New Zealand promotes itself as a kind of adrenaline junkies' paradise – which is all fine and good if you have older kids who fancy bungee-jumping and quad-biking followed by a spell of kayaking, but not if you have small children to consider. However, there are gentler pursuits on offer for family holidays with younger kids, and lashings of utter natural beauty – without the crazy crowds, tragic pollution and degradation of most ‘natural wonders’.
New Zealand is not afraid to be different – its tiny population has little consequence on the world stage, it seems. But it is precisely this invisibility that has allowed great individuality: NZ has a unique and achingly cool take on fashion, great literature, a thriving arts culture, and fantastic coffee and food.
|Flying Time||24.75 hours|
|Carbon Footprint||25.66 tonnes CO2|
|Local Currency||New Zealand Dollar|
New Zealand now being ‘the home of Middle Earth’, visit many of the stunning locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (see newzealand.com).
Discover Auckland, the ‘City of Sails’, with a harbour that glistens turquoise and clinks with the rock of boats. About 20 years ago there was a popular joke T-shirt that locals wore, entirely black with an inscription something along the lines of ‘Auckland’s nightlife’. The city’s self-perception has changed radically since then and it now boasts lots of bars as well as the trendy retail hub of Newmarket – older kids will want to check out fashion stores Zambesi, Kate Sylvester and Karen Walker, all Kiwi designers who are making it big on the world stage. They’ll also want to head for Kaurangahape Road (or ‘K-Road’), where DJs and sculptors, graffiti artists and fashion designers, rock musicians and philosophers hang out; it has eight vintage dress shops alone.
City stuff aside, Auckland is perhaps best experienced as the launching point to visit some spectacular areas on North Island. It’s a 35-minute ferry to Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf, a favourite holiday spot for Aucklanders (make sure you book ahead if you want to stay). The beaches are backed by Pohutakawa trees, whose brush-like red flowers in December dot the landscape and announce Christmas with their joyful presence. There’s a real holiday vibe here: it’s a place to get around by bike and spend languid days on quiet beaches, yet there are the comforts of culture: good restaurants, local wineries and olive groves, and modern cafés.
Get up close to trouts, lakes, volcanoes and bubbling mud: inland from the Bay of Plenty (with its lovely beaches and blessed weather) is Rotorua, perhaps NZ’s smelliest and most popular tourist attraction, famous for its geo-thermal activity. The kids will have a field day with fart jokes here. If you don’t like the smell of rotten eggs (or eggy farts), be pre-warned: the smell of sulphur is noxious. But you get used to it, and this a fascinating place, unlike any other you are likely to encounter – walking past spurting geysers and pools of bubbling mud like chocolate sauce on the boil, with that all-pervading stink coming out of the earth, escaping like so much wind, is surreal and the kids will absolutely love it. If you are camper-vanning or travelling on a budget, Rotorua has campsites and cabins galore; those in tents will find the ground heated up for them by Mother Nature herself. Most sites have hot mineral pools and spas.
After Rotorua, travel south to the Lake Taupo region, at the centre of North Island, home to an enormous and evocative freshwater lake made by volcanic eruption. It’s a resort-style area with activities for all kinds of tastes. You can go trout fishing – NZ boasts the world’s best supply of wild trout, and licences and gear are usually provided by tour organisers (ask at the visitor centre). Take a cruise to see Maori rock carvings; again, the visitor centre has details of the various boats that ply the lake. In summer do one of the many walks in the World Heritage listed Tongariro National Park (which becomes a ski destination in winter). You can also swim the lake, raft the river, sky-dive or climb the walls (indoor rock-climbing is very popular here, as is mini-golf...). Lastly, don’t forget to fill your soul with nature, lest you forget this wild paradise exists when you’re back from family holidays and in the daily grind.
Before jumping islands, spend a day or two in Wellington – the coffee alone makes it worth it, but there’s also lovely architecture in the old wooden houses. Wellingtonians are a moody lot, in a poetic fashion, and the windswept landscape suits the serious yet quirky nature of its inhabitants. An iconic Wellington thing to do is ride the cable-car – what child doesn’t like to get up high and see the world from the eyes of a bird? Walk back to town through the Botanic Gardens, then visit Capital E, a venue for plays, exhibitions and dance/music performances geared for children but without the dumbing down, the tinny jingles or the garish consumerism.
Connect with marine life at Kaikoura, on the east coast of South Island, where you will find an abundance of oceanic activities such as swimming with seals and frisky, friendly dolphins, whale-watching and erm... eating lots of crayfish from the local chippies. There is also a good organic spot, Hilsops Café, for wholesome breakfasts before a busy day of eco-tourism. The summer months are very busy, so book ahead and give little ones a once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with dolphins (or they can watch from the boat). Kaikoura was originally densely settled by Maoris and is a good place to engage with their culture and spirituality, including learning about indigenous plants and trees and their medicinal and culinary uses in a half-day tour with Maori Tours Kaikoura – a wonderful way of understanding more deeply not only the people but also the land.
An alternative to the tourist mecca that is Queenstown is the gentle country town of Wanaka about 70km to the north. It’s quaint and picturesque, especially in autumn, with dappled light and rich gold leaves set against weatherboard buildings and oodles of old-world charm. Lake Wanaka, the fourth-largest lake in New Zealand, nestled among the mountains of the southern Alps, offers all the adrenaline stuff that this country is so famous for – rock-climbing, jet-boating, river-sledging, sky-diving and so on – but also has some really fun things for younger kids, including Cinema Paradiso, with big comfy couches, beanbags and armchairs, and awesome home-made cookies and ice-cream to be devoured in the old-fashioned intermission. Kids also go nuts for the Puzzling World Maze, with its labyrinth, illusion rooms, hall of holograms and more. Just don’t lose them along the way – the maze is really quite difficult, and toddlers will need a reign lest they disappear and end up in David Bowie’s dark goblin world (tempting).
After treating the children, why not book in an adult day and go to the stunning Rippon Vineyard for some wine-tasting; Pinot Noir and Riesling are the speciality. Every other year, in the first week of February, Rippon hosts an all-day music festival with 12hrs of live Kiwi music, from jazz to rock, metal to hip hop, followed by a party. It’s a gorgeous place to be, with the main stage back-dropped by a crystal lake and cloud-streaked mountains, and the air so fresh you’ll feel cleansed even if you’ve been tippling all day.
As New Zealand is the ‘offshore farm’ to the rest of the world, expect family holidays to feature great produce with no air-mile stickers, including great wild fish and crayfish, mussels and pippies (cockles or surf clams). Whitebait fritters – little fried fishies, bound together in egg and salt and pepper, their tiny pale eyes blank and rather disconcerting – are a national dish.
If you go to a Maori cultural show, you may be invited to partake in a hungi – a pit is dug and filled with hot stones, then meat and vegetables are placed inside, covered and allowed to cook for hours. It is simple and delicious.
Zealand makes some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs, especially in the Marlborough region, so mums and dads can wash it all down with amazing wines.
Summer in New Zealand lasts from December to February, with temperatures usually peaking at around 26°C, so not too hot for family holidays. Spring is a moderate 20°C and autumn levels around 15°C. New Zealand rarely gets very hot but can be really cold in winter, especially on South Island, which can feel more like the South Pole.
British Airways has regular flights to Auckland from about £500, or try Emirates, Singapore Airlines or Air New Zealand. Alternatively fly to Christchurch with Singapore Airlines or Emirates. Virgin Atlantic also connects with Air New Zealand at their gateway cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hong Kong, meaning possible stop-overs in exciting cities.
There are some fantastic exclusive retreats to be found if your wallet can handle it, but New Zealand can also be a great place for inexpensive family holidays once you've shelled out for airfares (from £500pp) – campsites can cost from just a few dollars, hotel rooms from around $100.
Step back in time and rent a bach (nzbaches.co.nz; pronounced ‘batch’, and also known as a ‘crib’ in the south) – it’s a national custom. These wooden kit homes with 360° balconies, 1970s cane furniture, split levels and bunkbeds are the essence of family holidays in New Zealand – funky without even trying and usually so close to the beach or lake that it’s like your backyard (and New Zealand’s so sweet that you will leave the buckets and spades there overnight without fear of loss and tears). It’s estimated there are 50,000 of these holiday homes throughout NZ – not bad considering the population is only around 4 million (not all are for rent). Many have evolved from basic models hand-built from secondhand materials into World of Interiors minimalist idylls, and the isolation of the bach of old has been replaced by such modern infringements as craft stores and mobile-phone reception. If you can hack the pace, chill out on the flokati rug, read Bone People by Keri Hulme, give the kids the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD and make some kumera (sweet potato) chips with your fresh-caught fish for tea.
See also family-friendly hotels in New Zealand with partner Laterooms.
For eco-friendly options, from family huts with hot tubs to holistic retreats, see our feature Green Places to Stay with Kids: Australasia and New Zealand. New Zealand is also a classic destination for motorhoming – see newzealand.com for great advice, contacts and maps.
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