A Road Trip Through the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
You can see a surprisingly large chunk of the Marlborough Sounds without having to set foot on a boat or undertake any long hikes. We recently went on a road trip through the Marlborough Sounds, starting in Picton and ending up down some incredibly scenic (and very quiet) gravel roads. We saw deserted beaches, sweeping views and sheltered coves featuring some of New Zealand’s bluest water. There are three main sounds (Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus) and you can see sections of them all on the route laid out below.
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Hiking in Picton
Some of the best short hikes in the Marlborough Sounds are located in Picton, the biggest town in the sounds. You could walk to the trail heads from town (except for Karaka Point), but since we had a car we figured we might as well drive. First up was Karaka Point, where we walked to a small beach and saw our first proper views of Queen Charlotte Sound.
The highlight of our time in Picton was hiking up the Tirohanga Track for an amazing view over the town. It’s a fairly easy walk (75 minutes return) through the forest to a small clearing where Picton, Queen Charlotte Sound and the surrounding hills fully come into focus.
The Snout Track is the other popular hiking option in Picton. Again, the scenery is well worth the effort and there is a bigger variety of views compared to the Tirohanga Track. When we reached the final viewpoint we realised we had ran out of water, so Gia turned back while I rushed to the end of the track. I needn’t have bothered — the track heads downhill (literally and figuratively) eventually ending up at the water’s edge. There are no views at all along the way and obviously you have to walk all the way back up the hill — you won’t be missing much by skipping it! From Picton there are also heaps of tours available, including boat trips through Queen Charlotte Sound, boat / hiking tours and wine tours.
Queen Charlotte Drive
The road from Picton to Havelock (Queen Charlotte Drive) winds its way above the water and offers up a few chances to get out and stretch your legs. Look out for the viewpoints above the cruise ship harbour and basically try and stop whenever you get the chance. One place you definitely want to visit is Governors Bay. It’s a 5-10 minute walk down to the thin slice of beach — if you’re keen for a swim this is a great place for it.
Spending the night in Picton? Check out these Picton hotels.
Driving to Titirangi (Kenepuru / Queen Charlotte Sounds)
Around two thirds of the way to Havelock you’ll reach Linkwater, where you can turn onto the road heading to Titirangi. You can access parts of the Queen Charlotte Track from this road or just drive along and check out the various bays and beaches along the way. It takes around two hours to drive to the end of the road, and once at the end you’ll have to drive all the way back (or stay at one of the camping grounds / lodges on the way).
Highlights of the road to Titirangi include Mistletoe Bay and Punga Cove (where you’ll find a really nice resort), but the real gem is saved for the end. There are some incredible views over Port Gore and Titirangi Bay and you can drive all the way down to the beach, which is easily one of the best in the Marlborough Sounds.
There are also other routes veering off the main road to Titirangi — we didn’t explore any of them but Instead I’m sure there are some cool things to see.
Havelock, Pelorus Bridge and Freedom Camping near the Marlborough Sounds
It was a long, stomach churning drive back from Titirangi. We had a quick look around Havelock and then had some fish and chips and mussels. Havelock is the green-lipped mussel capital of the world, so you’ll probably want to try some if you’re there in season. It’s also the next best place to stay in the Marlborough Sounds (after Picton) — check out these Havelock hotels if you’re thinking of staying there. From Havelock we drove to Pelorus Bridge, a famous (it was in The Hobbit) swimming spot near Nelson. It’s some of the clearest, most still water you’ll see and it’d be an awesome place to swim on a nice day.
We finally ended a long day of driving at Alfred Stream Reserve, a popular freedom camping spot near Nelson / the Marlborough Sounds. We arrived at around 7.30 pm and there were a few spots available. It’s a nice place to stay and is close to the small Rai Valley township.
Driving to Bulwer and French Pass (Pelorus Sound)
My favourite part of our Marlborough Sounds road trip was the long drive out to Bulwer and French Pass. I’d go as far as to say it’s New Zealand’s most visually stunning coastal road. Our first stop was Elaine Bay, where we did the short hike to Piwakawakawa Bay.
It was roadside vistas from there on out, until we reached the turn off for Port Ligar and Bulwer. A lot of the terrain in these parts is farmland, meaning there are a lot of wide open vistas. The drive from the turnoff to Bulwer takes around 45 minutes (and then you’ll have to return the way you came) — you can’t get down to sea level often as most of the offshoot roads and driveways are private.
We found a rough road with no “Private land — keep out” signs close to Bulwer, so we went for a little walk. Soon after we were treated to some surreal views of the bays below. If this was an official track it’d be famous — instead we were the only people for miles. Bulwer itself wasn’t that interesting, so we drove back to the turnoff (quickly stopping at Cissy Bay on the way) and then set our course for French Pass.
French Pass village was completely full of parked cars and boat trailers. It’s the main launching point for D’Urville Island and the parks fill up quick. We didn’t hang around long, instead preferring to walk the French Pass Lookout Track a few kilometres back along the road. The track takes you to a spot overlooking French Pass to D’Urville Island as well as a small beach. The beach was really nice, and again, no one else was there. We were travelling in high season yet not many seem to know about the further reaches of the Marlborough Sounds.
That afternoon we drove back to the main highway and continued on towards Nelson, the largest town in the northern part of the South Island.
Marlborough Sounds road trip FAQs
- When is the best time of year to visit the Marlborough Sounds? The top of the South Island is one of New Zealand’s warmest and sunniest spots, so you could do this road trip at any time of year. It’s better in summer if you want to swim and do some water sports. I thought it’d be a bit overrun in the middle of summer (during the Christmas holidays) but it was still pretty quiet — nowhere near the numbers of Nelson / Kaiteriteri etc). Whatever time of year you go, try and wait until the sun is shining as this kind of scenery looks so much better under blue skies.
- How long do you need? We did this road trip over three full days (four if you count a rainy day spent at a camping ground in Picton. We didn’t feel too rushed but we definitely didn’t see everything.
- What about the Queen Charlotte Track? I’m sure this 3-5 day hike is worth it, but we saw so many cool things while driving which makes me think you don’t really need to do the Queen Charlotte Track. I’ve heard the Abel Tasman Track is better (we’ve done parts of it) and it’s kind of expensive to do the Queen Charlotte Track as you need to organise boat transport and lodging etc. I’m sure we’ll do it one day, but we were completely satisfied with our first Marlborough Sounds experience.
Would you like to drive the winding roads of the Marlborough Sounds? Let me know in the comments below!