Our 35 Day New Zealand Destination and Accommodation Guide for Families
New Zealand is so beautiful, enough superlatives cannot drip from my keyboard to describe some of the majestic scenery, it’s almost too spectacular. After a while you find yourself on a long car ride only occasionally looking out the window to note “oh another deliriously pretty mountain landscape by a searing deep blue lake, nice” before turning back to your book.
* Best SIM card: Spark (free internet hotspots countrywide and well-priced 30-day phone plans)
* Best car rental company: Apex (our son scratched the car for 3 minutes with a rock and they didn’t even charge us). We averaged US $26 per day and they let us rent on a week by week or day by day basis. We loved them so much we used them again in Australia.
Traveling New Zealand With Kids
Before we left for our trip we were afraid that New Zealand would be no place for adventure loving parents with kids, but we were wrong. There are enough weird, wonderful, curious, funny, beautiful, mesmerizing and interesting things on these islands to amuse the most inquiring child’s mind.
Who says kids can’t climb in Mt. Cook? Our kids loved it.
So if you are on the fence about taking your kids to New Zealand don’t be. Neither you, nor your kids will be disappointed. It is the only place on our trip thus far where I said “I could live here” and I still mean it.
This is our 35-day New Zealand Famly Gap Year Itinerary:
Auckland → Bay of Islands → Ahipara → Raglan → Waitomo → Rotorua → Lake Taupo → Wellington → Nelson → Kaiteriteri → Hokitika → Franz Josef Glacier → Haast → Queenstown → Dunedin → Omarama → Mount Cook → Lake Taupo → Christchurch → Hamner Springs
1. Auckland – 4 Nights
Read on: You can read my full post Amazingly Awesome Adventure in Auckland.
At the Kelley Tarlton’s Antartic Encounter and Underwater World Auckland. We took a picture of our picture. A trick we learned that saved us a lot of money on prints 🙂
Where we stayed: Auckland City Oaks Serviced Apartments – These apartments were nice and centrally located with 2 bedrooms and a reasonable price.
WiFi: Excellent, fast with wonderful reception.
We spent our first day in Auckland (also our daughters birthday) at Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter & Underwater World where else can they see an underground colony of penguins?
Spend an afternoon at Auckland Museum and make sure you let them loose in the superb Discovery Center, where they can open drawers and touch exhibits. The Wild Child display and the Maori Treasures are also good value.
1.2. Devonport – Side trip from Auckland
“Ice” skating on plastic, talk about fun
Devonport is everything the brochures say it is: It’s quaint, has some nice shops, a fun playground next to the ferry terminal for the kids and a nice short hike up Mt. Victoria (that the kids complained about) where we “ice skated”, rested and ate some lunch.
2. Paihia and The Bay of Islands – 3 nights
Parks like this are very common at New Zealand Holiday Parks. This one at the Bay Of Islands Kiwi Holiday Park is spectacular.
Where we stayed: Bay Of Islands Kiwi Holiday Park – This is an amazing Kiwi Park right on riverside which had a great playground, trampolines, and a flying fox.
WiFi: Excellent and very cheap!
Next, we headed to the beautiful town of Paihia in the Bay of Islands.
The area is stunning and is also a major Maori historical site as it is where the Waitangi Treaty was signed announcing peace between the Maori people and the British Crown.
Mom trying her hand at the flying Trapeze.
While you are in the Bay of Islands consider ditching all the pricey dolphin cruises and spend a day at the reasonably priced and fabulously fun Action World instead… We had a blast!
3. Ahipara and 90 Mile Beach – 2 nights
The Ahipara holiday park is wonderful. Make sure to ask for the cabin at the end. These quaint cabins are worth the extra cost.
Where we stayed: Kiwi Holiday Park in Ahipara – Great stay! It is worth paying for one of the better units close to the cow grazing field. I will never forget this view.
WiFi – Spotty and not so good
I came to Ahipara to surf one of the longest left-hand breaks in the world (no luck because of no swell) but it ended up being a delightful stop, with a great holiday park, an amazing beach, and a peaceful location.
On your drive to Waitomo make sure to stop at the beautiful Whangarei falls. It is a very short walk to the falls and well worth the minor detour.
6. Raglan – 4 nights
Read more: You can read my full post on Raglan with Kids here.
Surifing Raglan and loving the longest left-hand break in the world
Where we stayed: Raglan Kopua Holiday Park (excellent for families and right int he middle of town) or Solscape – We stayed at the Raglan Kopua Kiwi Park which was excellent. Huge jumping pillow, close to town and surf, with a great skate park.
WiFi – Yes, but not so good.
Raglan sports the longest left-hand break in the world combined with an amazing town, great running trails, and a kid-friendly holiday park. Nuf said!
5. Waitomo – 1 night
A picture perfect day, for a picture perfect hike.
Where we stayed: Waitomo TOP 10 Holiday Park – An absolutely beautiful park that is worth at least 2 nights if you have the time. This is walking distance to the glowworm caves and nice hiking trails.
WiFi – Good but costly
Everybody goes Waitomo to see the glowworm Caves, but I have an even better idea – Stay in Waitomo because it is an amazing city and while you are there also visit the glowworm caves. We stayed at the fabulous Top 10 Holiday Park there. We only had one night, I would have liked to stay 3. There are beautiful hikes and the caves will not disappoint.
You can’t go to New Zealand without at least one Lord of the Rings adventure. And if you are going to do one with the kids make it kid-sized Hobbiton. Our family loved it, just don’t make the mistake of agreeing to show your small children the movie… I forgot just how violent they are (although they were still a big hit)!
6. Rotorua – 5 nights
You had me at Luge! Super fun!!
Where we stayed: Affordable Willohaven Holiday Park or Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park – We stayed at 2 places in Rotorua, both were only OK. I head the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park was pretty good although it was full. I would try to book there.
WiFi – At Willowhaven Not Good
There are a lot of expensive and overpriced adventure activities in Rotorua, the ones I would do are the Skyline Skyrides, where they can plummet downhill on a luge. The Agrodome is worth consideration although we didn’t go. Make sure to go to the free natural hot tubs in the city center where you can enjoy a fun-filled soaking of the feet and take in all the amazing thermal activity free of charge.
6.2 Mauri Experience
Spend the morning investigating the wonders of Te Puia, which includes the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve and the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute. Stay and watch Pohutu Geyser blow its top, it’s worth the wait.
7. Tongariro and Lake Taupo
The drive south normally takes about 5 hours, but I would take 2 days. Stop at Lake Taupo and visit Huka Falls, just off the main highway north of Taupo. Have a picnic at one of the little beaches around the lake and then head into Tongariro National Park for beautiful mountain landscapes. The kids will be ready for another stop at Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre – keep your eyes open to spot a kiwi.We ended up staying at the town Gum Shoe capital of the road on our way down at a quaint little hotel on the side of the road.
8. Windy Wellington
The kids and Papa at Te Papa in Wellington
Where to stay: We stayed in the Wellington Top 10 Holiday Park outside of the city, it wasn’t bad, but if I were to do it again I would recommend staying in the city if you can.
WiFi – Good
Spend your first day at the Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa and allow extra time for the kids to experience the interactive displays on the ground floor. Let them run free along the waterfront after that – there’ll be boats and people aplenty for them to watch.
Take a day to head up the cable car and to the Botanic Garden, where you could take them to the Carter Observatory for a bit of stargazing. If you never got to the zoo in Auckland, don’t miss the Wellington Zoo and its interactive animal experiences.
8.1 Ferry Ride to Picton
Well, there is only one good way to make it to the South Island. Catch the early Interislander across to Picton.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip is the ferry crossing between the North and South Island. It is a 3.5 hour trip between Wellington and Picton in the Marlborough Sound
The trip is approximately 1/3’rd cruising the Wellington Harbor, 1/3’rd crossing Cook Strait and the last 1/3’rd in the Marlborough Sounds.I enjoyed leaving through the Wellington Harbor standing on deck and then again upon entering the Marlborough sounds int the Tory Channel and the Queen Charlotte Sound.
The entrance between the East Head and West head seems just wide enough for the ferry to enter. Th ride down through the Sounds is one of the top scenic areas of New Zealand. You have two choices for ferry crossing the Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry and the interislander.
Where we stayed: Nikau Serviced Apartments – These are nice serviced apartments that represent a good value in the center of town.
WiFi: Very Good
Nelson is a cool city with a laid back vibe.
If you have time consider visiting the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum where everyone’s eyes will pop out on stalks. Let the kids loose next at Nelson Fun Park and Natureland Zoo. Enjoy a picnic at nearby Tahunanui Beach and then spend the afternoon swimming, making sand castles, and generally relaxing on one of the most popular beaches in the area.
Watch glass blowing at Höglund Art Glass International Glass Centre, then drive to Mapua, visiting pottery studios along the way. Stop at orchard stalls for a crisp apple snack. Dabble fingers in open displays at Touch the Sea Aquarium and have a yummy late lunch at the Naked Bun Patisserie. Drive on through Motueka and turn right to Kaiteriteri, one of the prettiest golden-sand beaches you’ll ever see. Spend the afternoon playing and swimming, or take a water taxi around the gorgeous coast of Abel Tasman National Park. Stay at Kaiteriteri or Motueka for the night.
Where we stayed: Kaiteriteri Beach Camp (Awesome!!!)
WiFi: Not great, but you aren’t there to be online anyway.
Near Marahau, and a short drive from Motueka, is Kaiteriteri Beach – this is a favourite holiday spot for Abel Tasman accommodations, restaurants, camping, playgrounds and golden sands.
Kaiteriterri is a great home base for hiking and Kayaking. It has a beautiful tide dependent beach, tasty fish and chips and a wonderful beach side holiday park. Make sure to get yourselves aboard one of the Abel Tasman kayaks.
10.2 Abel Tasman National Park
Where we stayed: We drove from the Kaiteriteri Beach Camp but if I were to do it again I would stay at The Old MacDonalds Farm and Holiday Park! This is where our hike ended and it (looks perfect for families)
We completed a spectacular 8 mile hike with our kids down the Abel Tasman trail. To get to the trail-head we took the water taxi from Kaiteriterri and hiked back to our starting point. This was a wonderful hike and the kids made it all the way to the end. Boy was I impressed, and boy was I sore!
11. Pancake Rocks
One of the most startling natural scenic spots to make sure you stop and experience is Punakaiki Rocks, known as Pancake Rocks as nature formed the ancient sea bottom now exposed into the shape of a stack of pancakes.
There are walks through the area of the Pancake Rocks with good viewing points. Punakaiki lies on the edge of the Paparoa National Park and you can get information on walks and activities at the Visitor Center here.
The South Islands number one arts and crafts center is Hokitika. We stopped here on our down the wild west coast on our journey to Queenstown. Be sure to take a stroll around this small town and walk to the beach that lies along its side streets.This is a real scenic picturesque West Coast beach full of driftwood and ocean bric-a-brac that has been thrown upon it as the wind and tides demonstrate their power. Great town to walk around and see all the crafts
Where we stayed: Kiwi Holiday Park or the Shining Star Beachfront accommodations: just 50 meters from the beach, in four acres of grounds planted with natives there is a distinctive atmosphere in peaceful, rural park like surroundings.
13. Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier is 12 km long glacier located close to the town of Franz Josef and together with Fox Glacier 20 hm to the South (about a 20 minute drive). This combination, forms part of a World heritage Site. For those who have never experienced glaciers this is fantastic. Although we did not stay in the city itself, Franz Josef has numerous accommodation options for every budget along with cafes/restaurants. Adventure activities include scenic lights over the glaciers, heli-hiking and guided glacier tours.
For families, there is no need to rappel your kids down a glacier, simply enjoy one of the several good walking tracks around Franz Josef. It is well worth the hike!
The exciting scenic drive over the alps to Wnaka and the Arrowwtown Queeenstown area is something I will remember for a lifetime.
From Haast village (stayed at the top 10 holiday park). Travel inland to cross over the Southern Alps at Haast Pass. You will be entering the Mount Aspiring National Park.
One of the most dramatic waterfalls is along this route not too far, Tender Falls, just a short walk from a designated parking area on the road. Well worth the stop and the walk.
Just a very short drive past is another parking area that I recommend stopping at what is called the Gates of Haast
It is a rather steep drive up the mountain to cross over he Southern Alps but a spectacular drive to enjoy as you get to Haast Pass and down the other side surrounded by forest.
If you haven’t heard of Queenstown you haven’t heard of New Zealand.
Nestled in the mountains on the edge of the deep blue waters of Lake Wakitipu Queenstown is the major draw card for those who are looking for the adrenalin thrills of life. As the adventure capital of the world there Queenstown lives up to its name: Bungy jumping, jet boating rapids, whitewater rafting or jumping off mountain top with a hang glider strapped to your back.
“The people here are Scots. They stopped on their way to heaven thinking they had arrive” – Mark Twain
With a population of around 124,000 Dunedin is the seventh largest urban area in New Zealand and is th largest by land area. Due to Dunedin being the home of the University of Otago and the Otago Polytechnic almost 20% of the population is students. The Guinness Book of Records lists Dunedin’s Baldwin Street the steepest street in the world which makes for a fun drive. Although overpriced, The Larnach Castle sits upon a magnficent hilltop on the Otago peninsula and the wishing well along with the garden grounds makes for a memorable drive.
Of importance is the Royal Albatross Colony at Tairao Heads at the end of the Otago Peninsula along with other wildlife such as the yellow-eyed penguin. If you get their on a windy day, you will see the giant birds making figure eights majestically overhead.
17. Moeraki Boulders
On your way to Christchurch you must pay homepage to the otherworldy Moeraki Boulders. They are only a short walk from the parking lot down the beach and you will feel for a moment as if you have entered an alternative universe.
Omarama is full of natural beuty and a wonderful holiday park. As the gateway to Mount Cook we stopped here for a nights sleep and ended up staying for a couple of days to hike, enjoy the wildflowers and watch the gliders race at one of the worlds top glider spots.
19. Mount Cook
If you have the time you should make some time for Mount Cook. This is where Sir. Edmond Hillary trained prior to making his landmark climb to the top of Everest. There are a couple of hikes here in the area, but if you have 3 hours you should definitely make the hike to the edge of the glacial field the base of the mountain. The vaelley itself is stunning and in springtime creates a cacophony of falling ice, crystal blue lakes, mirror ponds and pristine hiking trails. If we wen’t back I woudl try to find a place in the valley itself and spend a couple of days hiking just enjoying the natural beauty.
20. Lake Taupo
Lake Taupo is magical in that it sits at the opposite end of Mount Cook and creates views that are unsurpassed. With the bluest water you have ever seen in combination with views of Mount Cook and the entire mountain range in the background it’s a great place to pull up a park bench and just enjoy the surroundings. There are hikes all around the family run holiday park at the edge of the lake which makes for a perfect stay.
On Feb 2011, Christchurch was hit by magnitude 6.3 earthquake followed by another one June 13 that sent the city to its knees. In spite of the earthquake, Christchurch is still the gateway to the South Island but much of the inner city has been laid bare.
The English style city of Christchurch is the third largest in the country known for its parks and beautiful gardens having been given the award of the “Garden City of the World” wining over 620 international entreis in an international competition. Central to the city is Hagley Park with almost 400 acres and the botanical Gardenst.
We wen’t to Hamner Springs after arriving in Christchurch and realizing that we wanted more than anything to spend our last days in New Zealand out in nature. Hamner Springs is a gem of a find. The natural hot springs have their own waterpark that is suitable for all ages and therepuitic baths are world class. But the best part of Hamner Springs (like much of New Zealand) is the town itself. Which has great running and walking paths, good eats and a really nice relaxed atmosphere. The family holiday park here sits on the outskirts of town and is a great place to spend the day reconnecting wth your family in nature and enjoying a long day with a good craft beer.
Here are some useful New Zealand links that we found particularly helpful.
- Holiday Parks – A great website for finding holiday parks on both islands they also have an excellent smartphone app.
- Children’s Activities in New Zealand – I came across this website while looking for accommodations on Book a Bach. Although we never “booked a bach” this is one of the best short lists of children s activities in New Zealand I cam across on our entire journey.
- KidsGo – This site has a lot of info (to much for my tastes) but it is worth at least a stop.