Travelling in New Zealand with young children

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Travelling in New Zealand with our children was a magical experience. Here, I share our experiences with you to help you to plan your own trip.

When my husband had some time off work in 2019, we decided to use the time wisely and take our two small children off on an adventure. After some thought, we decided to travel as far as we possibly could, and chose New Zealand. And I am so very glad we did. We would never have guessed that exactly a year later, we would be in lockdown back at home and only dreaming of our time in that beautiful country.

I thought that I would write about our experiences here, in case anybody else is thinking of going on a similar adventure with children. Hopefully I can offer some good tips!

At the time, my girls were 4 and very nearly 2. My 4 year old is autistic and so we knew that we would need to do a fair amount of planning in order for her to feel comfortable with each step of the journey. We bought a miniature Sprocket printer and a scrapbook so that we could chronicle their journey as we went along. We also printed out PECS (picture cards) so that she could communicate to us about where we were going. It turned out that this was all very helpful to the 1 year old, too!

The day dawned, and off we went to Heathrow…. and then Dubai…. and then Sydney… and then Christchurch. We did the whole lot in one hop, which was quite frankly very painful! In another life I might plan a stopover in Dubai or Singapore to break it up a little. Although you may never have got us on a plane again if there was the promise of a break! Thank goodness for one child who was happy to watch films for the whole journey; one child who could be bribed with toy story figurines; and the entire Emirates cabin crew, who go out of their way to make sure that children (and parents!) have as smooth a flight as possible. Even the food was good.

Tip #1: don’t take muddy wellies into New Zealand

So it turns out Australia and New Zealand are rightly protective of their flora and fauna. Taking in wellies covered in good old English mud is frowned upon… so much so that they may not let you in, or charge you a big fine, or be incredibly kind to a family on the brink of exhaustion and give them a jolly good wash before returning them to you! We were lucky I think… although this was just a taster of how kind and welcoming people are in NZ.

Tip #2: hire a camper van

Are you even really travelling around New Zealand if you are not in a camper van? Honestly some days we would spend hours on the road and the only traffic we would see was another camper van (usually whilst playing ‘Spot the Jucy’ – if you know, you know). Now unless you are insane, the idea of spending a month in a camper van with a 4 year old who likes routine, and a belligerent 1 year old, should spark some anxiety. But I have to say, it was completely brilliant,

We went all out and hired a van from McRent with wifi, a separate bedroom, and a loo and shower. But the camping grounds are so good that the shower went unused (useful extra storage!). This meant that Tom and I could have the bed that cleverly came down from the ceiling in the main cabin, and the kids could share the back bedroom. In reality this meant that Tom could stretch out luxuriously in his own bed, whilst I slept between two small limpets in an attempt to stop them waking each other up constantly. But hey, it worked!

From memory, we survived mostly on a diet of noodles, frankfurters and tomatoes because that was the easiest meal to cook in the van. Am I selling it to you yet? Tom will be reading this now and reminding me of the many excellent meals that he did in fact produce in that little van. We were quite spoiled.

The biggest revelation to us was the amazing campsites. New Zealand is well set up for travellers, with an abundance of sites for camper vans with electric hook-ups, playgrounds, showers, kitchens and barbecues, I would recommend downloading the Campermate app, which gives you all of the information you need to find and book a site.

Our favourite campsites were the Farmyard Holiday Park in Geraldine (completely random and slightly ancient but full of animals, and donkey rides for the children); Milford Sound (beautiful, just beautiful); and Oamaru (penguins waddling past the van at night!). But you would be hard-pressed to find a bad one.

Tip #3: head over in March

March and April are autumn months in New Zealand. We found that the weather was absolutely perfect – often around 25 degrees. The autumnal colours were beautiful, and the roads and beaches were empty. Travelling in New Zealand in autumn also meant that we rarely had to book ahead to get a pitch at a campsite.

Tip #3: plan your route when travelling in New Zealand with children

We were very lucky to count a seasoned NZ traveller among our friends, and he helped us out with an itinerary. Having done it, I don’t think we would change a thing.

Christchurch – Akaroa

Christchurch is an incredible city. All around are signs of the terrible earthquake that destroyed a fair chunk of the city in 2011, with some areas still flattened. However, the rejuvenation is also very clear and the central areas are bright and modern and perfect for pedestrians.

We spent time in the city at the beginning and end of our trip, and can recommend a tram pass to get around the city. We loved the Botanical Gardens, the Canterbury Museum and Rutherford’s Den but the highlight for the children was the incredible Margaret Mahy playground. This place must be the most adventurous adventure playground ever. It is huge and a LOT of fun. They also loved the electric scooters dotted around the city. Nowadays these are becoming more popular in the UK, but back then they were a definite novelty and Christchurch is perfect for it with its pedestrianised areas and lack of crowds.

The next day we drove up to Little River for lunch and a play at the old railway and craft museum. Then on to Akaroa, and a baptism of fire for the camper van driver (eg cool-as-a cucumber Tom) and the right-hand passenger (freak-out-at-every-ravine-and-steep-hill Alannah). But the (terrifying) drive was worth it for the amazing view. Those less inclined to drive off cliffs in the fog can take the low road.

Akaroa – Geraldine

Akaroa was an amazing introduction to New Zealand. It is a small town on a peninsula island just south of Christchurch, with a surprising French vibe – creperies, French street signs and flags. You can’t miss it on a map – the origin is volcanic and it has a very distinctive feathered shape. And it is BEAUTIFUL (you’ll hear this word a lot from me). Peaceful and calm with gently lapping waters and Hectors dolphins in the bay. Not for me, however, the one person who was desperate to see a real wild dolphin for the first time. “Go to New Zealand”, they said, “See the dolphins”.

We were sad to leave, but keen to continue our adventure. Our plan was to get all the way to Oamaru but a sickness bug struck down driver number one, so we detoured to Geraldine, a small country town. The camp site there was like nowhere I have ever been – it was something from a book. To be fair, that book was possibly written in the early sixties before health and safety rules, but that was it’s huge charm. I loved it, and the children loved the free roaming peacocks, piglets, wallabies and host of other animals. They peeked at 3 day old baby rabbits, rode on donkeys and squealed at pigs. Living the dream.

Geraldine – Oamaru

Off to Oamaru at last, and the home of the Little Blue Penguins. This was a massive treat. The Little Blues come up through the town to roost overnight before spending their days on the water. You can pay to watch them at the Blue Penguin Colony, or you can simply sit on a bench at dusk and wait patiently. They are quiet, shy little things but you will see them. They even wander through the campsite.

Oamaru is also a bit of a steampunk capital – you can see some photographs below. The whole town is really good fun, with great cafes, markets and a pier covered in interesting seabirds.

Oamaru – Moeraki

From Oamaru, we drove to an stunning empty beach at Hampden for fish and chips. This was probably, ooh, my third favourite beach on the South Island. Rural, remote, incredible driftwood… and then on to Moeraki to see the famous boulders.

Moeraki – Balclutha

People come to Moeraki for the boulders, but the village itself is a little way further along. The boulders themselves are (science bit) concretions created by the cementation of the Paleocene mudstone. Ahem. They are big round balls of rock, okay? And you can get inside some of them and take hilarious photos. And then you can get an ice cream from the visitor centre whilst you ponder cementations and concretions.

The main draw of Moeraki village, however, is Fleur’s Place. The actual BEST fish restaurant in the world. You need to book ahead (I’d imagine really quite far ahead in the summer) to get a table but oh boy is it worth it. You can watch the fish being brought ashore, gutted on the seafront and then brought into the kitchen to be cooked for you. It is Michelin quality stuff. Sitting outside is lovely, but the seagulls think that the food is pretty good too, so you might like to play it safe and get a table indoors.

Balclutha – Curio Bay

Balclutha was just a stopover for us: a convenient place to get close to Kaka Point on the way to Curio Bay. We woke early in order to get to Kaka Point for sunrise, and let me tell you… it was memorable. Just a beautiful, beautiful scene. I don’t need to say much more as you can just look at the photos. BUT, if you have small children, you will want to put them in a carrier as the path is narrow and steep sided with jagged rocks and strong waves hundreds of feet below.

From there we headed off to a place where I was PROMISED would be dolphins a-plenty. I mean, the place was called ‘Porpoise Bay’, so I was READY. On the way, we stopped at pretty much the only cafe on the long route, but because it was New Zealand, it was the best cafe you could imagine. It was connected to a museum of curiosities, all created by the eccentric owner. There was a whole section that children could not go into , but to be honest they were only there for the hot chocolate anyway. A random but recommended find.

Anyway, to Curio Bay. Remote, but with a fun visitor centre and museum, and a great campsite right on the edge of the beach with a huge kitchen and bathroom complex. We dumped the van (or neatly parked and plugged it in) and dashed straight down to the enormous sandy bay. No dolphins. Not one. But you know what? The beach more than made up for it. The children were in their element and we all took so much joy from their reaction to running wild and free in a huge bay that we had all to ourselves.

Kaka Point just after sunrise

Curio Bay – Manapouri

We could have stayed at Curio Bay for days and days but Milford Sound was calling – it was the only place that we’d had to book a camping spot in advance as they are pushed for space and VERY popular, and time was marching on. We’d been reliably informed that the usual stop-off point, Te Anau, is the worst of touristy tat towns, so we stayed a little further away in the neighbouring town of Manapouri. We were really glad of this advice as we all ran giddily down the hill to the lake, with a very Lord of the Rings-ish background. We were, once again, the only people there, so the children ran riot with turns on a rope swing and then quickly abandoned all their clothes (yep) to leap into the lake,

Even the campsite was glorious. Full of old vintage cars and gypsy style huts, as well as the usual campervan spots with electrical hook-ups.

Manapouri – Milford Sound

It turns out you have to drive through Te Anau to get in and out of Milford Sound. It’s a bit like exiting through the gift shop, and once we’d come away with the obvious fridge magnets, mini flags, touristy pens and battery operated baa-ing sheep that was to haunt us for the rest of the journey, we were on our way.

I have to say, I was a little bit nervous about this part of the journey as all the guide books have warnings like “Do not make this trip if you are not an extremely competent campervan driver” and “This road is narrow and winding with steep sides”, and after the hill road to Akaroa I assumed that this would be much worse. *snort of laughter*. The road to Milford Sound is wide, gentle and immaculately tarmac-ed. There is ONE sharp turn and slightly narrow bit after a tunnel, but even the tunnel has traffic lights to keep a one-way flow.

Don’t underestimate how long it will take you to get to the Sound. The road is simple, but there are lots of interesting places to stop off on the route – make sure you pick up a map alongside all your tat in Te Anau. We photographed the Mirror Lake, wandered through a rainforest, gazed at views at a mountainous look-out point and climbed up paths to see a waterfall. If you are feeling brave, you can camp in a tent halfway along to break up the journey but it is definitely do-able in a day.

And then you arrive, and oh wow. You really have the sense that you are in a rainforest – and you are. A huge green tree canopy, wooden log cabins, and the Sound itself. Book yourself on to a boat trip as soon as you can, and you will be taken out to see the waterfalls, the seals and the ocean beyond. On the way back you are dropped off at an underwater viewing platform to see the fish, too. It is all fabulous.

Milford Sound – Queenstown

Milford Sound is at the end of a very long road, so to leave you must go back the way you came. If you are very rich and not in a campervan, you can take a helicopter taxi to Queenstown, but it wasn’t much of a hardship to drive back along that beautiful road.

Queenstown was the most urban place we found in New Zealand. Christchurch was a city of course, but very peaceful and quiet, whereas Queenstown was lively and bustling – which went with its reputation as the adrenaline-capital of the world. You can bungee jump, speedboat, toboggan and skydive to your heart’s content here, unless you have the excellent excuse of travelling with a one year old and a four year old. In which case you are allowed to eat ice cream, gently kayak around the bay and wander around the shops. The most adventurous thing we did was to take the cable car to the top of the hill and toboggan together down the child-friendly high-speed luge. Tom and Eliza quickly left Ava and I behind and raced to the bottom. Apparently you are not meant to keep the brake slightly on all the way down.

I have to say, it was quite fun having a change of pace in Queenstown. We ate the best burgers from the famous ‘Fergburger’, watched the crazy bungee jumpers and enjoyed seeing lots of people having a great time.

Queenstown – Arrowtown

Next on the route was a little detour to Arrowtown, an old goldmining town up in the hills. The place is full of historical charm, and in autumn was looking at its prime. Kiwis make the trip specially in March and April just to see the incredible colours. Visit the museum and the river. But top tip: don’t let your one year old fall in the river, because it is quite cold, quite muddy and quite scary, and you then have to spend the next hour wrapped in blankets and drinking hot chocolate and recovering from the shock.

Arrowtown – Wanaka

In Wanaka there is a tree in a lake. This tree is on every photographer’s bucket list. You have probably seen photos of this tree in many, many places, but it is still worth the trip. I promise. It’s a good tree.

Once we had viewed said tree and gloried in its presence, we hired a couple of kayaks and took the girls on a joy ride around the lake. We had decided that kayaking was our favourite child-friendly sport in NZ and so tried to do it wherever we could.

Lastly we went to Eliza’s favourite and most memorable location in all the South Island… Puzzling World. Oh my goodness, she JUST LOVED IT. History bit: it began in 1973 as a maze, but has now grown to various rooms where you can solve puzzles over lunch in the think-tank cafe, walk through a number of illusion rooms (the tilted room is forever in my memory) or try out the original maze.

Wanaka – Fox Glacier – Lake Tekapo

The next plan was to drive up to the famous Fox Glacier, and this was the part of the trip that Tom was most looking forward to. Unfortunately, just days before we were due to cross it, a nearby bridge was destroyed and floated down the river, rendering the road up the west side of the country completely impassable. In true community spirit, some locals were taxi-ing cars across the river on their flatbed trucks, but we didn’t want to risk driving all that way only to have to turn back, and our camper was a bit bigger than a car.

So a quick change of plan, and we decided to detour up to Lake Tekapo before driving the width of the country to get to the west side, north of the glacier. This decision was in no way influenced by me reading about the opportunities for dark sky photography at Lake Tekapo, and was in no way marred by me finding heavy cloud and no stars when we were there. Much.

I think that if we had planned the Lake Tekapo trip a little better, we would have done the place justice. You can bathe in hot springs, go on guided astronomy walks and explore the surrounding countryside, but we ended up using it as a lovely but convenient stop-off.

Lake Tekapo – Greymouth

This part of the trip was epic, and if you love the scenery in The Hobbit and The Lord of the RIngs, then you must make this journey. The scenery as we crossed Arthur’s Pass National Park was spectacular, almost as though the road had been carved out by magic through the complete wilderness. Whilst the girls watched Disney films, we were awed by the mountains and valleys and stopped multiple times just to get out of the van and stare around us.

Speaking of Disney films, we stopped for dinner in a restaurant in Moana. Cue ALL the excitement! It was a very long day, and we were glad to roll into Greymouth that evening to find a brand-spanking new campsite.

Greymouth – Golden Bay

Greymouth is home to the Shantytown Heritage Park, a ‘living’ museum celebrating the gold miners and saw-millers that made their way across the country to the west coast. You can ride on a steam train, see the old saw mill, and look at how the miners lived. There is a re-creation of a 19th century high street, too.

From there we drove up the famous west coast – rainforest to your right and sparkling seas to your left. It’s an unmissable drive that takes you past the Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks), which is well worth a visit. The children found it as intriguing as we did.

We then did a mammoth drive, which I won’t bore you with, stopping overnight halfway on our way to Golden Bay.

Golden Bay – Havelock

Oh Golden Bay, how I loved you! We made an amazing decision in Golden Bay, to stay overnight in a little chalet on the beach. With rooms…. and no wheels… I did love out camper van but I have to say, when travelling in New Zealand with children…

Tip #4: give yourself a break and book at least one night in an actual building!

Getting into a real bed was never so welcome, and waking up on the beach was an added bonus. And what a beach. The joy of travelling in Autumn was that once again, we had the entire bay to ourselves, and we probably had our favourite time as a family here. So much playing and paddling and laughter and fun. I’d be back there in a heartbeat. It was very hard to drag ourselves away.

But away we had to go, so we eked it out as long as possible with a few stops on the way across the north coast, in Takaka (where we discovered NZ Mcdonalds!) and Motueka (more wholesome: bike rides and chain ferry trips to Jackett Island). We stopped at farms to buy fresh apples and kiwis. Tom even stopped the van for a chat with a friendly roadworker, who was so excited to hear that we were British as he could talk to us about his favourite game show ‘The Chase’. We hadn’t watched it, which must have been a terrible disappointment!

Havelock – Kaikoura

Havelock is famous for its greenshell mussels. Unless you speak to the girls, in which case it was famous for its cheesy pasta and chips, whilst we adults ate an enormous pile of mussels! It is also famous, to us, for the first time we heard the siren that is rung to summon the fire brigade. After some frantic middle-of-the-night googling, I can assure you that if you hear an air raid siren at 2am, it is not an impending tsunami, earthquake or volcano. You’re welcome.

The following day, we wound our way down to Kaikoura through the wine valleys (on our list to stop for longer next time!) and along the east coast to Kaikoura.

Kaikoura – Christchurch

I was super excited to visit Kaikoura. Due to a 3km deep underwater canyon, it is home to sperm whales, and visited by migrating humpback whales and Orca. There are also wandering albatross and lots and lots of dolphins. Would this, our last stop, finally be the time I saw dolphins? Reader, it was not. Nevertheless, the whale watching tour was absolute magic.

Tom and I had to divide and conquer as small children are not allowed on the boat for safety reasons, so I took the first trip whilst Tom spent the morning on the bouncy castle, and Tom took the second boat whilst the girls and I checked out the playground.

I soon found out why toddlers can’t go on the boat. They mentioned in the safety briefing that it would be a bumpy ride, before handing out sick bags. Luckily I was fine but there were definitely a good few pukers on board. We whizzed off across the sea, looking out at albatross and other seabirds floating on the surface, with a couple of guides acting a spotters on the top deck. It wasn’t too long before they noticed something in the water, and we quickly turned and headed over to see if it was a whale. We all raced up to the open air top deck just in time to see a sperm whale breaching out of the water and diving back down, waving its tail as it went. I was utterly in awe, having been fully prepared to see as many whales as I’d seen dolphins.

During the trip we saw three sperm whales in total. The guides assured us that this was pretty uncommon – one whale was the usual, and three was fantastic. So you can imagine my smug face when I got off the boat and told Tom how lucky I had been, and how he was not to feel bad if he only saw one. Yep…. on his trip he saw 3 sperm whales, a whole pod of dolphins and a humpback whale.

It was a pretty special way to end our trip.

So then it was back to Christchurch, goodbye to our lovely rolling home, and hello long flight home. It had been an unforgettable adventure in a land of beauty and kindness and I hope so much to go back one day.

Alannah Hebbert is a family photographer in Hertfordshire. She specialises in natural, joyful photos in beautiful outdoor locations. See www.alannahtakesphotos.com/family for more information.

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