The wharf at French Pass
day trip

French Pass: the road through New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds

If you ask people about visiting the Marlborough Sounds, they’ll tell you to go by boat. They’ll say that’s the best way to reach the almost impenetrable fingers of the Sounds and the only way to explore the hidden bays. And they’re right, of course, except for one exception: the road to French Pass or Te Aumiti.

This journey isn’t one taken by many travellers. The route to Te Aumiti takes you to one of the strips of land extending north of the South Island in New Zealand. The road is gravel in most places and winds over a long peninsula that culminates just shy of a tiny island.

The road to French Pass
A curious sheep on the clifftop

The views are spectacular as you navigate one-lane bridges, hairpin turns and narrow roads with sheer drops on one side. Sheep and cattle stare as you pass by, and it’s possible to go the entire way to French Pass without seeing another car.

French Pass itself is the thin stretch of water separating the mainland and D’Urville Island (also called Rangitoto ki te Tonga). The currents in the pass are strong and you can see whirlpools in the water where they meet. There’s a tiny town at the end of the road, just by the water, with a long wharf extending into the sea. Access to the island only possible by private boat or water taxi.

A boat in the sounds
A small boat on the beach at French Pass
Fishing boats at French Pass

It’s a peaceful place which makes you feel like you’ve truly reached the end of the world. The scenery is spectacular and, if you’re lucky enough to rent one of the houses in the area, this would be the perfect place to switch off and relax without interruption. A short walk from the township takes you to a viewpoint where you can watch the sea battle itself in the narrow strait between the island and the mainland. There is also good fishing in the strait, but it pays to go with a local who knows the currents.

A panoramic view of the Marlborough Sounds

Māori myths from the area tell the story of Kupe, the first Polynesian traveller to discover the islands of New Zealand in the 1300s. One of the creatures Kupe had brought to New Zealand was his pet shag, Te Kawau a Toru. The reef in the pass is named after this bird, who sadly broke its wing and drowned in the churning waters of Te Aumiti.

This is a remote part of the country and you’ll need a car to get to the French Pass township. This route through the Sounds is beautiful and somewhat isolated, so it’s worth taking your time with the drive, stopping for photos and to just soak up the scenery.

Looking down the long wharf at French Pass
Welcome to French Pass sign

There’s not much in the way to eat out here, so pack some snacks or take a picnic along. The drive takes about 2 ½ hours from Nelson and closer to 3 hours from Picton, so leave early if you’re just going for the day. The stunning, dramatic surroundings make the journey worth the effort.

The route to French Pass

From State Highway 6 between Havelock and Nelson, take the road to Rai Valley and follow the winding route to Okiwi Bay (worth a stop in itself). The road is unsealed from Okiwi Bay to French Pass and the drive takes about an hour. To get to D’Urville Island from the French Pass township, you’ll need to book a water taxi.

If you are renting a vehicle, check whether your insurance covers unsealed roads. Also keep in mind that there are no petrol stations or services between Okiwi Bay and French Pass.

Looking across the Marlborough Sounds
The blue water bordering the brown cliffs
The view over the town

Lookout points in French Pass

There are a number of lovely lookout points near the French Pass township. Here are a couple which are easily accessible from the road:

French Pass Lookout Track and Beach (10-15 Minutes One Way)

See where the currents collide, creating swirling whirlpools. It’s an easy walk to the viewpoint and the track continues on to a beautiful beach. The walk is well marked off the French Pass Road – just look out for the Department of Conservation sign.

Collinet Point Lookout (10 Minutes One Way)

A short walk from the French Pass campsite leads you to a wonderful view over the town and bay. You can also read about the famous dolphin, Pelorus Jack.

Share this article

Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 23 March 2023

Lake Wakatipu view from Queenstown

New Zealand

Famous for its natural beauty, New Zealand is a wonderful destination for travellers with a bit of an adventurous streak. A safe and accessible country, you'll find a huge range of activities to keep you busy, particularly if you enjoy the outdoors.