New Zealand is a great place to take the little ones. BTW contributor Darcy Levy has scoured both the North and South Island for the top 5 places to take your little ones. You will love her attention to details. A note for fit parents: each destination has an optional hike!
After visiting New Zealand from Ahipara to Queentown with a 2-year-old in tow, I’ve honed in on some of the locations.
New Zealand is a hikers’ paradise. There is always a hike to do nearby, so each of these locations offers a hiking option as well. Here are my five favorite destinations that combine adventure with fun for kids:
- The Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is three hours north of Auckland on the North Island of New Zealand. It’s comprised of a number of inlets and islands accessible by boat from Paihia or Russell. Stay in Russell–much more quaint than Paihia–and explore the Bay of Islands by boat and ferry rather than by car. From Russell, it’s a 10-minute walk to Long Beach for a day swimming and searching for shells on the beach.
Return to Russell for lunch at Hone’s Garden, with kid-friendly outdoor seating and tasty food. There’s a playground at the local school and an ice cream shop in town and everything is walkable – what more could you want? A must-do side trip is a boat trip to Urupukapuka Island. The island is filled with walking tracks and stunning beaches–Cable Bay and Sunset Bay were our favorites. You can camp overnight on the island if you’d like and Otehei Bay has a full restaurant, bar, kayak and SUP rentals, plus an outdoor shower and rustic cabins for rent. There’s something for everyone and the hikes to the beaches are short so easily done with your kiddos walking or in a hiking backpack. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot dolphins from the boat as well.
- Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park
On the northern tip of the South Island is the Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park, offering stunning coastlines and access to Abel Tasman National Park. Stay near Marahau or Kaiteriteri to explore this region. Spend at least one day exploring the Golden Bay, preferably from the water.
You can rent kayaks at Golden Bay Kayaks–they conveniently have a coffee stand onsite if you need a caffeine fix–and head out for a day of exploring. If the water is calm, they’ll let you bring young children. The kayaking is easy and the odds of seeing wildlife are high – we observed two fur seals playing and a blue penguin splashing in the water. You can kayak around rock formations and under rock bridges, plus stop at numerous secluded beaches to swim and eat lunch. Kaiteriteri is a charming town with a playground just a few hundred yards from the town beach. From either Kaiteriteri or Marahau, take an ocean taxi up the coast into Abel Tasman National Park. Depending on the stamina of your group, you can hike back to town, kayak, or just spend the day enjoying a beach in the park and return by water taxi later in the day. If you hike back to Marahau, enjoy a burger at The Fat Tui. If you are in the area on a Sunday, a visit to the Motueka Sunday Market is worthwhile
Queenstown is the adventure travel hub of New Zealand, and offers extreme activities like bungee jumping and hanggliding. That said, it has a lot to offer for families. First, it’s set on icy yet swimmable Lake Wakatipu and also good for kayaking, SUPing, and boating. Second, there’s a mostly-flat bike path around much of the lake. Rental shops in town have bike with kid’s seats available.
If you want to get in on the adventure sport aspect of the town a bit, ride the luge, which is easily accessible from town. A scenic gondola ride takes you mid-way up a mountain, which affords awe-inspiring views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Children who are able to walk may ride the luge with an adult (between their legs) and children 110 cm or taller may ride alone. There are two courses, one of which is gentler and must be ridden with a lap child. You control your speed the entire time and while you are turning corners and squealing with joy, you can briefly glance up to take a look at the view over Lake Wakatipu. After you ride, stop by the ice cream shop located on the mountain for hokey pokey ice cream, a New Zealand cult classic.
- Christchurch and Akaroa
Given the recent earthquakes that have devastated this city and the surrounding areas, Christchurch may not be at the top of your travel list. That said, it’s often a place you stop on your way to or from another destination and we found it to be kid-friendly and fun to explore. To start, the coolest playground I’ve ever visited is downtown: The Margaret Mahy Family Playground has in-ground trampolines, tunnels, a massive slide, a huge rope climbing structure, splash pad, climbing walls, and swings. We could have played there all day, especially jumping on the trampolines. Nearby you can find North Hagley Park and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, which are free to enter and have not only a large playground, but an adjacent paddling pool. Apparently paddling pools, which are free, shallow pools in public parks, are a phenomenon in New Zealand–and should clearly exist in the USA. Kids must wear “togs,” that’s Kiwi for swimwear, in the pools, but otherwise are free to splash around. It’s the perfect way to cool off and expend some energy on a hot day. The botanic gardens had 2 pools, one for infants and one for older children. When you finish playing, head to the Ilex for a snack and a coffee – the café is surrounded by a huge grassy field so kids can continue to run and play while you relax. If you visit Christchurch, a must-do is a visit to the Banks Peninsula, about an hours drive from the city. Akaroa is a cute town to explore, which has a nice town beach, a playground, and plenty of food options. The entire peninsula is stunning and you can explore more of the coast by kayak and boat from Akaroa, including taking day trips to see penguins and dolphins (with which you can also swim).
- Hit the Beach in Ahipara
On the remote northern end of the North Island is the sleepy surf town of Ahipara. The waves can be phenomenal for surfing, but if you use Shipwreck Bay as a home base, the beach is expansive and quiet and the water is shallow for quite a while, making it friendly for the under three set. There are surf and SUP rentals available in town and at low tide, hundreds of tide pools are visible for exploring and splashing. Nearby are sand dunes where you can “sandboard”. This isn’t a spot on most travel itineraries, but it is well worth a visit. From Ahipara, you can take a day trip up Ninety Mile Beach. If it rains or you need a break from the sun, head to nearby Kaitaia where there is a local library and playground. Make sure you stay somewhere with a kitchen as there are limited dining options (the North Drift Café in Ahipara is really it).