If your family is making 2020 the year they get to know New Zealand, here are some great suggestions of where to travel in central NZ – and yes, this is only a fraction of the fun our country has to offer.
Please make sure you check websites and social media before planning any of these trips as regulations and conditions are changing weekly in these unusual times.
This part of the North Island provides endless fun for families. In summer the lake is perfect for swimming, but in winter the Hot Pools are an equally wonderful option (either visit Tokaanu pools or stay at Taupō DeBretts for access to thermal pools and three heated hydroslides right throughout your stay). Kids love the fly-fishing experience at the National Trout Centre (school holidays only) where an instructor helps them to reel in a fish, and they take their catch to be succulently smoked afterwards – just try not to eat it all before you’ve even left the grounds.) For families with older kids, white-water rafting down the Tongariro River is a truly spectacular experience – and loads of fun to boot – and no one in the family will want to miss the legendary home-baking at Creel, a tiny cafe hidden out the back of a tackle shop that’s been around since the 1920s. Just pray the locals already haven’t snapped up all the brioche.
There is a reason Lonely Planet named Taranaki one of the world’s best regions to visit in 2017, and it’s especially suited to family holidays. New Plymouth itself has so much to offer with the – literally – unmissable Len Lye Centre; the wonderful Puke Ariki Museum where kids can lose themselves for hours; Chaddy’s Charters for seagoing fun (including seal spotting) and so many family-friendly eateries, that adults will love as well. Within just a five-minute walk of the Len Lye Centre you’ll find Snug, Monica’s Kitchen, Ms White, Social Kitchen and Public Catering Company – all excellent. If you can time your visit for the TSB Festival of Lights you won’t regret it, and active families will delight in cycling the Coastal Walkway Trail, which hugs the stunning rugged coastline from the city to farmland and beyond. Further out of the city it’s well worth heading up at least part of the iconic Mt Taranaki; from Stratford, it’s only 25 minutes to the start of walks that take in the beautiful Dawson’s falls and Wilkies Pools. If time permits, a trip to Hawera for the fascinating Tāwhiti Museum is a must-do. Widely regarded as the best privately owned museum in the country, kids and adults alike will be mesmerised by the intricate models of scenes from our history as well as a raft of other fascinating experiences.
Children are spoiled for choice in Whanganui with the quirky Durie Hill Elevator (New Zealand’s only public underground elevator and one of only two in the world), the playground at Kōwhai Park, Kai Iwi and Castlecliff beaches for picnics, Splash Centre, Springvale Pump Track, Glassblowing (only for older children) and river kayaking. The Whanganui River is well known for its multi-day kayak trips, which are an incredible experience for families with slightly older offspring.
Everyone wins in Hawke’s Bay – vineyards are perfect for kids to run around while parents do some tasting, and this part of New Zealand is definitely not short on those. The famous Hawke’s Bay Farmers Market will please all, and if you’re an active family you’re spoiled for choice – there’s Te Mata Peak, mountain bike tracks, horse riding, beach walks, surfing lessons, a trip to Maraetotara Falls and so much more besides. Bay Skate in Napier is perfect for anyone looking for fun on wheels (scooters, skateboards, roller skates) and there aren’t too many kids who won’t find something that tickles their fishy fancy at the National Aquarium.
Of course, the capital is home to Te Papa, where many a family has whiled away the hours perusing the fascinating, and often hands-on, exhibitions but there’s so much more than that to make a family holiday in Wellington memorable. Zealandia is the world’s first fully-fenced urban eco-sanctuary and home to more native birdlife than you could ever imagine; Wellington Museum is a treasure; the botanic garden is gorgeous (and perfect for tiring out energetic offspring) and there are so many great places to eat that don’t involve chicken nuggets (1154 Pastaria, Capital Market, almost any of numerous craft breweries in the inner city). The laneways are worth a wander too – a trail from Wellington Chocolate Factory to Leed St Bakery (those salted caramel cookies!) to Lashings and on to Fix and Fogg’s Peanut Butter window will keep any sweet tooth very happy. And of course, there’s Weta Workshop – don’t miss the fabulous Thunderbirds Are Go exhibition, fun for kids and a trip down memory lane for parents of a certain age.
The top of the South Island is known for its incredible beauty and Golden Bay is one of the best examples of that; perfect for an inspiring family trip. Check out millions of years’ worth of stalactites and stalagmites at Ngarua Caves; the incredibly clear blue waters of Te Waikoropupū Springs (the largest freshwater spring in the Southern Hemisphere); the rugged coastline and towering arches of Wharariki Beach – with plenty of sand dune and rockpool action for little ones; famous Farewell spit and its wonderful wildlife; Wainui Falls and so much more. Don’t miss lunch or dinner at The Mussel Inn, where the locals love to come and chat to visitors – and have done for 25 years. The food is perfect for families, they brew their own beer, cider and soft drinks on site, there’s live music and it’s a fantastic encapsulation of all the best things about small Kiwi communities. If you’re a salmon fan you won’t want to miss Anatoki Salmon Farm, where you can catch your lunch – super fresh.
If your kids travel well in cars, it’s worth taking them on a road trip down the West Coast of the South Island. Notable stops (depending on which section of the coast you choose) are The Oparara Limestone Arches, 30-million-year-old pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki, Nile River Glow-worm Cave, Monteith’s Brewery for a family-friendly lunch (and perhaps a well-deserved beer for parents), Shantytown Heritage Park (think dressing up for old-style sepia-toned photos, exploring heritage buildings and panning for gold), the stunning Hokitika Gorge and, if you’re heading all the way down, of course, the magnificent Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
There’s also a wildlife centre in Franz Josef, where you can see New Zealand’s rarest kiwi breeds. The scenery all the way down is breathtaking – dense rainforest, rugged mountain peaks, and wild coastlines; New Zealand at its untouched best.
Christchurch is a kids’ paradise. It’s the only city where a trip to the library is an absolute must-not-miss. Multi-floored, ultra-modern Tūranga is a library like no other, and parents of little kids will love kicking back with a book while their charges spend an eternity creating masterpieces from the huge collection of Duplo and Lego. There’s even a cracking cafe at the front of the building if caffeine is in order. Gaming, public computers, virtual reality headsets and a makerspace make Tūranga so much more than just a place to read.
There’s plenty to do outside too – the tram; the famous, and enormous, Margaret Mahy Playground (just try to resist having a go yourself, parents); ziplining and mountain biking at Christchurch Adventure Park and plenty of short, and longer, hikes.
Everyone in the family will find something they want to eat at Little High Eatery and the new incredible Riverside Market complex and you cannot miss C1 Espresso if you have kids (how many other cafes send curly fries to you via pneumatic tubes in the ceiling?) Christchurch is great to explore on foot and if the kids are up to it, the Canterbury Earthquake memorial and Quake City museum are both beautiful places to visit, remember and understand what was lost on that fateful day in February 2011.
Just opened (on Queen’s Birthday weekend) is He Puna Taimoana, an $11 million pool complex in New Brighton with saltwater pools, a plunge pool and a sauna with a view.
Most kids would be happy to just spend all day at the incredible thermal pools and spa complex when in Hanmer – children seem to have an amazing capacity to stay in water for prolonged periods of time. It’s a great set-up – adults can relax in the warm mineral-laden waters while kids ride the hydroslides, lazy river and aqua thrill ride; everyone’s a winner.
But there are other things to do in this picture-perfect alpine village. There’s mini golf, an animal park and the hilarious quadricycles – which quickly sort out the grafters from the shirkers in the family. Hanmer Springs also has some beautiful walks – sometimes you’d swear you’re meandering through the film set of an American movie as the main street hits the picturesque foot of the Alps.
If you have time to take the coastal route back to Christchurch, Cathedral Cliffs will have everyone’s jaws on the ground – just one of the secret surprises of the Hurunui District.
If you haven’t been to the Waitaki region before, Ōamaru might come as a bit of a shock; it’s quite different from so many other New Zealand towns with its beautifully-preserved Victorian limestone buildings.
Walking the streets creates a sense of time travel and provides something for everyone in the family to enjoy in the form of galleries and artisan shops. There’s a skatepark playground, beach and mountain bike trails if the kids want to blow off steam and Steampunk HQ is well worth a visit with its treasure trove of bizarre gadgets and ghostly figures. You’ll find strange creatures made from scrap metal, and the backyard is filled with old planes and vehicles, which have all been “steampunked” in one way or another. To call it a museum would be unfair – it’s more of an experience, where touching things is allowed and encouraged.
Of course, Ōamaru is known for its penguins, and you can watch them waddle ashore from seating built near the colony. The kids won’t let you leave town without a visit to the factory shop at Rainbow Confectionery, but it’s okay as you get to go to Whitestone Cheese’s Headquarters to stock up on treats yourself.
The gateway to any trip to Milford or Doubtful Sound, Te Anau is worth a night or two for some leisurely family action; the pace is slow and perfect for decompressing.
Getaway Holiday Park is the ideal accommodation for families with a range of options to suit all budgets. With hot tubs, playgrounds and a giant jumping pillow, you might have trouble getting little ones to do anything in the town itself.
Obviously, the scenery in Te Anau is world-famous and a walk around the main part of the lake followed by a picnic is a must (or just grab fish and chips from the Te Anau Dairy).
If your kids like boat rides – don’t they all? – the glow-worm tour is a total treat. You hop on a boat and travel across the lake to 12,000-year-old caves where you wander through with a guide to the sound of water rushing below you, then follow another boat ride to a glow-worm grotto for twinkly sparkly viewing.
You can actually walk the beginning of the Kepler Track from Te Anau, and just go as far as your kids will manage or hire bikes or visit the Bird Sanctuary if that’s more their thing. Check out the Fat Duck for a bite to eat – a gastropub with a kids menu that’s sure to please.
If you’re missing the Pacific Islands at this time of year, you’ll be surprised at just how beautiful the beaches in the north of our own country are. Crystal-clear water and white sands characterise so many of Northland’s beauty spots, such as Matai Bay (consistently named as one of New Zealand’s top beaches). Head to the Hokianga for the untouched New Zealand experience – frolic on the golden sand dunes, wander through Waipoua forest to see Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere, our most majestic kauri, or even take a jetski safari on the Harbour with Awesome Adventures Hokianga (what Lenny doesn’t know about this area is not worth knowing). For larger-scale tourist-based activity head to the other coast to Pahia and cruise through the Hole in the Rock, spot dolphins or visit historic Russell (Okiato was the site of our country’s first capital). Mountain bikers will love Waitangi Mountain Bike Park and of course there’s the famous Treaty Grounds and fascinating museum – a must-visit for New Zealanders of all ages.
The City of Sails has plenty to occupy families. On a sunny day, explore the Viaduct Harbour and North Wharf (the playground will keep them occupied for ages and you can all refuel at the Auckland Fish Markets afterwards, where you’ll find a wide range of international cuisine and a great outdoor bar). Auckland Zoo, the Sky Tower, Snowplanet and Rainbow’s End are always popular with families, as are the black sands of the wild West coast beaches (Bethells, Piha, Muriwai); make sure you stop at Hallertau for a craft brew or any of the West Auckland wineries – where there’s always plenty of space for kids to be kids – on the way home. If the weather isn’t playing ball, the Auckland Museum provides hours of fun and the Auckland Art Gallery often has something kids will enjoy – it’s a great space. If your family loves icecream, experience it like never before at Giapo – an Auckland institution – and if you want to get on to that gorgeous sparkling harbour, Waiheke Island is the perfect day trip. Those beaches are pretty hard to beat.
Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake)
Just 15 minutes from the centre of Rotorua, this is the perfect place for families to base themselves to explore this region. There’s a Top 10 Holiday Park right on the lake and you can rent their kayaks for a gentle paddle off these beautiful shores. Toddle round the lake for some exercise, and take a dip if the weather permits (it’s like bathwater in summer). From here, it’s easy to access all Rotorua’s superb family fun, such as the Redwoods Treewalk on platforms through the trees (even better at night!); the kayak trip across Lake Rotoiti to the spectacular Manupirua Springs Hot Pools; recently opened Secret Spot Hot Tubs; Canopy Tours zipline experience; Jetboating to fascinating Mokoia Island; taking an Ogo ride (large inflatable ball) downhill – plus of course all the geothermal attractions that make this part of the country so popular. If you’re there on a Thursday night, don’t miss the night markets and definitely check out Scope Cafe for the best home-baking in town. The Blind Finch do excellent burgers (and great gins) and although it’s not flash, or revolutionary, stopping for icecream at Lady Jane’s has been an essential part of any holiday to the area for more years than we’d care to remember.
One of the prettiest parts of the North Island, this is where half of Auckland disappears to in the summer. And it’s no surprise with its endless opportunities for diving, fishing, kayaking and relaxing or walking on stunning beaches. The trail down to the famously photographed rock arch at Cathedral Cove is great for families, as is the experience of digging a little pool on Hot Water beach and creating your own geothermal spa. Older kids will enjoy the Coromandel Coastal walkway and if you have younger ones, don’t miss Driving Creek, New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge mountain railway. There are ziplining experiences here too, for those too old for trains. Hahei Holiday resort is a great place for families to stay with a huge range of options from camping to beachfront villas – as is Coromandel Top 10 Holiday Park.
Waitomo (and South Waikato)
If you envisage Waitomo as just the one glow worm cave you took Aunty Rita to when she came on holiday from the UK, think again. While the original tourist cave is still as magical as ever, there are so many other ways to enjoy many different caves (hardly surprising since there are more than 300 limestone calcified cathedrals of varying sizes and shapes running labyrinth-style under the region). Ziplining in a cave is a brilliant experience for older kids and the little ones will go mad for Troll Cave shenanigans. Te Tiro BnB is a hidden gem with cute family cottages and killer views, a gorgeous glamping setup, its own glow worm grotto and magnificent clear-sky star-spotting opportunities. Half an hour’s drive from Waitomo is the majestic Mangapohue Natural Bridge and the thunderous Marokopa Falls – neither should be missed.
It goes without saying that even if you did nothing in Wānaka, your family would be mesmerised by the scenery – mountains giving way to the lake, peaks and glaciers are all picture-perfect.
But there is so much around if you do want to explore – challenge yourselves at Puzzling World, check out the National Transport and Toy Museum, say hi to the animals at the Lavender Farm (and take deep breaths of that calming scent if scrapping siblings on road trips are taking their toll on your sanity), play on the dinosaur slide at the playground, see a flick at Cinema Paradiso, walk up Mount Iron or down Matukituki Valley and of course ski, ski, ski.
Older kids have lots of opportunities too, jet boating, mountain biking, horse riding and even waterfall climbing if they’re looking for something different – the highest waterfall cable climb in the world, in fact. There’s plenty of family-friendly food, from burritos and crepes from food trucks, to brewery eats, to sweet treats from Pembroke’s Patisserie, burgers from Red Star or Italian Pizza from Francesca’s.
Oakridge Resort is a terrific place to stay with your tribe; they have self-contained apartments for families and plenty of pool action.
Everyone loves Arrowtown with its charming quirkiness. It’s where the stunning beauty of the Alps meets New Zealand’s gold-rush history and it’s easy and fun for a family trip.
Gold panning becomes addictive for all ages, and although you can spend ages poking the shops (make sure you stop for sausage rolls and custard slices at Arrowtown Bakery) or visiting the museum, Chinese settlement or Old Gaol, there are also so many simple pleasures – walking tracks, cycling and stone-skimming on the river.
Everyone in the family will be enchanted by the small-town historic buildings that lead to a tree-lined avenue of tiny miners’ cottages taking you back to a bygone era.
Your family won’t want to leave Dunedin, such is the endless list of attractions that appeal to them. There are the well-known ones like Lanarch Castle, Baldwin St and the Albatross Colony but also the fascinating Little Blue Penguin experience (you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more adorable than 100-plus of these little cuties swimming ashore after a hard day’s fishing).
Bird lovers will be enraptured by Orokonui Ecosanctuary, where multiple species of plants and animals are protected from predators and you can see Takahē, Kākā and many other of our natural treasures at play. Make sure you allow enough time for Otago Museum as the Tūhura Otago Community Trust Science Centre has so many exhibits to play with, you’ll have a really hard job pulling your family away – and that’s before you even get to the tropical butterfly centre.
Go on a street art hunt (it’s world-class), escape Dunedin’s old prison in an escape-room-style challenge, sit in the hot saltwater pools – summer only – at St Clair as the ocean pounds the beach right next to you; walk the windswept sands of Tunnel Beach and be fascinated by Toitu Otago Settlers Museum which has plenty to entertain.
Otago Farmers Market is wonderful and Emerson’s is a treat for family-friendly food and a large selection of brews.
If your family are looking for a chance to disconnect from the busy modern world and immerse themselves in stunning landscapes, the Catlins could be just the ticket; the scenery is really worth the trip to this very southern point of our country.
Cascading Purakaunui Falls is pretty as a picture, Cathedral Caves an impressive sight, and Nugget Point is one of the most jaw-dropping lookouts in the South Island, where sapphire waters pound dramatic cliffs and you can often spot fur seals, Hooker’s sea lions, sea elephants, yellow-eyed and blue penguins and Hector’s dolphins playing in the waves.
At Curio Bay, along The Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail, you can see the petrified remains of a forest that’s more than 160 million years old; it’s hard to even wrap your head around. Spend time on a farm stay or local BnB for the real experience of this remote part of the country – the locals are definitely part of the charm.
There’s never been a better time for Kiwi families to visit one of New Zealand’s most stunning locations, Queenstown. No crowds of overseas visitors and loads of great deals for locals as we all try to support the tourism industry post-Covid.
Although we often think of adrenaline activities (bungy jumps, rafting, jet boating) when we think of Queenstown, there’s plenty to appeal to younger kids too.
Farm tours on some of the big South Island stations are an amazing experience for families, there’s the Gondola and Luge, Kayaking in summer, cruises on the TSS Earnslaw and a load of indoor activities like laser tag, trampolining, go-karts, rock climbing and movies if it’s too cold or wet outside. Under-fives ski for free so this is a great time to get your little ones on that powder – and don’t miss the Remarkable Sweet Shop or Patagonia Chocolates for treats after a long day sightseeing.
Blue Peaks self-contained apartments are perfect for families wanting to be close to the town centre.