New Zealand with Kids: A Road Trip Through the Scenic South Island
Originally Published in Expat Living Singapore in March 2014, and Expat Living Hong Kong
I now consider myself to have entered the ranks of adventure travellers. Not because I went to New Zealand to bungee jump or sky dive, but because a 12-day self-drive holiday with 20-month-old twins is nothing short of an adventure. As I realised during our trip, sky-diving is probably easier than spending 5 hours in a car with two toddlers, on a drive that would have normally taken 3.
This was going to be our second vacation with the kids (the first being to Japan when they were 14-months-old, but that’s a story for another day), so we had no illusions about being able to do or see a lot. Our goal was to take in the scenery and landscape of one of the most beautiful places in the world, leaving the adventure and activities for when the kids are older.
Our Route: Christchurch to Queenstown via Lake Tekapo
After spending several hours on the TripAdvisor forums, we planned our itinerary and booked the tickets for the 10 hour long flight from Singapore to Christchurch.
We decided that we would drive from Christchurch to Queenstown, stopping en-route at Lake Tekapo, Aoraki Mt Cook and Wanaka. To go from Christchurch to Queenstown, you can either drive via the West Coast or via Lake Tekapo. At one point, we were ambitiously considering driving via the West Coast and returning via Lake Tekapo, but good sense prevailed and we decided to leave west coast for another time.
Friendly Kiwis and beautiful weather greeted us in Christchurch. The city is still reeling from the effects of the massive February 2011 earthquake.
The Cathedral Square, housing the iconic Christchurch Cathedral was hard hit. The 131-year-old neo-Gothic style cathedral was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished. A transitional ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ is now under construction and is expected to be completed in April 2013.
Within Christchurch, a trip to the Botanic Gardens (within Hagley Park) is a must for those with children. The twins loved running around on the open grounds, and were overjoyed to see ducks and birds everywhere.
We also took a trip to the container Mall, which marked a kick-start to the regeneration of the devastated city centre and has been built using shipping containers. Definitely worth a visit, and perhaps lunch inside one of the containers!
While there is plenty to see in Canterbury, we based ourselves in Christchurch and took two day-trips, the first of those to Akaroa and the Bays.
Akaroa, with its French and English history, is a beautiful little town that has an enormous range of activities to offer – cruises, kayaking, sail-boating, cycle tours and walking tracks. We were hoping to spot dolphins and penguins on the Nature Cruise, but it took us forever to get organised in the morning – often the case when travelling with children. By the time we reached Akaroa, the cruises had departed.
Instead of sailing, we walked. We were disappointed at missing out on the dolphins, but for the children, the seagulls sufficed. The twins thoroughly enjoyed jumping and walking along the wharf, watching and feeding the birds. We browsed the galleries and boutique shops and then walked into town to look at the charming buildings.
The walk worked up our appetite for a snack, and Akaroa’s waterfront restaurants are perfect to enjoy a flat white while watching sailboats out in the water.
Our second day-trip, to Arthur’s Pass, was less successful since we weren’t interested in navigating the walking tracks with kids in tow. Still, the scenery on the drive back was breathtaking – completely different from what we had seen driving in the other direction. While I was taking picture after picture, the landscape got even more stunning as 2 parallel rainbows came into view – something the kids had only seen in books till then – with their ends so clearly visible, that for a moment I considered going for the pot of gold.
The TranzAlpine train runs daily from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass; the ride is supposed to be one of the most scenic train trips in the world.
The name Tekapo derives from Maori words Taka (sleeping mat) and Po (night). Finely ground rock in the glacial melted waters gives Lake Tekapo a unique turquoise colour.
The iconic Church of the Good Shepherd is a must see while in Tekapo. With the turquoise waters and surrounding mountains as its backdrop, it has become (arguably) the most photographed church in New Zealand.
Although, we wanted to take the Twilight Stargazing Tour (local business Earth and Sky offers a variety of stargazing and astronomy tours, http://earthandskynz.com), toddlers aren’t allowed on it so we had to give this a miss. Instead, we drove up to the Mt John Observatory the next morning. The 20 minute drive up the mountain afforded us magnificent 360 degree views of the Mackenzie Basin, highly recommended.
The glass-walled Astro Cafe atop Mt John has been reviewed by Lonely Planet as “possibly one of the planet’s best locations for a cafe”, so grab a cuppa while you’re there.
Mount Cook National Park is home to New Zealand’s longest glacier, the 27km Tasman Glacier. At 3,754 metres, the mountain is New Zealand’s highest. There are 27 other mountains in this alpine backbone which peak at over 3,050 metres, and hundreds of others, together making up the famous Southern Alps. Add to these, the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki nearby, and we decided that this was the perfect backdrop for a helicopter ride.
We were not disappointed. Flying over the clouds, literally, was one of the best experiences of my life. The 45-minute flight (extremely expensive: $415 per adult) takes you over all three glaciers (Fox, Franz Josef and Tasman) and includes a snow landing. Toddlers are allowed on; but despite the kid-sized earphones, the helicopter noise can be unsettling, so it might be wise to carry along a favourite toy (or phone). My usually fearless daughter was teary the entire ride.
Another spectacular place, Wanaka was the highlight of our vacation. Our stylish two-bedroom apartment at Criffel Peak View had lovely vistas of the mountains, and our balcony was the perfect place to enjoy a glass (or three) of wine. Caroline and Suzie, excellent hosts, welcomed us with fresh home-baked cookies.
When my husband brought up the topic of skydiving, Caroline lost no time in getting on the phone. Luckily, Skydive Wanaka was able to accommodate our requirement of diving separately the next day, so that we could take turns watching the kids. You can read here about my experience Skydiving in Wanaka New Zealand.
The next morning, we woke up to a beautiful day and a quick weather check confirmed that conditions were perfect for jumping off planes. So well, that morning, I jumped off a plane (maybe I was pushed) soaring 12,000 ft off the ground. After the first few terrifying seconds of freefall, I was able to force a smile for the camera. And then the magic happened, the parachute opened and I was floating peacefully over Wanaka with incredible views of the lake and mountains. Beats flying in a helicopter any day! My husband, who dived an hour later, agrees.
Afterwards, we visited Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World, a unique attraction specialising in puzzling eccentricity. On Caroline’s recommendation, we also drove to the picturesque Rippon Vineyard, the most photographed vineyard in the world.
The next morning, we enjoyed a yummy breakfast of Caroline’s blueberry pancakes in peace, thanks to Suzie who took the twins out to play with the cat.
In winters, Wanaka offers New Zealand’s best skiing and snowboarding. It has been voted by National Geographic as one of the ‘World’s 25 Best Ski Towns’.
‘Adventure Capital of the World’ is a title well deserved by Queenstown, home to adventure activities like Skydiving, Bungy Jumping, White Water Rafting, Jet Boating and many others.
Queenstown also has a lot to offer to those not looking for adventure. The Skyline Queenstown offers plenty of family fun, including a Gondola trip, Kiwi Haka Maori culture performances and a Luge ride. While I was perfectly happy sipping coffee and enjoying the views from the scenic restaurant (you can also enjoy their award winning cuisine), my husband decided to go for paragliding, immensely enjoyed it and commented how easy it was for someone with ‘sky-diving experience’.
For some more family fun, a ride to the Walter Peak High Country Farm, aboard the 100-year-old TSS Earnslaw (built in the same year as the titanic) is in order. Walter Peak is a working farm situated on the shores of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Although, the ship is nothing spectacular, you can visit the engine room to see the giant steam engines at work. The twins enjoyed the ride, especially being out on the deck. Once we reached the farm, they were overjoyed to see all the animals (sheep, dogs, alpacas, red deer, Scottish Highland cattle and even hens and ducks) and enjoyed feeding the sheep and the deer. This was followed by a lovely morning tea and then watching ducks on the shore.
While in Central Ottago, let’s not forget the wineries. The region is famous for its Pinot Noir, which represents 70% of all plantings there. Queenstown and nearby Gibbston Valley are home to over 75 wineries, we visited 3. Gibbston Valley Winery is the only one that offers a unique wine tasting tour through New Zealand’s largest and most innovative wine cave. We also visited Chard Farm and Peregrine Wines, all located within a few minutes of each other. While I’m mostly a red wine drinker, I loved Peregrine’s Rosé and bought a bottle to enjoy later.
On the way back, we stopped at the site of the world’s first Bungy, the Kawarau Bridge. The bungy was closed for the day, so we walked to the bridge. As I looked down, I decided that sky-diving would have to suffice for this lifetime.
The wineries marked the end of our sightseeing in New Zealand but the next morning was the most relaxing of our trip. After lunch near the wharf, we enjoyed a glass each of the Rosé while watching a Kiwi teenager dance to ‘Gangnam Style’. By some miracle, the twins napped peacefully in their stroller. The weather was cool and sunny and perfect for lazing around on the lush green grass – sipping wine, watching the ships out on the lake and the para-gliders in the skies. Having lived in Singapore for 8 years, this was a fairly novel experience.
Singapore Airlines flies daily from Singapore to Christchurch. The 10-hour flight departs at 7.45pm, perfect for a toddler to get some sleep. The return flight departs Christchurch at 11.55am. There are no direct flights from Singapore to Queenstown. SIA flies to Queenstown via Christchurch or Auckland. British Airways and Qantas fly via Sydney.
Where to stay
Criffel Peak View, Wanaka
We paid $250SG/$1535HK a night for a spacious, well-equipped apartment ($1,600SG/$9826HK per week in the winter ski season).
Garden Court Suites and Apartments, Queenstown
We paid $180SG/$1105HK a night for a quality one-bedroom apartment
- If you’re hiring a car, book car seats in advance. Ask if you can get car seats that recline well, so that the kids can nap comfortably during the long drives.
- If you’re driving in Christchurch, get directions from the hotel before you leave. Since some of the roads are still closed, the GPS can be pretty useless.
- Most places that we visited had vegetarian food options. Out of all the countries that I have travelled to (barring India), it was easiest being a vegetarian in New Zealand. Even the ships had a few choices of vegetarian sandwiches.
- Almost all Motels/Apartments/B&Bs will provide cots and high chairs. Enquire and book when you book the room.
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of EatRoamLive, Pooja’s enthusiasm for food and travelling is palpable from the variety and intensity with which she writes. A traveller at heart and a big-time foodie who is vegan, EatRoamLive was incepted with her desire to create a resource aimed at making dining out fun, and not restrictive, for veg(etari)ans. Not just (solely) veg(etari)an restaurants, she marks out places that serve sumptuous food with enough meat-free options. A hands-on mum to 3 young kids, the former architect and interior designer has her hands full juggling her love for writing, travelling and home.