new zealand sourth island trip with family friendly ideas

Reminiscing on holiday in New Zealand South Island and family friendly ideas

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N has never been abroad – well, kind of, as I’ve taken him to Jersey because he wanted to go on a plane. But so far we’ve not taken him on a foreign holiday further afield, and certainly not long haul.  We’re not big travellers apart from around the UK, but now he’s older and is more appreciative of the world around, there are places I’d like to take him to one day.  New Zealand is one of those.

Some people might think parents are mad taking children on long haul flights, and I’d not have taken him when younger. But when the OH and I went to New Zealand a year into our relationship for 3 weeks, there was a mum and Grandma taking 2 preschoolers on the same flights to New Zealand. The children were so well behaved and entertained that it did change my mind a bit in realising that children on flights aren’t always as bad as you might imagine.  I think N would be fine, and he’d probably sleep a decent amount as well.

new zealand sourth island trip with family friendly ideas

Visiting New Zealand and the new visa

When we visited there was no need for visas as a UK citizen. But in 2019 that changed, and now all visitors (except New Zealanders and Australians) will need a visa.  The New Zealand visa (NZeTA) is easily researched and purchased online. It allows you to visit for up to 3 months at a time, across a certain time period. This is plenty for most visitors, giving lots of time to visit both North and South Island.  We only went for 3 weeks and were basing ourselves for a week with a friend of the OH’s, so we stuck to exploring the South Island.

You can read more about the visa before you do your New Zealand visa application.

How to do New Zealand with children in tow

New Zealand is the perfect size to travel round, and you don’t want to be stuck in one place as there’s so much to explore. I know N loves to see different places, so I would definitely want to do ‘grown up’ backpacking. It’s easy to hire a car (or campervan/motorhome).  New Zealand drive on the same side as us in the UK, although there are a few differences with right of ways to get the hang of. The roads, even in the towns, aren’t busy compared with the UK, and are often nice and wide in the towns, so easy to get used to.

While you can stay in hotels, hostels and self-catering options are more prevalent if you’re travelling round. I’d never stayed in a hostel before, but was pleasantly surprised by the one in Christchurch. Yes it had a young vibe to it, with communal areas and cooking facilities, but we had a private ensuite room. We also stayed in some amazing lodges while travelling round – one was a log cabin right next to Hokitika beach with Sky tv and all mod cons. For the bargain price of about £30 for the 2 of us.

Depending on where you stopover, accommodation will vary – in Kaikoura we did stay on a kind of holiday campsite/motel with self-catering ‘cabins’ which weren’t that brilliant. A bit run down, with plastic squeaky mattress toppers, but they were clean, relatively cheap and had everything we needed for a 1 or 2 night stay. I think accommodation there has gone a bit more upmarket since we were there!

With a family, it’s just a case of shopping around, and booking ahead if you’re travelling by car rather than motorhome.  We holidayed in early December which was just warming up to their summer, and there was plenty of accommodation available to choose from when we were booking.

New Zealand South Island itinerary suitable for families

Our itinerary was a mix of staying in a base for a bit then travelling round.  

We stayed in Christchurch for a couple of nights first, then beautiful Wanaka, then drove down to Arrowtown where our friend lived. We stayed with them for a week, travelling out from there for various day trips. It was lovely to have one base for a bit, and get recommendations. He worked out of Queenstown and Milford Sound, so gave us tips for taking a boat trip out on the sound.  We detoured up to Te Anau for a night before going to Milford Sound, then back to Arrowtown, before moving further up the west coast to Hokitika, and up to Kaikoura for whale watching.  There was still snow on the mountains there, but we were lucky enough to see some whales.

Then it was back down south to Christchurch before flying home.  We stayed 1-2 nights in most places, meaning we could relax as well as enjoy the towns and countryside.

Our family based must sees

Christchurch felt like home. It’s very similar to cities like Oxford (with fewer students and bikes).

  • Christchurch beach – a lovely long stretch of sand, check out the sand artists and walk out on the pier.
  • Have a city tour on the tram – a little bit of history and a lovely way to see the city
  • Punting (I said it was like Oxford!)
  • Christchurch Botanic Gardens
  • Museums and exhibitions that include – Air Force Museum of New Zealand, International Antarctic Centre which we found really interesting, and Quake City
  • Orana Wildlife Park
christchurch beach
Christchurch beach

Wanaka is a chilled out town with a beautiful lake to walk round and skim stones. There’s lots of outdoor and ski and surf style shops here. The gateway to a National Park, check out Puzzling World mazes and sculpture gallery outside the town. For teens look out the adventure sports.

view over lake wanaka with sky reflected in the water

Queenstown is one of the more ‘buzzing’ towns in the South Island and good for outdoors lovers. Great for jet boating for children over 5 years and the height limit, and other water sports.  Indoor options include trampolining, cinema, ice skating and go karting. If you’re there for the NZ winter, skiing. We loved the gondola up to the top of the city, a turn on the ‘luge’ track at the top, then back down on the gondola. Don’t forget the kiwi birdlife park.

Queenstown buildings over the lake

Arrowtown is a former gold rush village, check out the main heritage street, the Chinese settlement, Lake District museum and go panning for gold. Go for the Autumn festival to celebrate the season in April.

Arrowtown shopping parade with old fashioned buildings

Glenorchy is a rustic town with beech forest and mountains, there are beautiful walks, jet-boating and horse riding.  En route check out Paradise – we stopped at fords cutting across roads where you can stop and let the kids out and play up or downstream. The area is ‘Middle Earth’ being used for Lord of the Rings and other movies..

Milford Sound is a geographer’s heaven, a stunning fiord amongst mountains. Take a boat tour around the sound, see the waterfalls and wildlife. Find out more at Milford Sound Discovery Centre and underwater observatory.

waterfalls in Milford Sound firod
Milford Sound waterfall

Te Anau is a sleepy town, we stayed a night to split up the journey to Milford Sound. Go to find gloworm caves, and spot the takahe birds, plus see beautiful landscapes on the journey.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and blowhole walk are maybe more for adults unless the children are into geography. Amazing rock formations, but you need to time it right to see the waves and foam crashing up (my camera battery died just as we arrived! Gutted).

Hokitika we used as a stopover point.  Let the children loose on the fairly wild beach, do the treetop walk, and visit the mining museum for this former gold rush town. There’s also the gloworm dell and you can walk the gorge to see the turquoise water.

whale watching from a boat in kaikoura
Whale watching in Kaikoura

Visiting New Zealand South Island was a wonderful holiday, and a great country to visit. There’s plenty to do for children,

Have you taken your children long haul or to New Zealand?  How did they cope and where would you recommend visiting?

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