New Zealand may just be one of the most family-friendly travel destinations we’ve visited.
The jaw-dropping landscapes, rich culture and open-hearted Kiwi charm are all part of what makes discovering New Zealand an absolute privilege. Wondering what’s in store in the great outdoors? Think swimming in natural hot springs, snorkelling amongst wild dolphins, walking along natural wonders, spotting brooding volcanoes, climbing majestic peaks, navigating through dense forests, jetting down deep fjords, and lazing on sunny beaches. New Zealand has it all. When Sassy Mama visited, for portions of our trip, we saw more sheep and stars than skyscrapers or people – and, trust us, your little ones won’t be complaining.
New Zealand might seem like a small country, but it is packed with adventure for the whole family. You could easily spend months exploring all the North and South Island have to offer. Before you go, you’ll need to think about narrowing down your itinerary, how to get around and how much you want to squeeze in. That’s where this handy family-friendly guide to New Zealand comes in.
Be sure to check on the visa requirements for your passports. Many nationalities will require an NZeTA before arriving, which will allow you to enter visa-free. Also keep in mind the strict quarantine laws for entering New Zealand and be prepared to declare goods to customs on arrival (food, drink and plant materials).
New Zealand’s summer runs from January into February, so while the weather is stunning, it’s the busiest time of year. Less crowded alternatives would be autumn (March to April) and spring (November to December), when the weather is still warm. For skiers and snowboarders, it’s worth heading out over your kid’s summer holiday, which is New Zealand’s winter, from June to September.
Transport – Getting there and around
Flying to New Zealand
There are direct flights to Auckland on the North Island, and Christchurch on the South Island with both Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand. For Queenstown and other destinations, you’ll need to connect through one of these cities, or via an Australian airport.
Driving in New Zealand
Driving in New Zealand is nothing like driving in Hong Kong. Though New Zealand’s landscape is varied, it’s all equally beautiful, and even the most restless kids will enjoy the ride. With mountains rising out of the water and calming open fields of green, you want to stop and get out of the car every 15 minutes for a photo.
A hire car for a family road trip is a fantastic option, or, consider hiring a camper van and leave your itinerary truly flexible. All the major car hire companies are readily available including Budget, Hertz and Avis.
For camper vans, you can consider Maui, Apollo, Spaceships or Britz. There are excellent camping grounds and holiday parks all over the country and you don’t need to worry about regularly packing and unpacking!
Queenstown, New Zealand
Known as New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown offers a stunning change to Hong Kong’s skyline. It sits contently on the shores of South Island’s Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by the Southern Alps. The town is a welcoming, bustling hub of international and local activity. From skiing in June to bungy jumping, canyon swinging, jet boating, mountain biking and white-water rafting, there is plenty to keep you and the family entertained.
Where to stay in Queenstown:
Eichardt’s Private Hotel is part of Queenstown’s history. Located in absolute prime position (right along Lake Wakatipu in the town centre), this iconic hotel is walking distance from busy restaurants, but still manages to feel exclusive and relaxing. For accommodation, take your pick between one of the seven luxurious Lake or Mountain View Suites, the four Lakefront Apartments, The Residence or The Penthouse. The décor fuses classic elegance with modern twists.
Oh, and the luxurious apartment-style boudoirs have walk-in-wardrobes the size of a modest HK apartment. Eichardt’s Private Hotel offers everything from packed picnic baskets for days out, to complimentary day-passes for the Queenstown Gym. Although it is a sophisticated retreat, children are welcome. Baby cots can be supplied as well as extra beds for older children. Family-friendly two and three-bedroom apartments are also available.
It’s hard to believe that this private haven is a 10-minute drive from the centre of Queenstown. Matakauri Lodge’s take on luxury is thoughtfully understated, welcoming and breathtakingly beautiful. If it wasn’t for the attentive service, it would almost feel like dining in a billionaire’s holiday home. Your bedroom, living room, bathroom (and bathtub) overlook what’s known as the big three, “The Remarkables, and Cecil and Walter Peaks” – so the floor-to-ceiling glass windows were a wise choice. For families, be sure to book one of the suites or the “Owner’s Cottage” so you have a bit more room to spread out. The private entrance to your personal deck and suite accentuates the remote, relaxed vibe.
Though this one is best for a romantic getaway, the number of activities in the area mean that older kids won’t be disappointed. When it comes to food, Executive Chef Dale Gartland creates an ever-changing seasonal menu, highlighting clean and fresh produce. Key features of Matakauri include the private jetty (just a 10-minute walk away), the outdoor infinity pool and Jacuzzi, the gym, sauna and quaint spa.
Sassy Mama tip: Whilst the kids are busying themselves, it’s worth treating yourself to the Pounamu Pebble Pedicure (a unique New Zealand experience).
What to do in Queenstown:
Bob’s Peak: This is a destination of its own. Kids of all ages are sure to love the gondola ride to the peak or walk the Tiki Trail to this lookout spot. It’s full of restaurants and bars with postcard views.
Queenstown Hill: Make your way up this free walking trail. It’s a 2 to 3-hour climb with a decent incline (a 500-metre rise!) so this one is best suited for active families.
Time Tripper Queenstown: A great way to add a little education to your Queenstown visit. Step back in time with an animated show and discover what it was like when dinosaurs roamed the area. Then, take a deeper look at what lies beneath Lake Wakatipu in an underwater experience. You’ll see everything from diving ducks to Rainbow Trout.
Amisfield Estate Winery and Vineyard: Once you’ve satisfied the kids, it’s time to satisfy mums and dads! Head to this relaxing, family-friendly vineyard for Central Otago wines and two of the best cheeses we had on our trip: the homemade Amisfield Neufchâtel (a creamy black truffle soft cheese) and the Smoked Evansdale Tania.
Fergburger: Show me a kid who doesn’t like a burger? Serving up the most well-known burgers in New Zealand, this joint is overflowing with customers at all hours (it’s open 21 hours a day). If you’re staying at Eichardt’s Private Hotel, the concierge can call and order it for you (so you and your hungry family miss the queue) – you can then eat in the hotel at your convenience.
Public Kitchen & Bar: Steamer Wharf ferry terminal is bustling with restaurants and bars and this spot offers casual outdoor dining right by the lake. The mussels and chips are a solid bet!
The Cow: This charming restaurant was once a stone barn that housed cows needed for milking at the time of the gold rush in the 1860s. Operating as a spaghetti and pizza place since 1977, it is Queenstown’s oldest continuously operating restaurant. They know a thing or two about feeding kids healthy vegetables – by hiding them on a pizza!
Sassy Mama tip: Take a 2-hour (scenic) drive to Wilken River Jets in Makarora. You can arrange everything from a Helicopter Glacier Experience, to a Jet Boat and Wilderness Walk in a single day. If the weather doesn’t permit, you can still head out and walk the Blue Pools track. The pools are located in an alpine region, so the weather changes rapidly – bring layers and waterproof jackets! As a relatively flat walk, it’s suitable for kids of all ages. On the drive back, stop at Wanaka’s Wonderful World of Weirdness: A Puzzling World, an interactive play area for kids.
As the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, Christchurch has plenty to offer. Located on the east coast, the spot is known for its English heritage, The Avon River flowing through the city centre, and the urban parks along the river banks. A favourite tourist attraction is sailing across the river and sightseeing in a small, flat-bottomed boat. After winding through the city, head out to one of the cycling paths, Hagley Park and Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
Sassy Mama tip: If you’re limited on time, you may prefer to spend as much time outside the city as possible. Spend just a half-day exploring Christchurch and then drive straight up to Kaikoura. On your journey to Kaikoura, stop off at the Two Rivers Cafe, Restaurant and Wine Tasting Room. Sit in the kid-friendly outdoor area (open until 5pm) or just grab some warming hot chocolates and a loose-leaf tea to go.
The drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura is about 2.5 hours. The journey hugs the scenic New Zealand coastline and, even though the landscape is rich with life, there’s a serene stillness in the air. The renowned coastal town of Kaikoura is the best place for marine life encounters, seaside walks, and platters of fresh crayfish. Got an animal-lover on your hands? This quaint spot is known for its teeming wildlife, including sperm whales, fur seals, albatross and dusky dolphins.
Where to stay in Kaikoura:
This lodge quickly became one of our favourite places on the South Island. Located only 12 kilometres from the town of Kaikoura, this contemporary country hotel offers convenient luxury in a completely remote place. The family-friendly tree lodges are the polar opposite of Hong Kong apartments. You’re likely to feel blissfully removed from the city, warm and cosy beside a (real!) fireplace. The treehouse rooms are set 10 metres above the ground, leaving you nestled in a secluded tree canopy, with views of the hills, sea and deer (the lodge is actually located on a deer breeding farm).
There are also airy Lodge Rooms and the newly-available Olive House, which are also both ideal options for bigger families with young children. The outdoor pool, sauna, incredibly fresh food, and relaxing, homely feel are bonuses to the rooms themselves! The exceptional service is paired with a naturally relaxed, laid-back feel that puts the guest’s desires at the forefront of every decision.
Sassy Mama tip: If you’ve got an early morning start, we’d recommend keeping the blinds half up at night so you wake to the breathtaking surroundings. It’s an atmospheric alarm clock. Then, head down to family breakfast and opt to sit in the outside area, tucked behind the cosy dining room.
For a budget-friendly alternative (from $900 a night), check out The White Morph, which is self-contained waterfront hotel and motel accommodation in the heart of Kaikoura. If you’re looking for a no-frills, no-fuss spot in a prime location, this will get the job done. Plus, it’s located directly next to the Encounter Kaikoura activities meeting spot, so you can walk straight from your swim with dolphins into a warm bath. It’s a two-minute drive from the town centre, meaning there are plenty of activities and food options on your doorstep. And, as a self-contained apartment, this is a place you can stay in and cook too.
What to do in Kaikoura:
Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura: Snorkelling amongst a pod of 40 dusky dolphins was an unforgettable experience. Encounter Kaikoura has a well-trained team, with crew members who are clearly passionate about the ocean, wildlife and sustainability. They lead snorkellers (of all ages!) through a seamlessly organised system, ending up with you kitted out in a well fitted, buoyant, wet suit, swimming 2 metres away from playful wild dolphins (unbaited, untamed, and completely in their natural element!). Generally, pods from 50 to 1,000 dolphins can be found off the Kaikoura Coast. It’s every kid’s dream!
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway: This walkway is scattered with viewpoints to spot seal colonies, and you may even be faced with bold seals blocking the path. Steer clear of getting too close, as seals can feel threatened on land. There are a range of easy trails, ranging from 200 metres to 11.7km so you can pick something to suit the abilities of your littlest one’s legs!
Mount Fyffe Hike: Mount Fyffe and the Seaward Kaikoura Range are the two dominating features of Kaikoura’s natural skyline. You can opt for a 2 to 3-day excursion, an 8-hour return hike or a 45-minute loop. With young kids in tow, the last option may be your preferred option – no judgement!
The Green Dolphin: Independently run and family-owned, this resto comes highly recommended. Run by a family of passionate cooks, this spot provides hungry guests with the finest, freshest local cuisine and Kaikoura hospitality.
The Pier Hotel: This bustling hotel restaurant and bar is a staple for locals. It does have one of the busiest pubs in town, so make dinner reservations in advance as the small kitchen only caters to a limited number.
Hislopes: A local café, serving up wholefoods and plenty of brekkie options. The eggs Benedict with homemade hash browns, fresh salmon and wilted spinach is exactly what the family needs before a long drive back to the city.
Taupo and Rotorua
The lakeside town of Taupo is near the centre of New Zealand’s expansive North Island. The outdoor sports (think skiing, jet-boat rides and trout fishing) are paired with crystal-clear views and a quaint, homely feel. As the centre of volcanic and geothermal activity, Taupo has countless hot springs, perfect for swimming and bathing.
From trout fishing to horse riding, Rotorua is equally as full of natural outdoor activity. Thick forests make up this thermal wonderland, and the geothermal parks, hiking, mountain biking and glow worm caves are all worthy attractions for families.
Where to stay in Taupo and Rotorua:
Acacia Cliffs Lodge (Taupo)
The kind-hearted owners, Linda and Rick Whitlock, will make your stay here unforgettable. The couple extends a warm welcome to all and the love they exude for Taupo is palpable. The luxury lodge caters to up to eight guests in four boutique rooms, each with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a private deck or garden courtyard. Set on a plot high above Lake Taupo, the lodge offers an uninterrupted panorama of the lake, sharing its space only with clucking hens, grazing sheep and an abundance of green. Though stylised and modern, the interior puts comfort first – something we are always in favour of. A standard evening includes Rick whipping up family-style feasts, whilst guests are invited to gather around the shared dining table. The duo is skilled at creating a real community feel amongst travellers, and it makes their stunning property a sanctuary to stay in.
Sassy Mama tip: If you’re travelling with another family, you can opt for exclusive booking and have the entire place to yourselves. Taupo airport transfers can also be included free of cost!
Treetops Lodge (Rotorua)
With its own expansive grounds, Treetops Lodge offers tons of adventures and activities for guests of all ages. The local produce, glow worm caves, horse-riding, and long trail walks leading to remote waterfalls are all highlights for visiting families. This modern hunting lodge has 2,500 acres of 800-year old native forest, featuring rivers, lakes, waterfalls and 35 miles of hiking trails. The lodge offers “Signature Experiences” every day, a relaxing Wilderness Spa, access to The Kinloch Club (an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course) and helicopter adventures.
When it comes to the full dining experience, Treetops Lodge was one of our most memorable. Fresh produce is used to whip up unique combinations. Our dinner favourites included fresh ceviche, and our breakfast go-to was the sweet potato hash brown. Celebrating a special occasion as a family or couple? Guests are invited to enjoy a private dining experience in the library. Candlelit and by a fireplace, it’s an intimate and calming way to spend your evening – a welcome change from overcrowded restaurants!
What to do in Taupo and Rotorua:
Kai Waho Outdoor Experience: The Māori words “Kai” and “Waho” can be combined to describe a master of the wilderness. That’s exactly what Tom Loughlin, the legendary “tangata whenua” (person of the land), is. The Kai Waho experience is all about sharing the Māori traits of respect and balance to guests that are eager to learn. As your host, Tom can pick you up directly from Acacia Cliffs Lodge, about 1.5 hours away, and take you through his tribe’s land, out in the New Zealand bush for a genuine cultural experience. Tom advises that this is more suitable for kids over the age of 9.
A day trip includes everything from a traditional Māori Hangi (where food is cooked in a pit under the ground) to exploring some of the 2,000 hectares of Māori-owned wilderness. Kai Waho prides itself in never offering the same experience twice, so each day is personalised to suit the guests’ interests. The natural flow of conversation means that you and the kids will be learning about New Zealand’s history and culture every step of the way.
Tom is an experienced Māori chef and search-and-rescue specialist (tracker), with deep knowledge and understanding of Māori relationships. It’s clear that he feels a physical, emotional and spiritual connection with the land, and he’s passionate about sharing the true nature of New Zealand with his guests. He manages 5,000 acres of Māori land up in the Kaimanawa Ranges and takes tourists, Māori groups and New Zealand youths out there to hunt, cook, hike and learn. Whether you’re taking a day trip or planning a longer stay, it’s an entirely unique experience.
Huka Falls: A short distance north of the town, Huka Falls is a set of waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains Lake Taupo. The whole family can opt to walk or cycle there.
Otumuheke Stream: These natural, geothermal hot springs are in Taupo’s Spa Thermal Park, a natural “hot spot” on the banks of the Waikato River. Soak away in the pools before, or after, walking to Huka Falls.
Craters of the Moon: This geothermal area features accessible boardwalks meandering through steam vents and bubbling craters. Run by a small charitable trust, admission is only $8 per person.
Mount Ruapehu: The largest active volcano in New Zealand rests proudly in Tongariro National Park, a World Heritage National Park.
Vine Eatery and Bar: This New Zealand and Mediterranean influenced spot offers an extensive tapas menu, designed to be shared. We’d suggest four to five plates of seafood and fresh veg between two people.
Rotorua Museum: Learn about New Zealand’s heritage at the iconic Rotorua Museum (walking distance from the centre of Rotorua). There are currently free daily tours of the Government Gardens, where little learners of all ages can find out about traditional Māori culture and the battle history of the area.
Polynesian Spa: In need of a mama-only spa session? This developed geothermal spa facility in Rotorua offers the therapeutic benefits of the award-winning Polynesian Spa mineral water. The slightly acidic Priest Spring works wonders on muscle pain, while the alkaline Rachel Spring nourishes and rejuvenates the skin.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves: Take your pick between a walking tour, a black water rafting boat ride or shooting through tubes to witness the glistening glow worms in the world-famous Waitomo caves. Whether your family is after leisure or excitement, Waitomo’s underground caves give you the chance to observe these minuscule beings up close. While it may not look quite like the trending Instagram videos, the clusters of worms really do resemble a star-studded sky, and this cooling cave experience is unique to New Zealand.
Sassy Mama tip: Conveniently, the glow worm caves are located on your drive from Rotorua to Auckland. Head straight from your day in the caves into the city. The drive from Taupo to Waitomo takes about 2.5 hours, and Auckland is another 2.5 hours north from there. Once the towering green trees are replaced with lamp posts and buildings, you’ve reached your final destination.
It’s no surprise that Auckland is frequently listed as one of the most liveable cities in the world. The combination of culture, art, natural beauty and convenience make New Zealand’s largest cosmopolitan centre a hub for locals and tourists alike. As the narrowest part of New Zealand, this widespread, active city has easy access to nature. The main similarity it has to Hong Kong is that it’s an energetic city, with easy harbour access, and 30-minute drives to beaches. Although these West Coast beaches overlook the Tasman sea, between Australia and New Zealand, so the differences are vast!
Where to stay in Auckland:
This well-known hotel is one of Auckland’s most historic buildings. With 185 rooms across the two wings, you can take your pick between The Tower (offering modern, contemporary designs) or The Hotel (sporting a traditional take). The rooms are more spacious than you’d expect for a city hotel, with all your necessities on hand. If you choose to dine in, the Hectors Restaurant features local produce, and the chef and team are especially good at catering to necessary dietary requirements. With vegetation and vegan options, it’s working on developing sustainable habits. The Lobby Bar, rooftop swimming pool, gym, and tennis court are all well-received additions.
What to do in Auckland:
Karekare Beach: Located on the West Coast, this beach is recognised for its isolated natural beauty. With thick rainforests, black sand and unpredictable weather, Auckland’s West Coast is very different from the East.
Auckland War Memorial Museum: You could spend days here and still leave with more to see. We’d suggest heading to the Weird and Wonderful area, on the 2nd floor, to see the famous Moa bird. Kids will also love the cultural performances, which almost act as little crash courses about New Zealand’s history.
The Winter Garden at the Auckland Domain: This treasure is located right opposite the Museum. You’ll find a constantly changing selection of rare plants and flowers set within picturesque Victorian-style glasshouses.
Cornwall Park: This is the biggest park in Auckland, leading up to the volcanic peak, One Tree Hill. Driving through the entrance, try and get your little ones to spot the “Māori Christmas tree” – the Pohutukawa trees with its crimson needle-like flower. The entire park is packed with history, farm life and places to explore.
Newmarket Shopping Centre: A premier shopping district with plenty of fashion and entertainment options. It’s located minutes away from Auckland’s Central Business District.
Mount Eden Hike: Claiming the title of the highest natural spot in Auckland, it’s worth taking a trip up to the top of Mount Eden (Maungawhau), one of the 48 volcanic cones.
Piha Beach: The seaside village of Piha in the west of Auckland presents a dramatic black iron-sand coastline. It’s said to offer the best spot for surfers in New Zealand!
Parnell Rose Gardens: With a quaint set up, you wouldn’t imagine these gardens are home to over 5,000 roses. You’ll experience bursts of colours and fragrances all throughout summer and autumn.
Depot Eatery: Expect Pinot on tap, oysters and sliders. This buzzing industrial-chic spot is full of friendly vibes and fab food. With no reservations available, it’s more suited for a date night or late family lunch.
Waiheke Island: As the most populated and second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke is an effortlessly enjoyable way to end your time in New Zealand. The inviting island is a 30 to 40-minute ferry away from Auckland, and the entire place radiates a beautiful bohemian feel. Head to the Oyster Inn for live music and incredible seafood or check out one of the family-friendly beaches. End your day sprawled across a beanbag at Cable Bay Vineyards, letting the kids cartwheel on the sea-view lawn. With space for the active members of the family to run around, nibbles for even the pickiest eaters, and a gorgeous selection of wine for you to sip your way through, you really couldn’t ask for much more.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Tania Shroff on 23, May 2018 and updated on 10, February 2020.
Featured image courtesy of Getty, image 1 courtesy of Tourism Queenstown, image 2 courtesy of Tourism NZ, image 3 courtesy of Holger Link on Unsplash, image 4 courtesy of Eichardt’s Private Hotel, image 5 courtesy of Matakauri Lodge, image 6 courtesy of Tourism Queenstown, image 7 courtesy of Christchurch NZ, image 8 courtesy of Hapuku Lodge + Tree Houses, image 9 courtesy of Dolphin Encounter, image 10 courtesy of Acacia Cliffs Lodge, image 11 courtesy of Love Taupo, image 12 courtesy of Love Taupo, image 13 courtesy of Auckland NZ, image 14 courtesy of Auckland NZ.