(Main image credit: Tripsavvy)
The granddaddy of all road trips, New Zealand’s South Island has a bit of just about everything for families of all ages. In a two week trip you can fit in beaches, glaciers, mountains and fjords. Our friends at tailor-made travel agency, Lightfoot Travel, give you the lowdown on what to do and where to stay based on their own recent travels.
Nelson is on the northern tip of the South Island and is the sunniest spot in New Zealand, located in a basin protected by mountains and thus avoiding bad weather. Summer days see temperatures in the high 20s, rarely higher than 30°C, which is refreshing for those tired of the brutally hot and humid Hong Kong climate. Abel Tasman National Park is the highlight of the region, and perfect for families looking to fill their days hiking, kayaking, wildlife spotting and spending time in the great outdoors. Boats can be hired that sail up and down the park’s long coastline, dropping you off so you can hike from bay to bay. You can also fish and dig for mussels, which can then be prepared back on the boat. Seal sightings are all but guaranteed, kids can do treasure hunts on the beach, and we loved our gourmet picnic full of locally sourced foods such as sweet potato crisps, mushroom soup, cheese and seafood dips.
Luxury: Edenhouse - One of Lightfoot’s most well-loved properties, Edenhouse is a true country home run by two of the loveliest hosts we’ve met. Bobbie, Peter and their adorable black lab Chilli, have built an incredible retreat, just 30 minutes from Abel Tasman National Park. It consists of two bedrooms within the main house and a two-bedroom standalone cottage just next door. Read a book in the hammock hanging in the gardens; sit around the open kitchen and learn all of chef Julie’s secrets as she prepares meals; and play with Chilli as he tries to escape the house to eat the fallen apples in the yard!
Great Value: Grand Mercure Monaco - Grand Mercure Monaco is a comfortable hotel with two bedroom options for families, just 5 minutes from the Nelson airport. There are lots of grassy areas for little kids to run around, and dining outside in the courtyard is really nice during the summer.
The drive from Nelson to the coastal town of Kaikoura follows the Coastal Pacific railway and is one of the most scenic routes in the country. Kaikoura is all about marine life, and it is definitely pretty epic! Families with kids over three years old can opt for whale watching boat excursions, where you are pretty much guaranteed to see sperm whales and dolphin pods. Swimming with dolphins is a really unique experience for children over 10. Don flippers and snorkels, sail up alongside a pod of friendly dolphins and then jump in the water to see them swimming directly beneath you. They love to play and it’s amazing how they will make direct eye contact in the water and follow you as swim along. Families with babies or younger children can opt for a scenic whale watching flight, soaring over the sea in search of marine life, and then dipping down to circle overhead at a lower altitude once something is spotted.
Luxury: Hapuku Lodge - For families with older kids, the treehouse rooms at Hapuku Lodge are very unique, whilst families with younger kids can stay in the Suites. All rooms have wood fireplaces, huge windows so you can look out at the roaming deer in front of the mountains (there are 650 stud deer on the property), and the pool is great for kids. 80% of the food they serve is from the property or sourced themselves, including seafood caught by their very own fisherman who goes out every day. Parents can take their children out in the morning to collect freshly laid eggs from the chicken coup, which is such a fun experience for city kids who have little experience with rural living!
Whilst Christchurch is a pleasant city, we recommend using it as a stopping off point before taking the epic Tranz Alpine rail journey from Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west coast. Regardless of what time of year you travel, the scenery is truly breathtaking – snowcapped peaks and mountain passes in the winter, and green, grassy plains and rivers in the summer. Passengers receive headsets where they can learn about the various landscapes they pass through as well as the area’s history. On arrival in Greymouth, you can pick up your rental car and continue down the coastline.
Luxury: Hotel Montreal - The rooms at Hotel Montreal are very spacious, and the family suite comes with one king and two twin beds. Located just five minutes from the centre of Christchurch, it is convenient for popping out to shops and restaurants.
Welcome to glacier country! The first stop on most people’s journey from Greymouth is the glacier town of Franz Josef. From here you can embark on scenic fixed wing or helicopter flights over the surrounding Franz Josef, Fox and Tasman Glaciers and Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Heli-hikes are highly recommended for those over the age of 10, and involves touching down on the glacier itself and hiking around to explore ice caves and various glacier formations. Crampons and cold weather gear are provided, the guides are highly eccentric and very funny, and kids will love filling their water bottles with some of the purest water in the world!
Luxury: Te Waonui Forest Retreat - The focus at Te Waonui Forest Retreat has been on creating a healthy and environmentally safe environment for guests to really relax and unwind amidst the beauty of Franz Josef. Accommodation is linked by covered walkways and the dining is some of the best in this small town.
Great value: Westwood Lodge - Allowing only those over the age of 10, Westwood Lodge is good for families with older kids. Coach House Rooms offer the best views over the surrounding mountains, and we loved sitting in front of the fire and watching the sun set in the company of Benson and Zach, the resident labradoodles.
A fierce competitor for most scenic drive, the road from Franz Josef to Wanaka is about four hours, and we would recommend doing it during the day as the views are stunning. Wanaka is a fun town situated around a lake, and there are a ton of activities you can do in the surrounding countryside such as nature walks, backcountry horse riding, lake cruises and nature photography tours for those with slightly older kids. It is also one of the country’s top skiing destinations with the Cadrona and Treble Cone ski areas just 30 minutes away.
Luxury: Wanaka Haven - A five-bedroom home, rooms at Wanaka Haven can be taken out individually at or the house can be rented as a whole for larger families. There is a lovely outdoor pool, that is heated during the winter months, and tons of space outside for kids to run around. Dog lovers will appreciate Mocha and Stella, the two friendly dogs who run up and greet guests upon arrival!
Great value: Edgewater - A larger hotel, the two-bedroom apartments at Edgewater work out well for families, and the ones directly facing the lake are especially nice. All rooms have a terrace or patio area and there is babysitting available.
New Zealand’s most famous city, Queenstown is a must-visit destination whilst on the South Island. It’s all about the activities in Queenstown, and ones that are particularly well suited for families include taking the gondola up to Bob’s peak for the stunning views; cruising Lake Wakapitu to Mount Nicholas High Country Farm to experience sheep herding and shearing; experiencing the exhilarating Shotover Jet ride through the Shotover canyon; and taking a scenic flight out to Milford Sound followed by a cruise through the fjords. The town itself is fairly compact with an excellent selection of restaurants and shops to pick up local souvenirs. If we could recommend one restaurant it would have to be Ferg Burger, which was quite possibly the best burger we’ve had in our lives, with small portions for the kids. The Hokey Pokey gelato milkshake we had to wash down the burger was also to die for!
Luxury: Matakauri Lodge - One of the most exclusive and beautiful properties in the entire country, Matakauri Lodge is really something special. Located 10 minutes outside of downtown Queenstown, the property is comprised of just 12 rooms and suites, each with uninterrupted views over Lake Wakapitu and the surrounding mountains. Dining is an experience in itself, with pre-dinner drinks held outside during the summer months and inside the lounge by the roaring fire in the winter. If you’re looking to really splurge, enquire about the four-bedroom Owner’s Cottage – one of the priciest options in the country, but arguably the most beautiful place you can stay.
Great value: The Rees Hotel and Luxury Apartments - With beautiful lake views, The Rees is a 30-minute walk from Queenstown along a lakefront track, or a 5-minute water taxi from the jetty right in front of the property. All rooms have a balcony and the Executive Lakeview two-bedroom apartments are great for families. We love the fireplaces in each room, the washer and dryer which is ideal for families who are travelling for longer periods of time, and the complimentary car parking – rare in Queenstown!