Queen Charlotte Sounds: A Bike Touring Route
Here’s just the tour to either kick off or finish your circuit of the South Island – an exploration of the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Sounds that sit just west of the ferry port in Picton.
The distances here are deliberately short to allow you to soak in the gorgeous scenery, without stressing yourself on the constantly rolling hills and occasionally unpaved roads.
Pack a bottle of local Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in your panniers to sip while admiring the landscape and you’ll be in heaven.
Duration: 3-5 days
Terrain: Constant rolling hills, some steep climbs and a fair stretch of dirt as you head to Titirangi Bay.
Accommodation: B&Bs and resorts if you’re rich, rustic camping if you’re on a budget.
Highlights: Titirangi Bay, Mistletoe Bay and the Queen Charlotte Track.
Lowlights: Not many. This is a gorgeous ride.
Be sure to bring: A bottle of wine and lots of snacks.
Section 1 – Havelock to Moutapu Bay (20km)
Shops: Havelock (supermarket), Linkwater (dairy)
Accommodation: Havelock (all types), Linkwater (B&B), Moutapu Bay (DOC camping, B&B)
This isn’t intended as a full day’s ride. Even if you start late from Blenheim (which is what the GPS graph shows), via Route 6, you’ll easily reach Motuepa Bay by late afternoon.
Havelock is your last chance to stock up on groceries in a decently sized shop. Before you leave town, make sure to try the world famous mussels. Every restaurant sells them and whether you get them steamed, grilled or in a chowder they’re delicious – far bigger than the mussels you get in North America or Belgium.
From Havelock, follow the signs for the Queen Charlotte Scenic Drive to Picton. Your first challenge is to climb to a lookout point but the switchbacks make it a fairly gradual and manageable ascent. After admiring the view, zip down the other side and through Linkwater to make the left turn onto Kenepuru Road.
Another climb now awaits you, this one slightly more challenging. As you come over the peak and start to pick up speed, watch you don’t go past Moutapu Bay Road on your left. It’s just 2km to the DOC campsite but it’s easily missed so keep a close lookout on your right for a small walking track (some steps but we got our bikes down them without too much trouble) that leads to a gorgeous spot with water and a pit toilet. There used to be a sign but when we were there it had mysteriously gone missing. The neighbour might let you push your bikes up his driveway the next morning.
If you prefer a B&B, there are two of them a little further down the road but you’d be wise to call ahead
from Havelock. Get the details from the tourist offices in town.
Section 2 – Moutapu Bay to Kenepuru Head (37km)
Shops: Te Mahia (small shop), Portage (small shop)
Accommodation: Various B&Bs along the route. Te Mahia (resort), Mistletoe Bay (camping, cabins), Portage (resort, backpackers, DOC camping), Kenepuru Head (DOC Camping)
It’s a struggle getting up the hills out of Moutapu Bay but once you’re back on the main road things settle down a bit. There are still plenty of ups and downs but for the most part they’re not very strenuous and the shady rainforest canopy keeps things cool until well into the afternoon.
There are frequent glimpses of the water and it’s hard not to stop at every little bay and picnic table going, just to admire the scenery. Take your time and soak it all in.
With so many campsites and other accommodation to choose from, you could easily just call it a day at lunchtime somewhere around Portage and spend the afternoon on the beach but it’s not hard to push onto the large and grassy Kenepuru Bay DOC campground, where you can watch the sunset over the water from your tent.
Section 3 – Kenepuru Head to Titirangi Bay (27km)
Accommodation:Camp Bay (DOC camping), Punga Cove (resort), Titirangi Bay Farm Camp (camping NZ$5/pp, cabins NZ$25/pp)
It’s a short distance to the tip of the sounds and Titirangi Bay but you won’t escape without working up at least a little sweat. The road climbs all the way through lush green forests for the first 14km before falling back down to the sea on the other side of the Kenepuru Saddle.
Almost all the day’s work is on an unsealed road so don’t expect to go much faster than 6-8km/hour while climbing to the 740m peak. The slow pace is ideal for admiring the views of the sounds. It’s spectacular scenery when the trees part enough for you to catch a glimpse of the sea down below.
When you reach Titirangi Farm Camp (03 579 8006, firstname.lastname@example.org), you can spend the rest of your afternoon lazing on the beach, watching the many wekas (careful they don’t get your food – they will break into bags!) and sheep milling about or by going for a tramp over the hills. There’s always plenty of space in the rustic campground (cold water showers and no power or kitchen) but book ahead if you’d like a bed in the cabins, with full facilities.
Section 4 – Titirangi Bay to Mistletoe Bay (50km)
Shops: Portage, Mistletoe Bay (at the camp, limited hours)
Accommodation: Camp Bay (DOC camping), Punga Cove (resort), Kenepuru Head (DOC camping), Portage (resort, backpackers, DOC camping), Mistletoe Bay (camping NZ$15/pp, backpackers)
Retrace your steps out of Titirangi Bay, over the peak and back to the main road. After all the work getting to and from Titirangi Bay, you’re due a treat. How about an ice cream at the Portage Bay shop? You can also pick up supplies here but they’re very expensive.
Another 10km takes you to a junction with the Queen Charlotte Track and the road down to quiet Mistletoe Bay. If you’ve been camping so far, this is your first chance at a hot shower in days and what a wonderful thing it is! You could also get a space in the backpackers.
There’s also a camper’s kitchen and if you walk along the track by the beach at low tide, you can get some mussels for supper. Look for ones that aren’t too big and once cooked they should be a nice orange colour. You can also catch fish like snapper here.
Section 5 – Mistletoe Bay to Picton (38km)
Shops: Mistletoe Bay (at the camp, limited hours), Picton (supermarkets)
Accommodation: Mistletoe Bay (camping NZ$15/pp, backpackers), Queen Charlotte Track (DOC campsite), Anakiwa (backpackers), Picton (all types)
It’s almost time to head back to civilisation but not before you get your bike out onto the Queen Charlotte Track. You can jump onto it near the top of the road that leads out from Mistletoe Bay. We wouldn’t normally recommend taking a loaded touring bicycle onto a mountain bike path but this section of the track is quite easy and rideable.
It’s not exactly the Otago Rail Trail (which you can ride with your eyes closed). There are some bumpy stretches and don’t try this in the rain. It would be very muddy! But on a fine day, it’s pure pleasure cycling through the rainforest to secluded coves and high lookout points, with not a car in sight.
After 12km you emerge at Anakiwa, home of the Outward Bound School and a backpackers. Then it’s back to the main road and over a few more hills to Picton, where you can either continue circuiting the South Island or hop a ferry back north. In Picton, if you’re staying the night get yourself down to the fish plant on Dublin Street where a mere NZ$3 buys you a kilo of fresh mussels but you’ll need to arrive before they shut up shop at 2pm. They’re pure heaven, steamed and dipped in butter. Combined with a bottle of white wine, it’s the perfect way to end your tour of the South Island.