Wednesday, 21 October 2015

New Zealand with Kids: Family Friendly Experiences in the South Island

This travel post is written by Cayce who blogs at All Days Beautiful. She travelled to New Zealand on a 13D12N self-drive road trip with her petite traveller Lewis (2 years) in April 2015, exploring the pristine untouched beauty of the South Island.

This holiday is suitable for families who enjoy self-drive holidays, with a love for the great outdoors and seeking out extraordinary scenery.

Kia Ora!
(In the Maori language, that’s Hello!)

First up, I want to thank Candice for linking up my posts on our recent New Zealand family trip, and for this exciting guest posting opportunity!

We (just my husband and I then) first visited and fell in love with New Zealand’s South Island in spring 2011. Without a doubt, we knew we would be back again someday! This time round, we chose to travel during the fall season. It is the season we have yet to experience anywhere, and the other plus point? Right, the lower accommodation rates and tourist numbers since fall is shoulder season on the island.

With its laid-back vibe and lovely weather all year round, it’s easy to love the South Island. I dare say there is something for almost everyone – if you appreciate good food and wine, New Zealand is well-known for its perfect wine climate and fresh produce; if you love the great outdoors and stunning landscapes, there is an extensive list of hikes (easy or challenging, it’s really up to you) boasting panoramic views; and if a peaceful and calming getaway is what you are seeking, you will easily find that haven anywhere.

In this post, I’m going to share on some of our adventures in the real down-under – how we incorporated fun (we tried!) for our own petite traveller while we parents ticked off our must-do lists.


Central Otago is worth a day (or maybe two; it is the wine country after all!) of your time. Following the recommendations from our accommodation hosts, we focused on a couple of wineries in the Bannockburn region. Carrick Winery is one we highly recommend!

The husband did a solo-session of wine tasting in peace (I guess he must have liked the Pinots and Rieslings since he bagged a few bottles of those), while the large grounds of Carrick kept L and me busy. For him, a toy-box and running loose picking up twigs and lavender sprigs; for me, mostly marveling at the views while chasing after L. We spent a good few hours there on that gorgeously clear day.

We booked a vineyard stay at nearby Kinross Cottages as well, just to complete the whole experience!

It was surreal for us, waking up to a vineyard; those greens and golden yellows against a snow-dusted mountain backdrop was an unforgettable sight. For L too, it was a whole new experience he really enjoyed – being able to pluck apples off trees and grapes off vines right at our doorstep, and eat them!


The South Island is filled with panoramic vistas at every turn, but here are some we personally feel were the best from our trip.


The only way in to Milford Sound is from Te Anau. The journey from the small town to the sound itself is a big part of the experience, so look out for the many scenic lookout points along the way. One of our highlights of the drive was passing the Homer Tunnel – a 1.2km stretch into Milford built by cutting through mountains! We drove through the granite tunnel in pitch-black darkness for a few minutes (guided only by our car headlights); rather exciting but scary at the same time.

We opted to self-drive instead of taking a coach, and the entire drive took us slightly under 2hrs each way. Here’s a few points to note if you plan to self-drive (particularly with kids in tow) too:
  • Coaches from Queenstown/Te Anau are scheduled to arrive in Milford Sound around 12pm, so an early start from Te Anau is key to getting ahead of the traffic on the road and crowded ferries.
  • Catch the earlier ferries before 12pm; they tend to be much less crowded and it’s easier to move around during the cruise.
  • There are no petrol kiosks along the way, so make sure you have a full tank of fuel that will last the drive both ways. There is also no mobile coverage once you leave Te Anau.

It was L’s first encounter with a ferry or a cruise. To be honest, our cruise turned out to be a very different experience from what we had expected. Due to the gloomy weather all day, visibility was significantly compromised and we did not get to catch the Sound in all its glory. Apparently, this is very common in Milford Sound so come prepared with windbreakers and hoodies! The heavy rain meant that waterfalls were aplenty though. Our captain from Cruise Milford brought the vessel underneath a few plunging waterfalls, which delighted L despite him getting drenched. This kid really takes to the cold!

The cruise only lasted 1.5hrs, but for the rest of the trip L constantly brought up his ‘sit the boat’ adventure. He definitely loved this experience, quite possibly his favorite of all.


A visit to this little town is a must in fall, as it is the only part of the island that lights up with abundant autumn colors during the season. We started the day with a 30 minutes return riverbank walk, perfect for us to admire the hillside foliage as it wasn’t too long a distance to carry L who got tired at the end of it. We also checked out some of the town’s most photographed streets; really, Arrowtown does live up to its name of having the most gorgeous fall colors!

It was the first time L had seen leaves in so many different shades, which he happily named. He must have really liked them, as it was also a first for me to see him willingly touch the damp ground and leaves, instead of his usual distress about even a single bit of dirt on his hands.

If you have time to spare, the nearby Lake Hayes is worth a pop-by. We were there till the late afternoon, in perfect timing to catch the lake bathed in golden light. There wasn't anything much to do there.. but we had some great fun climbing trees and being silly. Oh, and feeding ducks - L's favorite activity!

The absolute highlight of the day for L though, was The Remarkables sweets shop. He only had eyes for it after we strolled past it. We tried to distract him, but eventually rewarded him with some candy after his persistence in directing us back to the shop. If you have a sweets-lover like we do, this is one shop you have to check out – it’s filled with all sorts of goodies, so you’ll have a hard time choosing!

If you are traveling with older kids who can sit through a movie, there is also a quaint Dorothy Browns cinema in town for a lazy afternoon. Just don’t expect to catch the latest blockbusters though!


Even if you have not yet been to New Zealand, you must have heard of Lake Tekapo. It is breathtakingly beautiful, no wonder a top favorite among visitors. We drove up to the Mount John Observatory for a top-down view of the lake and surrounds; up here, the views were truly a 360-degree panoramic vista. There are some easy trails around, so if you and your little traveller are up for some hikes they are easily accessible. Or if you prefer to sit back and take in the views like we did, the Astro CafĂ© (Lonely Planet once called this ‘possibly the best place on the planet for a coffee’) serves some decent cakes and drinks. A toy-box is also available, which kept L occupied when he was done exploring the observatory.

In the evening, we took a stroll along the lakeside. The husband and L busied themselves with their exploration of the shore (climbing over rocks and picking up stones), while I watched the pretty dusk colors. Catch a sunset here, and it would be impossible to not fall in love with Lake Tekapo – it was that beautiful.

At night, we watched the most brilliant display of stars above our heads. The area is part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, and it's not known as ‘the greatest park in the sky’ without reason. So amazed was L by the night skies in New Zealand, he was requesting to ‘see stars’ throughout and after our trip. A stay overnight in Lake Tekapo is definitely recommended for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.


If you are an adrenaline junkie, Queenstown is the place for you. Choose from an extensive list of activities – skydiving, bungee jumping, the Shotover Jet; it is the adventure capital after all.

While you're at it, there are a number of kid-friendly options in Queenstown to keep the little ones occupied. Take a river cruise down Lake Wakatipu, or if you prefer to stay on land, visit the underwater observatory to catch a glimpse of diving ducks and marine life under the lake.

For us, we made time to feed ducks at the waterfront, simply cos L loved it.

We also went on the Skyline Gondola, which was another hit with L! His first time on a cable car, L was very much intrigued by how high we were climbing. At the top, the view of Queenstown and beyond was spectacular (on a clear day, it would be even better!). L definitely enjoyed the cable car rides up and down more than the actual view.


Self-driving on the island is generally easy, as there is little traffic on most roads. The roads are very well-marked too, so even without a GPS we had little difficulty getting to most places. Of course, on some of the alpine highways, extra caution is advised as the winds can get quite strong.

Instead of our usual trusted Hertz, we opted to rent a mini campervan from Spaceships for our road trip. Our rental came with a whole lot of amenities like a DVD player, a mini fridge, and some portable cooking stuff (which we didn’t use), but what attracted us was the bed which could be expanded into a queen-size! This proved to be a real lifesaver for some of our long drives – we would pull up somewhere scenic, L would take a proper nap on the bed (instead of the car seat) while we had a snack and some time to ourselves; almost always guarantees a fully rested and happy L!

Oh, and remember to pack along a variety of toys for the road. The drives can be a few hours long between some places, so these will help keep the kids entertained. They will come in handy for the long flights there and back home too!


Generally, we found New Zealand to be very kid-friendly. The locals are really sweet with the little ones and hardly bat an eye when they act up, and cafes and restaurants (or at least those we visited) usually have toy-boxes which help keep them occupied through mealtimes. Definitely a lot less stressful for the parents!

Unlike Australia though, there are not many playgrounds, zoos, or farms for kids around; it's understandable why it isn’t as popular a family holiday destination as its neighbour.

A tip for planning your holiday here – the trip is really all about the great outdoors with its picturesque landscapes. To make that fun for our little L, we took note to include him as much as we could in enjoying what the island had to offer together. We took the easy walks, stopped at all (almost!) the lakes we came across, set up new experiences, and allocated excess time in our itinerary for him to really explore and play. It definitely meant that we weren't able to cover as much ground or places, but our reward for going slow? - it is the most heartwarming thing to see our little guy immersing in each new place and experience, and loving it!

There is a lot more that the South Island offers, and you should need at least 3 weeks to cover all of that at a comfortable pace. Visit Oamaru and the Otago Peninsula along the coast for close-up encounters with penguins, seals and albatrosses, or Kaikoura at the tip of the island for some whale watching. Take a hike on one of the glaciers on the West Coast if you have an older kid, or if trains are to your little travellers' fancy, catch the Tranz-Alpine on a world famous journey from Greymouth to Christchurch through spectacular mountain passes. We have experienced some of these before L came along, and I know he'll love these adventures when we next visit!

In short, we love New Zealand! If you're headed there sometime, I hope this post helps you with some of your planning!


  1. This was a really useful post - thanks for sharing! The minicamper van sounds like a great idea. I've been to NZ only once, before kids, and we only made it around North Island. This made me really want to bring the kids to South Island! One day soon, hopefully!

    1. Hello! Thanks, I'm glad you found this post useful!
      And you should definitely visit NZ again if you had loved the North, I'm sure you'll be awed by the South. :)


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