel of water was notorious among early seafarers in New Zealand's history, both Māori and European. Just 500m across, the channel is very shallow and, especially as the tide turns, the sea waters turn almost to rapids — at 8 knots, the French Pass has the fastest tidal flows in the country. Contributing to the vast gush of water is the difference in tidal range between Tasman Bay to the west (4m) and the Cook Strait to the east (2m). Navigating the pass in a non-motorised boat required exceptional skill and ability to read the conditions. The first European to have recorded navigating the pass, Admiral Jules Dumont d'Urville — after whom the nearby island was named — lost control and struck rocks.
Needless to say: no swimming or play-boating here. But, fishing charters within the sounds and water taxis over to D'Urville Island can be arranged from French Pass town, if you do fancy crossing these exhilarating waters. There is some accommodation on the island (population 52), making this an ideal wilderness retreat for travellers who are in no hurry to return to the bright lights and urbanity of Nelson.
To make it back to the city before dark, we had to leave French Pass by mid-afternoon. Night-time driving over the mountains separating Nelson and Marlborough can't be recommended to any driver, regardless of experience level. There was nothing boring about the return journey through the farmland, forest, Ōkiwi Bay and river valley, though. The late-afternoon light created entirely different effects on the hills and valleys of the outer sounds, and the familiar sweep of Tasman Bay beckoned in the distance. Plus, after enjoying the sight of sheep up close to our car, the 2-year-old was lulled back to sleep by the gentle bumps and turns in the road.