Marlborough Sounds

Driving to French Pass and Bulwer, Marlborough Sounds

One of the most spectacular drives in the Marlborough Sounds (and the whole of New Zealand) is the road to French Pass and Bulwer. Sweeping views of the sounds are the highlights, but there are also some nice little coves and beaches to stop at as well as some great short hikes. It takes around 2 hours to reach French Pass or Bulwer (and you have to come back the same way), meaning this is a perfect day trip destination from either Nelson or Picton.

Starting the Drive

After a night of freedom camping near Pelorus Bridge we started the drive towards French Pass and Bulwer. The first section was fairly nondescript, but soon Pelorus Sound came into focus and the views really opened up. We stopped by the side of the road for some photos and then walked the short track to a viewpoint. They could cut a few more trees down as they obscure the views, but it was a good place to stretch the legs a bit and break up the long stretches of winding road (the views are way better from the road though, so if you’re in a hurry just stop there).

Viewpoint on the way to French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

Elaine Bay

We spent the next couple of hours at Elaine Bay, a peaceful sound-side spot with a camping ground and a couple of hikes. We chose the shorter walk to Piwakawakawa Bay — it was an incredibly peaceful walk through the forest with occasional views of the turquoise water below.

READ MORE: Hiking at Elaine Bay, Marlborough Sounds

Hiking at Elaine Bay, a good place to stop when driving to French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

I also recommend walking around the other side (past the marina) for more beautiful Elaine Bay vistas. The six hour Archer Track looks awesome but you’d need to spend at least a night in the area to do both the hike and the rest of the drive to French Pass and Bulwer.

Elaine Bay, a good stop while driving the French Pass Road, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

More Views

We continued driving towards French Pass, stopping whenever we saw an opening in the trees. Farmland starts to dominate as you get closer to the end of the road, meaning the views get a lot grander in scope. The road also turns to gravel — it’s in pretty good condition but it pays to be extra careful on winding gravel roads.

Stunning view on the drive to French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

Driving to Bulwer

You’ll eventually come to a fork in the road — continue straight for French Pass and turn right for Bulwer. You can also take another turnoff down to Cissy Bay which is worth the short detour. The road to Bulwer takes you past some of the best scenery in the Marlborough Sounds. There aren’t many “official” places to stop so you’ll have to pull over by the side of the road when you get a chance. There are signs pointing to Point Ligar but it seems the only access down there is via a private road. In fact most routes down to the water are private, with signs making it clear tourists aren’t welcome.

Beautiful views on the road to Bulwer, near French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New ZealandA calm cove on the road to French Pass / Bulwer, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

We did find one rough road / track above Bulwer with no such signs. We walked to the end and were greeted with the most wide reaching views of Pelorus Sound. If this was an official hike it’d be really popular. After that little walking detour we drove down to Bulwer — there wasn’t a lot going on down there and again, tourists didn’t feel particularly welcome.

Beautiful view above Bulwer -- on the drive to French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

French Pass

French Pass separates D’Urville Island from the mainland. It’s a short distance but the water gets almost rapids-like at times, so I wouldn’t recommend swimming or kayaking over. There is a great short walk just before the French Pass village. It takes you to a viewpoint overlooking the pass and then to a picturesque little beach. It’s one of the best short hikes in the Marlborough Sounds but it seems not many people even know about it.

READ MORE: Walking the French Pass Lookout Track, Marlborough Sounds

View of French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New ZealandFrench Pass Beach, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

The village itself is alright — there’s a camping ground, a small shop (which also sells petrol) and a nice waterfront area. There were no car parks when we were there though — a lot of people park their cars / boat trailers there as it’s the launching point for trips to Durville Island. There’s also another nice viewpoint above the village.

French Pass Lookout, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

From French Pass it’s quite a long drive back to Nelson or Picton. If you have time to burn it’d be worth spending a night somewhere along the road to French Pass so you can spend more time in this scenic part of New Zealand.

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Will you include the Marlborough Sounds in your itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.
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