Places to visit in New Zealand
It can feel almost impossible to narrow down the wealth of incredible locations and attractions of New Zealand to fit them into a two or three week holiday. However, this is where we come in, using our expertise to advise you whether to focus on one island or both, how you can build itineraries around particular activities or modes of transport, and where to start and end the trip.
Although distances may look imposing, remember that roads are empty and journeys are always jam-packed with a never-ending vista of incredible and ever-changing scenery – and the kids can always count sheep…
Below are some of the country’s top highlights – as well as a few little gems we think are the perfect places to visit on a New Zealand holiday with the kids.
The ‘City of Sails’ is the main gateway to New Zealand for international flights. Surprisingly compact, the city’s main attraction is its bustling waterfront with a vibrant café and restaurant scene. From here, families can enjoy an exhilarating morning aboard an America’s Cup yacht (you WILL get wet) or cruise to the idyllic Waiheke Island to hike or bike its coastal tracks, vineyards and pristine beaches. Enjoy views of the city from atop the Sky Tower – or for the fearless, tackle the Auckland Harbour Bridge Climb.
However, we usually find that a day or two is all that is needed to recover from jetlag and exhaust the city’s delights before heading off to explore further. There is just too much to see!
A real hidden gem and an area often ignored in the great rush to head south to Rotorua. This is very much a locals’ holiday destination with gorgeous sandy beaches, native forest and a rustic vibe. The perfect antidote to jetlag, you can kayak or snorkel the turquoise waters of Cathedral Cove, hike the Coastal Walk, hop aboard the Narrow Gorge Driving Creek Railway, cycle the Hauraki Rail Trail or (probably the most fun any family can have at the seaside,) dig your own thermal pool just metres from the Pacific Ocean at Hot Water Beach.
Bay of Islands
Home to 144 islands, this sub-tropical paradise is the perfect escape for beach lovers and water enthusiasts. Just a three-hour drive from Auckland and your family could be enjoying their first experience of New Zealand’s remarkable marine life including whales, dolphins and seals. Hire a kayak, head below the waters on a snorkelling or diving excursion, charter a boat or delve deep into the rainforest to come face to face with the mighty Kauri Tree. Further delights to be enjoyed in Northland is the remarkable marine life of Goat Island, boogie-boarding the sand dunes near Cape Reinga or catching the surf on 90 Mile Beach (actually only 88 miles, but who’s counting…)
The ‘hotspot’ of the country, Rotorua is renowned for its array of geothermal attractions. Bubbling mud pools, erupting geysers and hot springs – this is a living geography lesson, albeit a rather pungent one. In addition to the variety of volcanic activities, there is a strong Maori culture and an evening spent experiencing a stirring Haka ceremony is an authentic way to enjoy the local cultures. Explore the thermal valley, take a dip in the hot springs, raft a waterfall (yes, an actual waterfall), follow the canopy walkway through the giant Redwoods, cover yourself in mud at the Hell’s Gate mud baths (kids are just going to lurve this!) and then gorge on a Maori Hangi Feast, cooked underground in the traditional way
Not just for Hobbit lovers, this extraordinary location was once a working sheep farm, set in the idyllic surrounds of the Kaimai Ranges. Known as The Shire, from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, this wonderful movie set is home to such iconic places as the Green Dragon Inn, the Mill and numerous Hobbit Holes. Even if you are not a Tolkein fan, this is an easy way to spend an afternoon, enjoying a guided tour of this bucolic 12 acre set, in the heart of Middle-earth. Throughout New Zealand you will bump into endless reminders of just how important the Peter Jackson films were to this country – the New Zealand Tourist Board’s best advocate!
In the centre of the North Island, the Taupo region is surrounded by its most spectacular scenery. With the towering volcanic peaks of Tongariro National Park ever-present, you can white-water raft the Tongariro River, get up close (and wet) on a jet boat ride at the Huka Falls, ride the gondola over the ski fields to the top of Mount Ruapehu for views of Mount Ngauruhoe (‘Mount Doom’ from ‘Lord of the Rings’ – yes, that trilogy again) or tackle the absolutely superb but challenging one day Tongariro Crossing to view the famous Emerald Lakes.
Situated right at the southern tip of the North Island, this cool little city is the nation’s capital. The endpoint of your journey through the North Island and the launchpad to your crossing of the Cook Straits leading you to the next leg of your holiday on the South Island. Arriving or departing by plane enhances the city’s scenic harbourfront location (known as the ‘Windy City’, hold on to your stomach for take-off and landing). Renowned for its creative culture, Wellington has a good choice of options for families including the excellent Museum of New Zealand and the fascinating Weta Workshop, responsible for such massive movies as ‘King Kong’, ‘Avatar’, ‘Bladerunner 2049’ and, of course, that Tolkein trilogy again. For wine-loving parents, it is also gateway to the famous Martinborough vineyards.
Napier and Hawke’s Bay
For a total contrast to all the natural delights of New Zealand, take a wander through the somewhat surreal town of Napier. Completely rebuilt since a devastating earthquake, the town is packed full of beautifully preserved art deco architecture including a carefully restored Marine Parade. Take a self-guided walk through the streets, as if you are on a 1930s film set, or hop in a vintage car. Head to Cape Kidnappers to view the large gannet colony there then enjoy the gorgeous surrounds of Hawke’s Bay by cycling round its famous vineyards (be warned, there are 72 of them).
The world’s newest city, this little corner of England has been carefully rebuilt since the earthquake of 2011 and is now a delightful mix of ancient and modern architecture along with some colourful street art and a bustling café scene. The main gateway for flights from the North Island (and some international connections), it can be a useful place to recharge the batteries for a day before picking up your campervan and heading off into the Great Outdoors. Take a gondola ride for stunning views across the valleys, punt along the River Avon and take dinner in a restored vintage tram. Head to the nearby Banks Peninsula and the laid-back European scene of Akaroa from where you can cruise to watch the rare Hector’s dolphins – or hop in the water with them.
The whale-watching capital of New Zealand, Kaikoura is nestled in a spectacular location between the sweeping Seaward Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean. Whales can be viewed by boat or air all year round. In addition the whole family will love the fantastically fun ‘Swimming with Dolphins’ experience, where you can enjoy close-up encounters with these friendly creatures in their own environment in a responsible manner. Kayak and swim with fur seals, head to the skies on a ‘Mountains and Marine Life’ helicopter flight and gorge on incredible seafood in the many beachfront restaurants. Foodie heaven.
Marlborough and Queen Charlotte Sounds
The gateway to the northern tip of the South Island, most visitors arrive by Inter-island ferry from Wellington where the tranquil turquoise waters of the Marlborough Sounds are a blessed relief after the Cook Straits. Marine life abounds here with dolphins, penguins and fur seals and the ferry journey is more of a wildlife cruise. Home to numerous famous vineyards, including Cloudy Bay, the region is also known for the Queen Charlotte Track, a superb coastal trail that can be enjoyed on a day trip from Picton or as a multi-day, multi-sports adventure by kayak, bike and foot. Take a water-taxi to a beach resort and relax in this stunning scenery – who needs the Caribbean.
Abel Tasman National Park
New Zealand’s smallest park is a coastal paradise. Throw the car keys away and take to the water to explore by kayak or catamaran. Heli tours allow you to enjoy views of both North and South Islands as well as the spectacular coastline. Keen hikers might want to tackle parts (or all of) the Abel Tasman Trail, accessible by water taxi. Enjoy swimming from sandy beaches with a backdrop of native forest and climb rocky headlands for far-reaching views – all in the company of resident cormorants, gannets, penguins and fur seals.
West Coast – Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
This is where things get wild – and usually wet. Rugged, untamed coastline, tumultuous waterfalls, unusual limestone rock stacks and miles of endless beaches, where mountains and forest meet the ocean. Two of the world’s most famous glaciers emerge here – the Fox and the Franz Josef. You are free to walk up to the snout of both (kids will be surprised at how ‘dirty’ they actually are close-up) or take the classic glacier experience of a heli-hike, flying up the glacier to land for a crampon-assisted hike on the ice (min age 8yrs). Enjoy a sightseeing flight where the sheer size of these ice monsters is magnified as they make their way down from the snowy white mountainscape of the Southern Alps, through the lush green sub-tropical coastal forest and out to the dazzling blue ocean waters. A kaleidoscope of stunning colours.
Mt Cook National Park
New Zealand’s highest mountain soars over the Southern Alps at 3,754m. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is alpine scenery at its best with 23 dazzling snowy peaks over 3000m, rugged tundra terrain and long, meandering glaciers. The Tasman Glacier can be viewed by boat and thus accessible to all ages and there are numerous hikes in the park ranging from the easy one hour Glencoe Walk to the 5km Hooker Valley Track. The turquoise Lake Pukaki provides a photographic contrast with the milky glacial waters that flow from the various glaciers through the alpine bush. Just beware of the cheeky Kea (mountain parrots) who are over-enthusiastic thieves of not only picnics but also the odd windscreen wiper…
A convenient stop between the West Coast glaciers and Queenstown, the ski resort of Wanaka transforms into the perfect summer destination for any New Zealand family holiday. Lakefront trails provide opportunities for all ages – by bike or on foot – to enjoy the town’s spectacular setting, beneath the Southern Alps. Take an eco-tour to Mou Waho Island to view the rare flightless Buff Weka. Fly, hike and jet-boat secluded Siberia Valley, kayak the tranquil waters of Lake Wanaka or enjoy the peaceful Cardrona Valley on horse-back. For keen walking families, head into the hiker’s paradise of Mount Aspiring National Park where a variety of trails, ranging from easy day walks to famous multi-day treks, take you through some of the country’s most breath-taking scenery.
This is where the three ‘A’s rule – Adrenalin, Adventure and Activity. The options are almost endless but amongst our personal favourites for families are the ‘Funyak’ safari on the Dart River (jet boat in, kayak out) and the Skyline gondola and luge experience on Bob’s Peak. High adrenalin activities include the ubiquitous bungy jump, sky diving and the Shotover Jet. Gentler paced tours include a steamship cruise or a visit to the picturesque gold rush village of Arrowtown. Queenstown is a great base to re-charge your batteries (quite literally for the campervan), enjoy the restaurant scene on Lake Wakatipu and catch up on souvenir shopping. If you have any energy left after all those activities!
Te Anau is the picturesque lakeside gateway to arguably the best scenery in New Zealand. From here you can head to the country’s most iconic location, Milford Sound or to the more secluded Doubtful Sound. Highly recommended for all ages is an overnight cruise where you can explore the sounds by kayak before dropping anchor in a peaceful cove in the company of fur seals and penguins. Kids will love watching pods of dolphins frolic in the ship’s wake, beneath soaring cliffs and hanging ferns. Older families may like to tackle some of the overnight treks in Fiordland National Park although there are many easily accessible shorter walks. Or head underground at the Te Anau glow-worm caves where a twisting network of limestone passages lead to a hidden grotto inhabited by hundreds of glow-worms. A great option for all ages, particularly in wet weather.
Dunedin and Otago Peninsula
Known as the Edinburgh of the southern hemisphere, the historic city of Dunedin has a wealth of cultural options to enjoy including a street art trail and Larnach Castle. However its main attraction is the nearby Otago Peninsula, renowned for its incredible array of wildlife. Take a cruise through beautiful Otago Harbour to view the majestic albatross and large populations of fur seals as well as dolphins, sealions and petrels. Continue on to Penguin Place, breeding ground of the rare Yellow-eyed Penguin. Children will love getting up close to these quirky creatures using a series of underground trenches and viewing hides.
Great Rail Journeys
New Zealand has a fantastic network of rail routes which take in some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery. It can be tricky to work these into a self-drive itinerary but this may prove an appealing alternative to renting a car to certain families. Our favourites on the South Island are the Coastal Pacific taking you along the beautiful coast between Christchurch and Picton and the dramatic TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth, from the Canterbury Plains of the east coast to the rugged Southern Alps on the west coast. On the North Island, the classic Northern Explorer travels between Auckland and Wellington, stopping at such popular spots as Waitomo and Tongariro National Park. Talk to us and we can suggest some creative ways to allow you to enjoy at least one of these incredible journeys.
Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a free-of-charge no obligation itinerary and quotation designed for you.
New Zealand in pictures
Talk with our friendly team about your family travel needs.