New Zealand's a dream for family travel: kid-centric activities, family-friendly accommodation, a moderate climate and very few critters that can bite or sting. Cuisine is chilli-free and food servers are clued up on dietary requirements. Base yourself in a sizeable town for amenities galore and excursions within a short drive.
Best Regions for Kids
- Rotorua & the Bay of Plenty
Wow, bubbling volcanic mud, stinky gas, gushing geysers and Māori haka performances! Rotorua is hard to beat from a kid's perspective. And around the Bay of Plenty coast are beaut beaches and plenty of fish and chip shops.
- Wellington Region
You need a compact city if you're walking around with kids. Wellington fits the bill, with a brilliant museum, a ratchety cable car, lots of cheery cafes and fab Kapiti Coast beaches less than an hour away.
- Queenstown & Wanaka
New Zealand's winter sports scene suits pro snowheads (and après-ski fans) but it's just as easy to enjoy with kids...actually, it's more fun. Cardrona has kid-friendly skiing, and there's Wanaka's Puzzling World for ski-free days.
- Christchurch & Canterbury
Nature parks, row boats, the International Antarctic Centre and botanic gardens in the big city, and the amazing Banks Peninsula not far away (penguins, dolphins and pretty birds).
New Zealand for Kids
Fabulous wildlife parks, beaches, parks, snowy slopes and interactive museums proliferate across NZ. There are countless attractions and amenities designed specifically for kids but families needn't stick to playgrounds and holiday parks. Kid-appropriate adventures, from glaciers to white-water rafting, are everywhere...if parents are brave enough, that is.
Admission Fees & Discounts
Kids' and family rates are often available for accommodation, tours, attraction entry fees, and air, bus and train transport, with discounts up to as much as 50% off the adult rate. Note that the definition of ‘child’ can vary from under 12 to under 18 years; toddlers (under four years old) usually get free admission and transport.
Eating Out With Children
If you sidestep the flashier restaurants, children are generally welcome in NZ eateries. Cafes are kid-friendly, and you’ll see families getting in early for dinner in pub dining rooms. Most places can supply high chairs. Dedicated kids' menus are common, but selections are usually uninspiring (pizza, fish fingers, chicken nuggets etc). If a restaurant doesn’t have a kids' menu, find something on the regular menu and ask the kitchen to downsize it. It’s usually fine to bring toddler food in with you. If the sun is shining, hit the farmers markets and find a picnic spot. New Zealand's restaurants are decent at catering for gluten-free and dairy-free diners – one less thing to worry about if kids follow a special diet.
Breastfeeding & Nappy Changing
Most Kiwis are relaxed about public breastfeeding and nappy changing: wrestling with a nappy (diaper) in the open boot of a car is a common sight! Alternatively, most major towns have public rooms where parents can go to feed their baby or change a nappy. Infant formula and disposable nappies are widely available.
For babysitters who have been fully interviewed, have supplied child-care references and undergone a police check, try www.rockmybaby.co.nz (from $16 per hour). Alternatively look under ‘baby sitting’ in the Yellow Pages (www.yellow.co.nz).
- Book accommodation far in advance: many motels and hotels have adjoining rooms that can be opened up to form large family suites, but they are snapped up fast, especially in peak season.
- If you're planning to roam between locations, stock up on food in larger towns. There's much more choice, and prices in smaller food shops in remote locations can be sky high.
- Plan stops in advance if you're travelling by road. Distances can feel long but fortunately NZ is rich in gorgeous lookouts, roadside waterfalls and many towns have prominent public toilets, hurrah!
Children Will Love...
- Queenstown Everything from kids' rafting trips to paragliding, bungee jumping, ziplines, ice skating and (of course) skiing.
- Whanganui Journey A slow-roaming canoe trip the kids will never forget.
- Abel Tasman Horse Trekking Paddock rides for little ones and beach horse treks for those aged 12 and up.
- Cape Reinga & Ninety Mile Beach Go sandboarding on gigantic dunes.
- The Catlins Flat rambles a few minutes long, rewarded by waterfalls...no tired little legs here.
- Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest Big-timber mountain biking for older kids in Rotorua.
- Hahei Beach The classic NZ summer beach. On the Coromandel Peninsula.
- Ngarunui Beach Learn to surf on gentle Waikato waves in view of lifeguards.
- Mt Maunganui Sand and surf for the kids, cafes and bars for the oldies.
- Hot Water Beach Dig your own hot pool in the Coromandel sand (but check the temperature).
- St Kilda & St Clair Beaches Kids don't mind chilly Dunedin, parents can warm up in the saltwater pool.
- Kiwi Birdlife Park, Queenstown Spot a kiwi and myriad squawking birds.
- Akaroa Dolphins Watch dolphins from a catamaran, in the company of a wildlife-spotting dog.
- West Coast Wildlife Centre, Franz Josef Meet the world's rarest kiwi and tuatara (pint-sized dinosaurs).
- Zealandia, Wellington Twittering birds in the predator-free Wellington hills.
- Royal Albatross Centre Watch little penguins waddle ashore at dusk from Pilots Beach on the Otago Peninsula.
Culture with Kids
- Te Papa, Wellington Earthquakes, Māori culture and molten magma.
- Auckland Museum The Auckland volcanic field and a 25m waka taua (war canoe).
- Hobbiton, Matamata Tours of hobbit holes and a drink in the Green Dragon Inn.
- Canterbury Museum, Christchurch A mummy, dinosaur bones and a cool Discovery Centre.
- Puke Ariki, New Plymouth A mighty big shark plus Māori exhibits and more.
- Shantytown, Greymouth All aboard a steam train for gold-panning in a recreated gold-rush town.
But We're Hungry Now...
- Mt Vic Chippery, Wellington Exceptional fish and (five kinds of!) chips.
- Hastings Farmers Market Fill a basket and have a picnic.
- Kiwifruit, Motueka Pick up a ripe bag at harvest time at the Sunday market.
- Sweet Alice's Fudge Kitchen, Hokitika Candies, ice cream and fudge on the West Coast.
- Gisborne Farmers Market Macadamia nuts, oranges, pastries...and all of it local.
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children. Plan ahead by browsing Kidz Go! (www.kidzgo.co.nz) or pick up a free copy of its booklet from tourism info centres in Queenstown, Wanaka and Fiordland.
When to Go
New Zealand is a winner during summer (December to February), but summer is peak season and school-holiday time. Accommodation will be pricey and will require booking far ahead, especially for family-sized rooms. A better bet may be the shoulder months of March, April (sidestepping Easter) and November, when the weather is still good and there’s less pressure on the tourism sector. Winter (June to August) is better again – chances are you’ll have the whole place to yourselves! Except for the ski fields, of course, most of which are fully geared towards family snow-fun.
Many motels and holiday parks have playgrounds, games rooms and kids' DVDs, and often fenced swimming pools, trampolines and acres of grass (many have laundry facilities, too). Cots and high chairs aren’t always available at budget and midrange accommodation, but top-end hotels supply them and some provide child-minding services. The bach (a basic holiday home) is a good-value option, while farmstays can be highly entertaining with the menagerie of animals on-site.
Many B&Bs promote themselves as blissfully kid-free, and most hostels focus on the backpacker demographic. But there are plenty of hostels (including YHA) that do allow kids.
What to Pack
- Lots of layers New Zealand’s weather can be fickle, even in summer. Pack beach gear for summer trips, but throw in a few thermal long-sleeve tops and jackets.
- Sunhats, sunscreen and sunglasses Sunglasses for all, even in winter.
- Food containers Farmers markets, beaches...NZ is primo picnic territory.
- Insect repellent Itchy sandfly bites make grumpy children.
If your kids are little, check that your car-hire company can supply the right-sized car seat for your child, and that the seat will be properly fitted. Some companies legally require you to fit car seats yourself.
Most public transport – buses, trains, ferries etc – caters for young passengers, with discounted fares and a helping hand getting your stroller/nappy bag/shopping aboard.
Consider hiring a campervan for the whole trip. These formidable beasts are everywhere in NZ, kitted out with beds, kitchens, even toilets and TVs. Hire companies proliferate in major centres, with reasonable rates once you consider the savings on accommodation (and goodbye unpacking, repacking and leaving teddy in a hotel room).
- Kids Friendly Travel (www.kidsfriendlytravel.com) Directs you to baby equipment hire, accommodation listings and more.
- LetsGoKids (http://letsgokids.co.nz) Download the NZ edition for family travel inspiration and money-saving vouchers.
- Kidspot (www.kidspot.co.nz) The 'Family Fun' section has suggestions for child-friendly activities, road trips and more.
- Kids New Zealand (www.kidsnewzealand.com) Listings of family-friendly cafes and activities.