Travelling with kids isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Especially when it comes with sibling warfare and travel sickness thrown in for good measure. But there’s something to be said for seeing the world at a slower pace with child-like wonder. If you’re travelling with little people, the South Island of New Zealand offers plenty of family-friendly fun.
Family-friendly destinations around the South Island, starting from the top.
Marlborough and Tasman
Marlborough and Tasman encompass the entire top of the South Island, and both districts offer oodles of family-friendly sightseeing. What makes this area a family holiday must-do is the fact that both Marlborough and Tasman are what parents would refer to as a ‘win-win’.
In Marlborough, you’ll find the Marlborough Sounds, a 4,000km2 (1,500 sq. mi) stretch of idyllic sandy beaches, sheltered bays, and peninsulas full of safe swimming and boating spots. Further west in Tasman, you’ll find Abel Tasman National Park, a coastal paradise to explore by kayak, water taxi, or simply sit on the beach and chill. So, what makes these areas a win-win? Well, what both these regions have in common is an abundance of wineries. And you know what rhymes with relaxing holiday? Wine, that’s what.
So why not head inland and take some time to savour New Zealand’s famous Sauvignon Blancs and other varietals in the many wineries throughout Blenheim and Nelson. Cellar doors and wineries in New Zealand tend to be pretty relaxed, so pick a winery with plenty of outdoor space so the kids can have a run around while Mum and Dad sample the local wines.
Photo: Sara Orme
It’s time to head south. Charge up the in-car DVD player and brace yourself for the 6-hour drive to Kaikoura. Bribe the kids with promises of a whale-watching experience and hope for road trip bliss.
You’ve probably heard that Kaikoura bore the brunt of last November’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake. While the earthquake was a major event for the small town, Kaikoura has proven its resilience and is very much open for business. Expect some disruption along State Highway 1, as contractors work to repair Kaikoura’s main coastal access route. Up to date info is available here.
Time to reward the kids for the long journey and join a whale-watching trip. In the waters off the coast of Kaikoura, Giant Sperm Whales are year-round residents, and there’s also a good chance you’ll spot New Zealand Fur Seals, Dusky Dolphins and the endangered Wandering Albatross. If you don’t want to do a boat tour, stroll along the beachfront walk where there are old whale bones on display or take a drive out to Kaikoura Peninsula and walk around the headland where you’re sure to spot the local seals sunning themselves.
Christchurch or West Coast
Heading south from Kaikoura, you have the option to travel via Christchurch or the West Coast. Kid-friendly highlights in Christchurch are the International Antarctic Centre and the Airforce Museum in Wigram. If you choose to head south via the West Coast, the kids will love the spectacle of Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. You can do a self-guided valley walk at either glacier or choose to take a heli-hike up onto the glacier and get a first-hand view. A New Zealand must-do experience by all accounts!
Central South Island
Photo: Paul Lemlin
The inland route from Christchurch takes you through the centre of the South Island and Mackenzie Country. The turquoise blue lakes, snow-capped peaks and dessert-like high country landscape of this district are quintessential South Island, New Zealand. It’s the kind of scenery that makes even a long drive an amazing experience.
The main townships along the route are Twizel, Tekapo and Mt Cook. To truly soak up the splendour of this landscape and to give the kids a chance to run wild, spend a night or two at one of these townships. There’s plenty of accommodation at Lake Tekapo, also known as “big-sky country”. Take a stroll after dark, and you’ll see a dazzling display of stars that is unlike anything you’ll see near a city. By day, Tekapo is no less impressive as the striking contrast between the turquoise water and white snow-capped peaks is a show-stopper. Make sure you check out the Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo.
Another overnight option is The Hermitage at nearby Mt Cook. Nestled alongside New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, The Hermitage offers plenty of options for accommodation, including some budget-friendly family units. There's plenty of other options in Mt Cook too, and you can find the best deal here. Explore the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, do a short walk or day hike, or join a boat trip onto the Tasman Glacier terminal lake and explore the glacier’s icebergs.
Queenstown and Wanaka
Photo: Camilla Rutherford
From the dark skies and immense landscapes of Mackenzie Country, it’s time to shake things up and head to the jewels of the South Island; Wanaka and Queenstown. The kids will hear adventure calling their name.
Both Queenstown and Wanaka offer oodles of family-friendly accommodation, dining and experiences. Ideally, you’ll make time for a visit to both destinations. Wanaka is the more relaxed tourist destination, and Queenstown is the full-throttle version.
In Wanaka, one of the best family-friendly winners is the Dinosaur Park playground down on the lakefront. Puzzling World is a firm favourite for big kids and little kids alike and offers a seriously challenging maze. You may want to tie a piece of string to the kids, or you may never see them again! Wanaka sits on one of the most picture-perfect lakefronts you’re likely to see, and is the perfect location for a relaxed family dinner of fish ‘n’ chips on the lakefront.
When the Dinosaur Park has been exhausted, head over the Crown Range to Queenstown and its never-ending supply of fun and thrills. Queenstown is a tourist town that caters to all level of visitors from private-jet luxury travellers to budget backpackers and everything in between. It’s safe to say you’ll find something to match your budget.
If you’re looking for family-friendly activities in Queenstown, here are some sure-fire winners:
Skyline Gondola – Ride the gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak for luging, café and restaurant and a bird’s eye view of Queenstown.
TSS Earnslaw – The lady of the lake is a firm family favourite. Take a scenic boat ride on the vintage steamship and spend some time at Walter Peak for a farm tour and morning tea or lunch.
Explore the lakefront – Start from the Queenstown Gardens or anywhere along the lakefront tracks and soak in the views over Lake Wakatipu. Great for throwing stones. Other good options are mini-golf in town, an ice-cream from Patagonia or Mrs Ferg’s, scenic 4WD tours and gold-panning in the Arrow River.
Te Anau and Invercargill
Further south of Queenstown, Te Anau is the stepping off point for the world-famous and oh-so-amazing. It’s worth the drive to see what all the fuss is about. The kids will love a scenic cruise on the fiord. Check out the Glow Worm experience as well.
You’re nearly at the bottom of the South Island, so why not keep going and visit Invercargill? Head straight to the E Hayes & Sons hardware store where you can see Burt Munro’s (aka The World’s Fastest Indian) original Indian Scout motorcycle among an impressive display of vintage and modern cars and motorcycles.