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Reader Seth Gives Awesome Tips on Visiting New Zealand with Kids

One of my readers has reached out to me and offered to share some tips on traveling in New Zealand. It’s a country I hope to visit myself next year, albeit during a short stopover. Hopefully, like Seth, we can also go back and stay longer at some point in the future. Enjoy!

We fell in love with New Zealand on our first trip in 2003 and have been lucky enough to return a number of times (to the amazement/annoyance of friends who think we’re crazy, and want us to stop carrying on about how great it is).

New Zealand is filled with stunning scenery, nature, and wildlife – it’s impossible to see everything in one trip and you shouldn’t try. You can successfully visit NZ in 1-2 weeks, though more time is obviously better.

There’s no denying that it’s an incredibly long journey to get to NZ, but it’s very much worth the effort. Though tickets are expensive in terms of dollars or miles, we’ve found NZ to be an affordable destination once you get there since many of the best attractions/scenery are free.

Remember that seasons are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere. The US winter is a great time to visit (with longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures), though you can have a good trip to NZ any time of year.

 

Our Recommendations

What follows are some recommendations based on our travels. Even after a number of trips, we have yet to see more than half of the country….

For a more complete guide we highly recommend the NZ Frenzy series by Scott Cook. He’s even more passionate about NZ than we are….and has tons of secret/off-the beaten track finds and suggestions for avoiding crowds. Reading his books will make you want to go to NZ even more. You can find lots of useful online content and photos at https://nzfrenzynorth.wordpress.com/ and https://nzfrenzysouth.wordpress.com/

Don’t make the mistake of spending too much time in Auckland or only going to the North Island. While Auckland is pleasant enough, cities aren’t the reason to visit NZ. In our opinion, many of the best attractions in the country are in the South Island.

Taking a gondola in Queenstown

Travel within NZ

We highly encourage you to rent a car – it’s the best way to get around. Don’t be intimidated by driving on the opposite side – driving is fairly easy and there’s hardly any traffic outside of a few city centers. Flights from Auckland to the South Island are fairly inexpensive now that Jetstar has expanded their service.

For flights on Air New Zealand, visit airnewzealand.co.nz rather than airnewzealand.com because fares are often lower for the same flights. Also check out Grabseat offers from Air New Zealand – discount fares on select routes and dates.

 

South Island Highlights

Nelson and Abel Tasman (Top of the South Island)

Here you’ll find great weather, beaches, and scenery.

Tahunanui Beach is one of our favorites in all of New Zealand. It’s very family-friendly and offers a wide array of activities, including stand up paddle boarding (SUP) and paddle board yoga, playgrounds, mini golf, zoo, train ride, go karts, and more.

Two other highly recommended beaches in the Nelson area are Rabbit Island and Cable Bay. We also enjoyed several beautiful days of hiking in Nelson Lakes and Abel Tasman National Parks.

For lodgings, we can’t say enough good things about the Wheelhouse Inn – hilltop apartments with out-of-this world views and a very friendly host named Ralph. You could easily spend a week in the Nelson/Abel Tasman area.

 

Dunedin  

Dunedin is a college town with a lively coffee house/cafe scene. The best part of Dunedin is the outdoors/scenery/beaches. Here you can get up close with penguins, albatross, and other wildlife. There’s a nightly penguin viewing at the Royal Albatross Center. Rafts of little blue penguins waddle onto the beach daily at dusk.

Tunnel Beach is our favorite hike in the Dunedin area, a challenging 45 minute walk (part of which is through a tunnel) to a beach with spectacular views.

Other local activities include Taieri Gorge scenic train rides, Cadbury chocolate factory, Baldwin Street (the steepest street in the world), and the botanical garden.

For lodgings we highly recommend the Hotel St. Clair, a comfortable and modern hotel situated directly across from the beach. It has free access to a salt water pool, playground, and coffee shop around the corner. You could easily spend a week in Dunedin (especially if you use it as a base to visit the Catlins)

Catlins

The Catlins are a scenic, off-the-beaten-track region 1-2 hours south of Dunedin that we only briefly explored. Here we went to Nugget Point which, like everywhere else, has amazing scenery and ocean views. We saw dozens of seals in the water from above as well as a few penguins.

West Coast – Hokitika/Greymouth/Pancake Rock (Punakaiki)

One of the top regional attractions is Pancake Rock (Punakaiki), impressive sea views and blowholes that are best viewed at high tide. Hokitika is a charming little town with picturesque mountains in the background and a beach littered with drift wood that some beach-goers make into art structures.

It’s also worth checking out the Hokitika Gorge walk, which includes a swingbridge over rapids with stunning bright blue waters. We went cave tubing In Greymouth (when we were younger and more adventurous). It was fun, but squeezing through small underground tunnels can make you claustrophobic.

 

Franz Josef/Fox Glaciers/Lake Matheson (aka mirror lake)

The glaciers at Franz Josef and Fox are majestic. You’re able to walk right up to the glaciers. There’s also a scenic hike around Lake Matheson – snow clad mountains are visible in the background and reflected in the lake. Unfortunately, it was raining and foggy the day we were there, so we couldn’t see the postcard view firsthand.

Queenstown

Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand and one of the few places that can be crowded with tourists. There’s a wide array of fun things to do here, some crazy and dangerous like skydiving and bungee jumping (which was invented here).

One of the activities we most enjoyed was a gondola to the top of a mountain – again with amazing views. From there, we luged down the mountain, which was fun (especially for our kids). We visited Queenstown in the summer, but it’s worth mentioning that Queenstown has great skiing and a plethora of winter activities too.

 

Wanaka 

Wanaka is a low-key, lakeside town 1-hour outside of Queenstown with many of the same types of attractions and scenery, but fewer crowds (which is why we prefer it to Queenstown).

 

Future South Island Trip To Do List

– Swimming with dolphins and whale watching in Kaikoura

– Spending more time in the Catlins

– Exploring Milford Sound

 

North Island Highlights

Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove

Hot Water Beach features natural hot springs that bubble up from under the sand during low tide. People come with shovels and dig little pools which are heated from under the ground.

This image, which was originally posted to Flickr.com, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 23:13, 10 January 2009 (UTC) by Snowmanradio (talk). This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Cathedral Cove is yet another spectacular beach with a picturesque archway (following a 30-40 minute hike).

These two activities will be among the highlights of your trip. We recommend staying at the Hot Water Beach Bed and Breakfast which is run by Trevor and Gayle. They’re friendly and happy to give suggestions about places to stay and things to do in NZ.

Rotorua

Rotorua is the thermal capital of New Zealand. The town offers many fun activities as well as good tourist infrastructure, but crowds (by NZ standards). In some ways, we found Rotorua to be a North Island version of Queenstown. We were surprised to learn that some people now refer to Rotorua as “RotoVegas”.

In Rotorua we visited a number of hot pools/mud baths. The one we enjoyed most was the Polynesian Spa. Interestingly, NZ Frenzy (which we purchased after visiting Rotorua) suggests that some of the best hot springs are free and not commercially operated.

Aside from going to hot springs, the activity we most enjoyed here was zorbing, which is rolling down a hill in a big rubber ball. It sounds scary, but was fun and very safe. There’s also a gondola with great views and a luge to the bottom – similar to Queenstown.

 

Other recommended North Island locations

Piha: Beautiful dark sand beach about 1 hour outside of Auckland. This beach is featured in the movie the Piano.
Waiheke: A tropical island that’s a 40 minute ferry ride outside of Auckland. Waiheke has nice scenery, beaches, and vineyards/wine.

A few miscalleneous notes

Almost every town has a full service indoor pool you can visit inexpensively (typically $2-$3). Most have wave pools, hot tubs, water slides, swimming lanes, etc. These are a great option for rainy days or whenever you need a low key activity for your kids.

Be sure to try some of the local produce, including:

-Greengages: Similar to plums, but sweeter

-Feijoa: Also known as pineapple guava. Check out feijoa flavored ice cream, snacks, and drinks

-Manuka honey

And of course, kiwis….though oddly, depending on the season you visit, the kiwis you find may actually be imported from Italy, and not locally grown.

Hopefully this gives you a taste of some of New Zealand’s highlights.

The most important decision you make will be to go to NZ. Whatever you choose to do there, you can’t go wrong….

A note from Leana

First of all, huge thanks to Seth for this amazing write-up! Readers, stay tuned for tips on best mileage award redemptions to New Zealand, as I do my own research in hopes of making a visit there a reality.

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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10 thoughts on “Reader Seth Gives Awesome Tips on Visiting New Zealand with Kids

    • Uri, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I can’t really take credit for it, I’m afraid. That’s all Seth!

  1. Seth, As a born and bred Kiwi living in Australia with an American wife, you have absolutely nailed New Zealand perfectly. Well written and spot on – well done!

  2. I agree that South Island is definitely where you’d want to spend your time if limited. If I remember right, Leana, you will only have 3 days? I’ve wondered if you’d want to just fly straight to Queenstown (although I understand maybe the train ride is a family thing). My favorite part about Queenstown, is the drive to Queenstown itself, and the gondola ride and luge ride down which are both totally worth it. Queenstown is a good base to do lots of expensive (and cool) excursions. Not sure if you are going to do any excursions while in Queenstown, if you do, I think my favorites are the drive down Skipper’s Canyon – that you really need to do with a professional, and the flight to Milford Sound in a little airplane, is seriously amazing, yet pricy, but a memory you’ll never forget. I remember not being too excited by the jet boat thing – maybe it was my mood that day…? Or the rainy cold weather…? Although the jet boat was a way to see rugged NZ country without hiking for days. If you’re not planning on expensive excursions, I would rather spend the time in Wanaka, and do a day trip to Queenstown. The drive from Wanaka to Queenstown is fabulous – but make sure you take the fabulous road (if I remember right there are two different roads?).

    And by the way, I have tried to take that train ride – TWICE – unsuccessfully. Both times it was booked. So get your train tickets early to be safe, if that’s what you want to do.

    Yes, driving in New Zealand is incredibly easy and fun. You don’t even need a map really, just read the signs! Jucy car rentals are really cheap! Especially if you reserve in advance. We have used them and had good experiences more than once.

    I don’t think you’ll make it there, Leana, but for any readers thinking about Nelson – I agree that Tahunanui Beach is beautiful. My grandma lives in Tahunanui, about a 5-minute walk from the beach, and the park is great. My son always remembers the “rocket ship park” that has a slide that looks like a rocket ship. 🙂 Nelson has a lovely “downtown” – small town with a big town attitude, full of cafes and art. The walk down the Maitai river is nice (and free). It starts in town and before you know it you are in the middle of nowhere and its’ shallow and safe so you can stop for a swim if you get hot (if you go in the summer, I mean winter, uh…you know!). And there’s the beautiful Queens Gardens (free) – that has a cool cafe right there on edge of the duck pond.

    Another you probably won’t have time for, but is always worth considering is my favorite place: Akaroa. It’s about 1.5 hour drive (if I remember right?) from Christchurch. It’s a gorgeous drive and a gorgeous little town. If you haven’t been, Seth, go dolphin watching here instead! Just so that you can go here! Plus, not sure if the road to Kaikoura is driveable yet, after the last earthquake. But seriously, google images of Akaroa. It’s worth seeing the photos, even if you can’t go! Lots of free hikes here, and everywhere in NZ.

    And let me say, I never liked hiking until I’d been to NZ. I thought of hiking as very boring, because in Minnesota it is. However, in NZ the views are very rewarding on many of the hikes, which made if much more inspiring for me!

    I wouldn’t spend too much in Christchurch or Queenstown, if I only had three days. I’d be in Akaroa or Wanaka. And I love stopping at the church in Tekapo and sitting the by the water on the rocks. It’s an amazing place to pass time.

    And finally, the only thing I have to add, is that if the weather is cooperative and there’s anyway to fit it into the plan, try to walk Hooker’s Valley. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s flat. It’s in a valley, with amazing views. If I remember right you can do the whole thing in 2-4 hours…? Absolutely worth it. My sister just went on my recommendation and loved it. Google images of Hooker’s Valley too!

    Oh and the glaciers. I don’t know what it is about glaciers, but they don’t excite me that much. I’ve been to Fox and Franz Joseph. Maybe it’s from growing up in Minnesota, but large amounts of ice and snow, are somewhat interesting, but they have never blown my mind, like the view of Queenstown or Akaroa did the first time I saw it…driving over the pass. Again, maybe it’s because I grew up in Minnesota, that is flat. So hills and mountains are exotic. Snow and ice, not so much, to me. Cool to have experienced and done, but I prefer Hooker’s Valley and Akaroa, for example. 🙂

    Hope this helps a little. Great write-up Seth!

    • Thanks for the additional tips, Amanda.

      I second your thoughts on jet boating. Our boat driver kept doing 360 degree turns, which I didn’t particularly enjoy. It seemed like it would be a fun thing to do, but there are better ways to spend your time and money. That said, it was still a unique experience and great photo opp.

      • Yeah. New Zealanders are proud of the jet boat bc they invented it. And I guess it’s scientifically impressive because it can do all that in extremely shallow water… And can ergo take you places normal boats can’t… but…I probably would save my money for something else second time round.

        Seth, next time your in NZ reach out via Leana. We live in Wellington. 🙂

  3. Just thought of a couple more things.

    Consider bunji jumping. For real. It’s not about the rush. It’s about the mind over matter and accomplishment. When I first travelled in NZ I swore I was not interested, but after a while I got sucked in and did it. Some Scottish guy in the hostel convinced me on St. Patti’s Day that it was the thing to do. And I did it! I did the baby jump at Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, which I think is the original bunji jumping place. If you can’t bring yourself to watch, go out with the kids and watch. You can walk out on the bridge and stand behind the jumpers and there’s a viewing platform over the river. It’s fun and beautiful. Go.

    I wanted to say that Seth is totally right about airfares being cheaper on the Air New Zealand’s New Zealand site, as opposed to US.

    And a tip – it’s probably too late for you Leana! But if you are travelling to NZ in summer you might get better prices in June or August. There is a two-week July holiday and all the prices in NZ get jacked up during that time!

    And for those thinking of paying to go to NZ…watch Fijian Airways…perhaps with a VPN! There are good deals to have had. We recently flew Wellington to LA round trip for US$600/NZ$900 (roughly). And don’t forget to follow up and make sure you get your American miles (or whichever partner). Our miles didn’t automatically get credited (even though our frequent flier numbers were on our reservations) and I’m working on that right now. Need to send in copies of boarding passes – so hold on to them!

    OK. Now I think I’m really done with my advice! 🙂

    • Sorry –
      a) if you can’t bring yourself to *jump* then go *watch*
      b) a two week July “school vacation”

      • @Amanda Thanks for all your tips! At this point, there is a big question mark next to this whole trip. I’m going to do my best in order to pull it off, but it’s quite uncertain at the moment. Fingers crossed my miles will save the day. 🙂
        I’ve mentioned to my SIL what you said about July, but I think that’s when we plan on going. At least that’s what she wants to do. I don’t feel like fighting that battle, I’m sure there will be plenty others! And yes, if my husband and I go, we’ll only be in NZ for 3 nights: 1 in Christchurch as an overnight, and 2 in Queenstown. We’ll make sure to buy train tickets on Glacier Express way ahead. Good tip, thanks!
        If we enjoy it (which we probably will), maybe we’ll come back.

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