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French Pass and D'Urville Island

They're not easy to get to, but if you have an adventurous spirit and don't mind a rough road, French Pass and D'Urville Island are two of the best-kept secrets in the whole top of the South Island.

The road to French Pass splits off State Highway 6 at Rai Valley, halfway between Havelock and Nelson. It's winding, rough, and steep in places, but quite passable in a regular vehicle if you're a competent driver (check that your rental car is allowed off the sealed road). The sign at the start says "French Pass 2 hrs," and although it's only 64 km (40 mi) to the pass, this estimate is basically true. The road first climbs over the Rongo Saddle and down to Okiwi Bay through native bush; not far from here, you'll have spectacular views of D'Urville Island in the distance. Then the road crosses to the Pelorus Sound catchment and climbs along the ridge separating the waters of that sound from Tasman Bay to the west. Small side roads drop precariously to hidden bays such as Te Towaka, Elaine Bay, and Deep Bay.

The last 12 km (7 mi) is a dramatic drop down to sea level, skirting Current Basin before arriving at French Pass, the narrow stretch of water separating Tasman Bay from Cook Strait, which moves at up to 9 knots during the tidal run. Both the waterway and the island were named for French explorer Dumont D'Urville, who navigated through the pass in the 1820s when it was uncharted by European cartographers. D'Urville Island is on the far side of this stretch of water, and it's a fabulous destination to feel what isolated coastal New Zealand is all about. Plan to stay two nights as it's a long drive either way.

Between Okiwi Bay and French Pass there are no facilities—no gas stations, bathrooms, or cafés—so come prepared. Only limited public facilities are at French Pass: a basic toilet, gas pump, and essential supplies during limited hours.

French Pass Sea Safaris & Beachfront Villas. At the outer tip of the Marlborough Sounds overlooking migratory paths of whales and accessed by a long but incredibly scenic drive, you'll find French Pass Sea Safaris & Beachfront Villas. (You can also fly by floatplane from Picton.) The area is home to one of the world's rarest seabirds, the King Shag. Owners Danny and Lyn are passionate environmentalists, who love this special, wilderness spot so much they want to share it with guests. On the shores of Admiralty Bay, the property has two comfortable, fully self-contained two-bedroom apartments, and one studio unit, and you can take part in seal and dolphin swims in season, island walks, kayaking, and wildlife discovery and bird-watching tours. If you're lucky you'll see dolphins from your balcony. Diving and fishing charters can also be arranged. Home-cooked meals, including breakfast, can be arranged for a cost. Pros: your hosts are keen conservationists and incredibly informed about the local wildlife. Cons: remote; closed June–Sep. French Pass, Marlborough. 03/576–5204. www.seasafaris.co.nz. 2 two-bedroom units, 1 one-bedroom.

D'Urville Island Wilderness Resort. If you really want a remote experience, carry on to D'Urville Island, where a secluded lodging option is the D'Urville Island Wilderness Resort. After a two hour drive from either Nelson, Picton, or Blenheim, the resort is a 30-minute boat ride across French Pass (a water-taxi service picks you up from the French Pass wharf), From your base that overlooks the sheltered waters of Catherine Cove you can go hiking, mountain biking, and snorkeling here, or just watch the rosy sunrises and the possibly even orca whales passing the bay. The resort has a fully licensed bar and restaurant on-site and accommodation reservations are essential. Options include four, two bedroom beachfront units, with tea and coffee making facilities, a Kiwi-style 'bach (holiday cottage) and a bunkhouse. Prices for two range from NZ$110 to NZ$140. Fishing and scenic boat tours also available, or you could just take out a dinghy, complimentary for guests. Pros: great wildlife, and you can fish from your own dinghy. Cons: incredibly remote. d'Urville Island, Rai Valley, Kaikoura, 7193. 03/576–5268. www.durvilleisland.co.nz. Four 2 bedroom units, 1 self-contained cottage, 1 bunkhouse.

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