Seven Best Scenic Marlborough Road Trips
By: Christopher Cookson
Last Modified: 29-10-2020 21:58
Marlborough Anniversary weekend is always a good time to get out and explore so, I’ve put together a list of what I’d rate as Marlborough’s most scenic road trips. I’m being fairly flexible in my description of ‘road trips’, as some of the more challenging ones definitely require a good four wheel drive vehicle and aren’t particularly long distance wise, but will take a bit of time to complete. Although all can be driven, if you’re concerned about your carbon emissions, all of them can be done on a bike as well, although they’ll obviously take you longer, so you should plan accordingly.
I’ve ranked the road trips based on how technically demanding they are on your vehicle rather than distance.
Queen Charlotte Drive
Queen Charlotte Drive is an approximately 35km long narrow, winding road that links Picton to Havelock following the contours of the coastline of Grove Arm before passing through the aptly named Linkwater, then back to the coast again along Mahakipawa Arm. Although it is sealed all the way, this is not a road to take in a hurry, and indeed the speed limit is 50km per hour for much of it, but why would you want to hurry, when there are fantastic views of Tōtaranui / Queen Charlotte Sound, and a variety of picturesque bays, with coastal temperate rainforest covering the hillsides almost to the water’s edge?
I’ve done a bit of travelling overseas, and this reminds me a lot of the coast of São Paulo state in Brazil between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but without the crowds, and no concern about finding snakes in the bush. Admittedly the water is a bit cooler here in New Zealand, but it’s still warm enough for swimming in summer. Governor’s Bay is probably my favourite beach along the way, but it’s easy to miss as the sign for the beach is on a bend at the top of a hill, and the parking in typical laid back Kiwi style isn’t really marked, but basically anywhere you can find not actually on the road or falling down the steep hillside.
People do actually cycle this in a day as part of the Grape Ride, but if you want to tackle this by bike and don’t feel like doing it all in a day, there is a DOC campground and shop with food at Momorangi Bay. There’s a pub at Linkwater as well. Before leaving the sea at Havelock, it’s worth a stop at Cullen Point to do one of the short walks with great views over Te Hoire / Pelorus Sound. If you’re in luck, you may be entertained by some local weka while you’re there.
Personally, I think it’s worth doing Queen Charlotte Drive at least twice; once in each direction, as the view is different, and mornings and afternoons along with different tides keep this road trip interesting even if you’ve done it before.
The Waihopai River is the longest tributary of the Wairau River, and it’s possible to drive a good deal of its valley. There is no exit to this road, so you’ll have to return the same way you went, but it’s worthwhile trip if you want to take in the diversity of Marlborough from vineyards, to high country farms, and rugged peaks in a limited amount of time.
The Waihopai Valley Road turns off State Highway 63 a bit over a kilometre west of Renwick, and right on the corner at the start of the road is a historic cemetery, with signage explaining the Delta Camps that were based in the area during World War II.
About seven kilometres up the road you’ll spot on the right, the controversial Waihopai ‘spy base’, satellite listening station with its two domes sprouting out of the ground like giant puffballs. Also on the right hand side of the road is a line of eucalyptus trees which is reputed to be the longest avenue of trees in New Zealand. After about 13km the road forks and the main Waihopai Valley Road crosses the Waihopai River for the first time over the first Craiglockhart Bridge. A couple of kilometres further on, just past the second Craiglockhart bridge, is one of Marlborough’s most popular summer swimming holes.
From the first bridge, the landscape changes from vineyards to forestry and pastoral farming, and the valley closes in with flat land giving way to more rugged hill country.
About 20km up the road, is the Waihopai hydroelectric dam, Marlborough’s first hydroelectric generation. From the dam, the sealed road continues about another 10km, with the landscape becoming increasingly rugged. After the seal ends, about another 9km of road is drivable in a regular car, and publicly accessible, with the road ending at Stronvar Station, where the road is at an altitude of over 400m above sea level. The surrounding peaks, all over 1000m in height are frequently snow capped in winter, offering incredible views.
Although not the northernmost point you can drive to in mainland Marlborough, French Pass is very close to it. The only point further north is on the road to Bullwer, which incidentally joins the French Pass Road part way along its length, however French Pass is an actual destination, whereas the more northerly point is simply a bend in the road. I have to confess that French Pass is the only destination in this list of Marlborough road trips that I haven’t been to personally. I’ve been on the road, but only got as far as Elaine Bay. The reason why, is the sheer distance from Blenheim. First you need to drive to Rai Valley, which is about 70km from Blenheim, then there is more than another 70km more to French Pass over rugged mountainous country, and unsealed road from Okiwi Bay onwards. Okiwi Bay has camping facilities, and it’s not a silly idea to plan to stay there a night if you want to explore French Pass, as over 340km return trip in a day is further than one way Blenheim to Christchurch, with over 50km of this on winding, unsealed road.
Whether you stay a night, or are brave enough to do a return trip in a day, when you make it to French Pass, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve reached the northernmost settlement in mainland Marlborough (which is actually further north than Wellington), and you’ll also have excellent views of Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D’Urville Island, Marlborough’s largest island, and the northernmost populated place in Marlborough.
If you love the big sky and open landscapes of Central Otago, but don’t want to drive for over 500km to get there from Marlborough, then Molesworth is definitely for you. A good deal of the road is unsealed, but the benefit is that you’ll see much less traffic than on the State Highways of Central Otago. The trip is 207km from Blenheim to Hanmer, but only 122km to Molesworth Cob Cottage, so if you get away early, you can actually make a day trip from Blenheim to Molesworth and back. Along the way, you’ll take in some spectacular scenery in the Awatere Valley, as grape vines in the lower valley soon give way to the golden grasslands of high country stations. It’s actually possible to drive as far as Molesworth all year round unless the road is closed by snow, however you can only complete the trip through to Hanmer between Labour Weekend and Easter, providing fire risk or flooding doesn’t close the road. The drive up the Awatere Valley is visually spectacular at any time of the year, but unless you are happy to turn around and come back following the same route, you'll want to wait for the road to be open through to Hanmer.
The road is suitable for normal cars, however not for towing, and being unsealed, you don’t want to rush; there’s a particularly nasty ford on an otherwise flat, straight section of road not far from Hanmer, that you’ll want to watch out for. Unlike Central Otago, there are no fancy accommodation options, so if you want to stay overnight, you’d better bring your tent, as there are only a couple of basic DOC campsites, one at Molesworth, and one at the confluence of the Waiau Toa / Clarence and Acheron Rivers.
Most people probably start their Molesworth road trip, driving south from Blenheim on State Highway One to the Awatere Valley turnoff, but personally I like to get into the rugged nature of the trip right from the start, and take Taylor Pass Road over into the Awatere Valley, which gets me into rugged rural landscapes within five minutes of leaving Blenheim.
If you like the idea of the views from the top of a mountain range, but don’t like the idea of having to walk to get there, then the Staircase Road is for you. I’ve previously written a detailed blog post about driving this road that climbs to over 1200m in the Richmond Range, and overlooks Lake Chalice, so I won’t repeat myself, as you can read the full article. The Staircase Road can be accessed from Top Valley Road off the Northbank Road. A great thing about this road is that you can usually do it in a regular car without requiring four wheel drive capability, although it does pay to check conditions.
Most people in Marlborough know of the Wairau River, indeed the main populated region of Marlborough was known as The Wairau well before it became Marlborough. What much fewer Marlburians may have done is to trace the river from the sea to its source. The Rainbow Road follows the Wairau River into the heart of the Molesworth area to near its source in the Spenser Mountains, along the way, taking in the spectacular Wairau Gorge, before leaving the road, and climbing to Island Saddle at 1347m, the highest publicly accessible road in New Zealand.
Whereas the Molesworth landscape viewable from the Acheron road is spectacular for its vast barren, treeless landscape, the upper Wairau is quite different, with native beech forest through much of the Wairau gorge.
Unlike the Molesworth Road, the Rainbow Road requires a four wheel drive, and parts of it cross private property in the Rainbow Station, where a toll must be paid. Rainbow Station can close the road at any time depending on weather and farming operations, so it pays to check directly with them regarding the state of the road. The complete trip from Rotoiti to Hanmer is 112Km, however only part of this is on the private section of road. The public section of road from Hanmer to Coldwater Creek is open all year round, weather permitting, and up to Lake Tennyson, can be driven by two wheel drive vehicle, however when the Acheron Road is close through Molesworth, the shortest route from Marlborough is south to Kaikōura then via the Inland Kaikōura Road to Hanmer and north via the Tophouse Road, making for a very long although very scenic journey.
Black Birch Road
Black Birch Road goes one up on the Staircase Road in that instead of just driving to the top of a mountain range, you get to drive all the way to the top of an actual mountain, as the road ends on top of Altimarloch at 1693m above sea level. There are a couple of catches though, firstly that this road really requires a decent four wheel drive, or at least something with enough ground clearance not to get its bottom ripped out by the rock strewn track. Secondly, you need to get permission, and a key to a logged gate, as the first part of the road crosses forestry land.
Whereas the Staircase Road climbs the Richmond Range, the Black Birch Range climbs to the top of the Black Birch Range, and is accessible from the Awatere Valley. I’ve written a substantial blog post previously about taking a trip up Black Birch, so if you’re interested, I suggest you read it for more information.