I am frequently asked to recommend New Zealand travel itineraries for family and friends so I thought I would share some of these with the rest of you! This itinerary is focused around ‘New Zealand with kids’ – for families travelling to New Zealand for one month.
This is what I recommend for a first trip to New Zealand with kids. When planning your trip, aim to spend more time in the South than North Island as the scenery is more spectacular, although the north also has its unique charms and New Zealand is nothing if not diverse! If you don’t have a whole month to travel around New Zealand then you can pick and choose from the destinations below to create your own New Zealand itinerary.
Try not to spend your whole holiday driving. I know the distances don’t look big on the map – those tiny little islands at the bottom of the world… but there is a lot more ground to cover than you expect and it is often quite tiring driving because the roads are not long and straight. Also, children often don’t enjoy moving on every day or two. That is the main reason I haven’t included the west coast of the South Island in this itinerary unless you’re desperate to see glaciers and your kids are old enough to do a glacier walk or you can afford a helihike.
To get around you will probably need to hire a car. Camper vans are also a popular way to tour around New Zealand, with or without a family. If you’re trying to keep the travel budget under control the hostels/backpacker lodges are of a good standard everywhere and often have private/family rooms. Holiday homes are often available for rent and an alternative, especially if you want to base yourself in one place for a week, which is preferable when travelling with children. If you are travelling to New Zealand in January make sure you book accommodation well in advance because this is peak holiday time for New Zealanders.
A fun idea for travelling through New Zealand with kids is to focus on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings filming locations, which are scattered across the country.
Fly into Auckland
Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city (although not its capital) and you will probably spend a couple days here, especially if you have flown from across the world and are dealing with jetlag. Either stay central or choose somewhere like Devonport, a pretty waterfront suburb from where you can get the ferry into the city. We love Waiheke Island (beaches, wineries) as a day trip from Auckland. Make sure to go somewhere high to get a view over the city and harbours e.g. Mt Eden or the Skytower.
The Coromandel Peninsula
If you want to spend some beach time on your holiday I recommend the Coromandel Peninsula. Hahei is a lovely spot to stay – a quiet beach community that is not touristy. Maybe try to find some holiday accommodation for 4-5 days. Do the walk to Cathedral Cove. Go to Hot Water Beach and dig a hole in the sand. Further up the peninsula there is a little train and bush walks that are fun for kids. For example the Waiau walk (also off the 309 road) takes you through big Kauri trees to a gorgeous waterfall.
Searching for Hobbitses
On the way to Rotorua stop at the Hobbiton film set near the tiny hamlet of Matamata in the Waikato region. Even if you’re not a diehard Tolkien fanatic you’ll love the delightful hobbit holes and the way the world of the Hobbit books is brought to life. You can even have a drink in the Green Dragon pub! No Orcs allowed.
Rotorua for thrills and smells
Rotorua is the place to see New Zealand’s famous geothermal activity and learn about Maori culture most conveniently. Whakarewarewa is well worth a visit. There are plenty of fun activities, including the luge ride. Nearby Mt Tarawera is beautiful and a crater walk very interesting. Apparently you do get used to the rotten egg smell of sulphur eventually.
Cultural capital Wellington
Then drive to Wellington (6 hrs). Stop just before Lake Taupo to stretch your legs with a walk to Huka Falls and a stroll by the lake is also very pleasant. Further south a little town called Taihape has some decent cafes (Brown Sugar, Le Café Telephonique) if you want to break the journey with a meal or coffee.
Wellington is a busy little city with great cafes/eateries and the national museum Te Papa Tongarewa is the must see on the waterfront. Drive up Mt Victoria for the view over the harbour or take the cable car up to the university.
From Wellington you can catch the car ferry to Picton. There are two options – the Interislander and the Bluebridge ferries.
Vineyards and kayaking
Head straight over to the Marlborough region and spend a day pottering around the vineyards. My favourite wineries include HighField Estate Winery (book lunch here), Cloudy Bay, Hunters, and Grove Mill.
Then go to the Abel Tasman National Park where I recommend a seakayaking experience. Depending on the age of your children you can do half a day or more, and kayak guided or self-guided (in double kayaks). I have stayed at The Barn a couple of times and it has good budget accommodation in a lovely setting. The kayak hire place is just down the road from here.
Drive south to Kaikoura for whale watching. An undersea canyon lying just off the Kaikoura coastline provides rich nutrients for an array of marine life, including whales and dolphins and the whale watch tours go out several times each day depending on the weather. A gentle walk along the coast will show you basking fur seals.
Either stay the night in Kaikoura or, if you have time, go a bit further to Hamner Springs (1.45 hrs) or Maruia Springs (2.45 hrs) and stay the night in the forest enjoying the hot pools.
Mighty Southern Alps
Drive to Mt Cook village. This is a long driving day (6 hrs) but there are a few stops on the way for photo opportunities – at Lake Tekapo by the Church of the Good Shepherd and then another stop at the foot of Lake Pukaki. From Mt Cook you can go on a glacier lake tour and there are a number of short walks. There is an expensive hotel here (the Hermitage) and a backpackers…
Drive from Mt Cook to Queenstown – stopping at Kelling Ponds for photos.
There are lots of fun activities to do around Queenstown including walking, wineries, horse riding etc so base your family here for a week. My daughter (aged 7) loved the Shotover Jetboat, the lake trip on the TSS Earnslaw paddle steamer to Walter Peak Station, and taking the Skyline Gondola up the hill for views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. If you haven’t already done the luge ride in Rotorua there’s another one here.
The Kiwi Bird Sanctuary is centrally located just near the gondola station and a great opportunity to see the national symbol (in artificial darkness as they are nocturnal) as well as other fascinating creatures like the Tuatara. They run conservation-focused shows that are great for families.
Drive up the lake to Glenorchy. There are more lovely wineries around Queenstown (mostly pinot noir), often serving delicious lunches and very family friendly.
Do a day trip or overnighter to Milford Sound. It is a beautiful drive with lots of stops/little walks on the way then you can do a boat cruise on the fjord.
Another nice day trip from Queenstown is to drive through to Wanaka via the Cardrona Valley (have lunch at the Cardrona Hotel on the way). Wanaka is a smaller/quieter lakeside town with more walking etc. and nice cafes.
Fly out of Queenstown
So there you have it, one month in New Zealand for families. Happy travel planning!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you travelled in New Zealand with kids? What would you recommend?
Take a look at some of my other travel New Zealand itineraries:
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