Upper South Island and the West Coast Feature
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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. If you want to stay overnight at French Pass, French Pass Sea Safaris & Beachfront Villas is on the shores of Admiralty Bay. The property has two comfortable, fully self-contained two-bedroom apartments, and one studio unit, and has 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 but cost extra. It's usually closed June to September, but check the website for updates. 03/576–5204. www.seasafaris.co.nz.
D'Urville Island Wilderness Resort. If you really want a remote experience, carry on to D'Urville Island, where the best lodging option is the D'Urville Island Wilderness Resort. The resort is a 30-minute boat ride across French Pass (a water-taxi service picks you up from the French Pass wharf), and overlooks the sheltered waters of Catherine Cove. You can go hiking, mountain biking, and snorkeling here, or just watch the rosy sunrises and the orca whales passing the end of the bay. The resort has a fully licensed bar and restaurant on-site and accommodation reservations are essential. Fishing and scenic boat tours also available. 03/576–5268. www.durvilleisland.co.nz.
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