24 Apr New Zealand’s South Island – The Best Spots for Families with Kids
Booking a trip to New Zealand’s South Island sparks all sorts of daydreams. We immediately start imagining the pleasures that await us at the other end of the world: climbing volcanoes; sitting around campfires on wild secluded beaches; swimming with dolphins…
It seems like a good destination when you’re planning to travel with young kids for the first time, too. I, for one, thought it would be a perfect ‘starter country’. Loads of beautiful nature, culturally very close to Europe, no dangerous or venomous animals, high standards of hygiene… Perfect!
But then you start looking at the guide books and get completely overwhelmed by the oversupply of so-called adventures and must-see destinations. And that’s before you’ve even considered the cost. Or which experiences the kids are genuinely going to enjoy.
It’s a veritable minefield.
Handily for you, we’ve done the legwork and worked out all the best places (cheap and not-so-cheap) for you and your kids to go to. SPOILER ALERT: It’s a beautiful country, yes. But it’s also pricey, rainy and not always as extraordinary as you might expect…
What follows, dear travelers, is our warts ‘n’ all guide to New Zealand’s South Island – and all the freedom campgrounds we found along the way.
Our route across New Zealand’s South Island
Handy hint: You can skip ahead, using the menu below, if there’s a specific place you’re interested in.
- International Arctic Center
- Lake Tekapo
- International Dark Sky Reserve, Mackenzie Region
- Hiking Mt. John
- Biking Lake Wanaka
- Hiking Mt. Iron
- Steamship TSS Earnshaw
- Walter’s Peak Sheep Farm
- Kiwi Birdlife
- Marlborough Sounds
Heading to New Zealand’s North Island, as well? We’ve got you covered!
Our New Zealand adventure started in Christchurch, on the Avon River. In the last ten years alone, its 350,000 inhabitants have been shaken by numerous earthquakes. Sounds like an exciting place to begin, doesn’t it?
The truth is, we spent our first day waiting hours for our motorhome to be ready to take away. Once it was ‘ours’, we then proceeded to set up camp at a place close to the airport, which we found in a list of the Top Ten Holiday Parks on New Zealand’s South Island. Let’s be honest, nothing happens quickly with kids in tow.
They were more than happy with this rather underwhelming arrangement, thanks to the on-site playground and enormous bouncing pillow and trampoline! And so it was that we spent our first dinner in New Zealand, sitting in the evening sunshine next to this playground. A classy scenario topped off by a simple dinner of bread with sausage and cheese, and some carrot and cucumber snacks (as well as beer and wine for the grown-ups).
I actually didn’t mind at all; the food and drinks provided a necessary (and, frankly, heavenly!) moment of respite after the efforts of the journey there.
Accommodation: North South Camping Park (Top Ten)
Location: 530 Sawyers Arms Road, Christchurch, NZ
Cost: NSD 67 per night on a powered site (kids under 5 stay for free)
Kid-friendliness factor: 3/5 stars – there’s a huge playground and a pool
Opinion: A typical big Top Ten Holiday Park, offering all you need, clean, close to airport, perfect for the first night or two!
International Antarctic Center
Things got a lot more interesting on our second day in town. In fact, we were spoiled for choice. One of the main attractions in Christchurch is a relaxed boat ride on the Avon River and through the Botanic Gardens. The other is the International Antarctic Center. With time for just one of the two, we opted for the latter – something we weren’t going to find elsewhere.
It’s a wonderful, educational place where you can easily spend an entire day with your family. Expect Swiss prices, but lots of attractions to justify them! Of particular note are: the ‘Antarctic Storm’, a penguin rescue station (a small pool populated by couples and singles, which were found injured or sick and now live here); Huskies (on certain days); a 4D Cinema; and a hilarious ride on an amphibious vehicle known as the ‘Hagglund’.
You can even visit a reconstruction of Scott Base, the Antarctic research center! Great for learning. How about this for a fact: Antarctica is the driest place on earth! Did you know that in some parts, it’s so dry that it doesn’t even snow and there’s no ice? And yet, even in summer, freezing temperatures make it more hostile to life than the Atacama Desert? Mind blowing stuff, not only for kids!
The International Antarctic Center on New Zealand’s South Island is an excellent family day out – the perfect opportunity to travel, discover, learn and have fun. Our 4-year-old, Julian, loved the whole experience so much, he was still asking if we could go again weeks later!
The only thing both kids were happy to see the back of was the 4D movie, which takes viewers on a journey across the Antarctic Ocean, on board a research ship. The noises, the jerking seats, the realistic icebergs and the splashing water were probably a bit too close to reality for them.
International Dark Sky Reserve Mackenzie Region
With our exciting day behind us, we refueled at a certain world-famous fast food restaurant, in preparation for what was to be an exciting night, too…
Our next stop was the recently-recognized International Dark Sky Reserve, which covers 4300 square kilometers of the Mackenzie region, including Mt. John – making it the largest reserve of its kind in the world! The area’s exceptionally clear night skies, along with the complete absence of light pollution, makes stargazing in this place an incomparable experience.
To pay or not to pay…
There are two observatories with professional telescopes, through which you can take a look at the Milky Way. But it’ll cost you – NZD 150 per adult and NZD 85 per child (March 2018). The price includes a two-hour evening tour with knowledgeable guides from the company which operates the telescopes, Earth and Sky. They also offer tours in collaboration with astronomers at the University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory, who provide , if you and your kids are really into this topic. There’s probably no better place on earth to learn about the stars than here.
Our kids were still too young for this experience (children are allowed to participate from the age of 8). But the price was simply too high in our opinion anyway. And you certainly don’t need a telescope to be able to admire the starry sky and the Milky Way from this vantage point.
If you’re familiar with a few stellar constellations, you’ll be able to point them out to your children as soon as the sun sets. I was absolutely thrilled – stunned, overwhelmed! This was the first time in the trip that I regretted having left the SLR at home for reasons of space.
Accommodation: Mt. Hay Station Driveway
Location: 5 minutes up Lilybank Road, Tekapo, NZ
Cost: NZD 25 per night (we stayed two nights)
Kid-friendliness factor and opinion: 5/5 stars – it’s an amazing spot! Keep reading to find out why…
Hiking Mount John
The next day we turned our attention to the ground beneath our feet, with one of the area’s many driving routes. This one took us up Mt. John (1031m), providing an impressive view of the surreal turquoise Lake Tekapo down below, as well as Mt. Cook (3724 m), which is, even compared to the Swiss alps, what you’d call a ‘real’ mountain. A quick detour from there and you’re at the Mt. John Observatory, where you can enjoy the views from the Astro Café. The children had so much fun running spotting some of the many rabbits that live on the mountain, as well as their holes and their droppings.
The BEST camp spot on New Zealand’s South Island!
In this area there is, unfortunately, no possibility for freedom camping. An affordable alternative and, for me, one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand’s South Island is ‘Mt. Hay Station Driveway’. It’s a 22.000 acre high country sheep station. Completely alone within a radius of several kilometers, we found ourselves in the middle of a steppe-like wilderness with breathtaking views of Lake Tekapo. Getting there is an adventure in itself, however. You have to drive down a gravel road for about 4 km, if my memory serves me well. But it’s completely worth it and not too much trouble, even without a 4WD.
With it being such a desolate place, it felt like the whole shimmering lake was ours. We watched the rabbits run back and forth and enjoyed an idyllic, though windy dinner, wrapped up in our warm blankets. We were able to admire the stars for a few minutes afterwards, too, as it gets dark pretty early in the evening (at 6 p.m.). But it also gets cold quickly, and we soon retreated inside the campervan.
The first night, a hellish storm passed over us, threatening to tip over the campervan! Well, that’s how it felt, at least. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep, but our nerves were soothed by the amazingly clear and sunny morning that greeted us the next day. It was almost worth suffering the storm, just to be able to make our way down to the lake for lunch a little later, and to wade in the crystal-clear waters.
It was paradise staying at Mt. Hay Station Driveway for two nights. If you are looking for a remote place, this is it! We didn’t find anything comparable in all of New Zealand. And the best thing is: it’s all yours, since the owner assigns only one pitch per night.
Looking back, I can appreciate this place even more since experiencing various other “freedom” campsites. A lot of them are merely parking lots, though some of them are quite nice. This place, however, was something else. I’ve never liked a place so much – it was just what I had dreamed of: a rough, lonely, natural beauty.
Our next stop was Wanaka. A winter paradise for skiers and snowboarders, the region around the tranquil lake also has a lot to offer adrenaline junkies in summertime, with plenty of opportunities to go canyoning, skydiving, kayaking, climbing, and more.
For those of a less thrill-seeking disposition, there are plenty of other, more tranquil things to do, such as fishing, lavender farm tours, and hiking and biking trails around the nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park. Relaxing in one of the many small bars or cafes situated in this cozy little town can be a very pleasing thing to do, too.
Your taste buds are also taken good care of here. Whether it’s a wine tour by trike, a taste of New Zealand’s only single malt whiskey, a visit to the Farmers Market, or a scoop of the island’s award-winning ice cream – your culinary desires will be satisfied!
Like the sound of all of that? This is where you will find everything Wanaka has to offer, all under one roof.
Biking Lake Wanaka
As for us, we rented a bike and took a ride around the lake. At Outdoor Sports in the heart of the small town you will find ‘Specialized’ bikes for children of all ages (as small as three) as well as bicycle trailers for the littler ones. The staff are very friendly and can recommend routes to suit of all levels of ability. The prices are acceptable; for four hours with one adult bike, one children’s bike and one trailer, we paid NZD 65.
Our journey took us towards Albert Town and past the idyllic Eely Point (about 4 km from Wanaka) on a beautiful, sunny afternoon in early autumn. There were a few small inclines, but these were easily handled by a four-year-old. After a little picnic we enjoyed the warm sun while the kids had fun watching ducks and throwing stones into the water. Climbing and collecting sticks took another half-hour. I do admire the way they can lose themselves in the simplest of activities.
When it got windy, we started to make our way back, stopping for a short rest along the way, at the dinosaur playground in Wanaka. Sounds pretty awesome, but the only thing that actually comes close to a dinosaur is the ‘Brontosaurus slide’. Still, it’s a large and well-kept playground with everything a kid needs. And it’s located right beside the beach, so it’s a good place for both grown-ups and children.
Accommodation: Mt. Aspiring Holiday Park
Location: 217 Wanaka-Mt Aspiring Road, Wanaka, New Zealand
Cost: $48 NZD per night per camper on a powered site
Kid-friendliness factor: 2/5 stars – there was a small playground and large (non-heated) pool with slides for the bigger ones.
Opinion: served all our needs. You get loads of information at the reception, they rent bikes (no kids’ bikes though), friendly staff, facilities and pool area clean but a little old.
Hiking Mt. Iron
The next day was to be our hiking day. Yes, it’s a totally unpredictable activity with small children. But if you take time for breaks, picnics and maybe a game of tag, it’s certainly worth a try. We chose the shortest loop in Wanaka (to my knowledge), which takes you up Mt. Iron. It’s not entirely deserving of its tough name, given that it’s 250 m high and takes the average adult about 1hr 15mins to climb. Maybe a small child christened it – it takes their little legs an extra 3 hours to make the ascent, as we discovered.
The starting point and parking lot is located directly opposite Puzzling World. If you can distract your kids long enough to get past that bizarre attraction, you’ll reach a fairly flat track, which is just long enough to trick them into thinking the rest of the ‘climb’ will be similarly easy. In fact, it gets quite steep for the next kilometer or so. Then, just when the novelty of ‘scrambling’ up the rocks begins to wear off, it flattens again and you soon reach the top, where you get some beautiful views of the lake and Wanaka below.
All in all, this was one of our better hiking experiences as a family. The kids got along well, and while Tessa enjoyed being carried whole way uphill on my shoulders, Julian and I had a storytelling competition (this is an essential skill when travelling with kids – learn how to do it with my 11-step guide to storytelling!). While his stories were very creative (though lacking any sort of resolution or punchline, as is his habit), I got to retell a few episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Ronja the Robber’s Daughter”. Cultural property nowadays.
Accommodation: Kawarau Bridge Car Park
Location: State Highway 6, Gibbston Valley, Queenstown 9384, NZ
Opinion: We camped in the parking lot of the world’s first commercial bungee center, a little outside of the city of Queenstown (approx 30 mins) – special since the kids were able to watch the people jump. The sight from the bridge across the Kawarau river is also priceless. During opening hours you can use the toilets at the bungee center. However, you’re given a small parking spot near the highway – so you always have to keep an eye on those kids! Okay for one night.
The big sister of Wanaka is said to have been a charming little town with some flair, once upon a time. Now, with lots of small cafés perched around the edges of the lake, it manages to retain some of that. But there’s no getting away from the fact the area has also become one of New Zealand’s tourist hotspots.
For many years, Lake Wakatipu was known only to the Maori. But with the first European settlers arriving in the 19th century and discovering gold in the nearby Arrow River (c. 1860), the town soon began to attract lots of visitors and flourish economically.
Now home to around 12,000 people, it continues to be somewhat of a gold mine, positioning itself as a center for adventure holidays and extreme sports. Everything here is aimed at visitors from Asia and Europe.
The possibilities seem endless – we were spoilt for choice. But our options were soon reduced to nothing. First, unless you have an unlimited budget, the prices are fairly prohibitive. Then there are the age limits; the minimum age for most of the white-water rafting experiences is 13 years.
We did manage to find one white water rafting tour which takes place on the calmer waters of the famous Shotover River, and is suitable for children aged three and above. It comes highly recommended by many and is run by a well-established operator, Family Adventures. Unfortunately, our days here were cold and rainy, putting the final nail in the coffin of that idea.
Steamship TSS Earnslaw…
Instead, we went for a ride on the historic steamship TSS Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu. The trip included a visit to the boiler room and a stop at the High Country Sheep Farm at Walter’s Peak. What can I say? It was a one-of-a-kind tourist trap! We waited in a long queue to get on board this admittedly charming steamboat, which was used 100 years ago for the transport of sheep. There weren’t any seats available for the 30-minute ride, but it was fun to explore the ship and watch the waves.
…and Walter’s Peak Sheep Farm
The sheep farm (which also houses cattle, deer, alpacas and goats) is nothing but a show. We were driven through heavy rains, all the way from the jetty to a small amphitheater. It wasn’t hard to empathize with the sheep of the last century, as we scuttled along with herds of other people.
First, they shore a sheep for us, and afterwards two really well-trained border collies demonstrated how to drive three sheep to the paddock. The show continued with the animal feed, which the kids enjoyed getting involved with – even if we were standing in pouring rain the entire time. The tea and delicious cake served on a big terrace afterwards did offer some consolation, though it daresay it would’ve been a nicer moment on a sunny day.
We were herded onto the ship, but beforehand had to pass through the obligatory gift shop. I can understand the necessity for efficiency, with so many tourists to handle, but I can’t help thinking the farm operators could be using methods a little better suited to humans.
Nonetheless, our kids loved the sheepdogs and were fascinated by the shearing. Our littlest, Tessa, did need a whole day’s worth of reassurance that it didn’t hurt the sheep, however.
Kiwi Birdlife Park
Another affordable and educational highlight for children is the Kiwi Birdlife Park, whose operations are part of the nationwide “breed for release” program. As well as being able to observe New Zealand’s rarest and most threatened bird species going about its daily business, there’s an organized bird demonstration, some Kiwi feeding, and an actual living dinosaur (the ‘Tuatara’) to be admired. They’ll also invite you to contribute to the preservation of kiwis and other endangered species (by handing over your cold, hard cash).
Accommodation: Twenty Five Mile Stream
Location: 30 min up the Queenstown-Glenorchy Road from Queenstown
Opinion: Beautiful spot right at the lake, somewhat secluded areas for the campervan, no facilities though! Good for the night.
After Queenstown, we’d planned to join an organized boat trip, which included a kayak ride at Harrison Cove and a visit to the Milford Discovery Center and Underwater Observatory. But with inclement weather and limited time for exploring New Zealand’s South Island, we decided to skip the Milford Sounds and head north-east, towards the top of the island.
Finally! After a total of eight hours driving, we reached the capital of whale watching and the promise of swimming with dolphins in their natural surroundings, and seeing whole colonies of seals! Or not…
There’s only one company which organizes dolphin tours, Encounter Kaikoura, so your choices are limited in that respect. And if you’re as unlucky as we were with the weather, with two consecutive days of terrible conditions, your options dwindle to pretty much nothing. No fulfillment of a lifelong ambition for me here then!
Instead, we took a trip to Kaikoura Peninsula at Point Kean, to see the seal colonies. But it would seem nothing comes easily in this place. Despite wandering to the far edges of the cliffs (an experience in itself), we saw just a handful of seals lolling among the algae. They did allow us to get up close and take some pictures, however.
Kaikoura must be a beautiful place to see in the sunshine, but it’s hard to appreciate it in relentlessly bad weather conditions. If you suffer the same fate, choose your compensatory lunch stop wisely. We ended up buying some very expensive, but totally average, crayfish from a street stall going by the name, ‘World Famous Original Kaikoura Seafood BBQ’.
Accommodation: Peketa Beach Holiday Park
Location: Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park SH1, 7km South of Kaikoura, NZ
Kid-friendliness factor: 2/5 stars – there’s a secluded area in the sand dunes, a nice playground with a zipline from a beautiful old tree, and an old boat that’s used as a swing
Opinion: Family-owned, very clean, camp spots are big enough and close to the sea (behind the dunes), very good spring water from the nearby mountain. A really nice place.
Hallelujah! Our last stop, in the sunniest region of New Zealand’s South Island, delivered on (almost) all counts. Marlborough Sounds has lots to offer – especially when it comes to water sports and wildlife. Of particular note is the stunning fjord, which is located within the Marlborough wine region. You can’t go wrong with a boat tour either – although your pockets will be lighter. The boat tours take place in a sheltered part of the water, so there’s no risk of seasickness. Great for more sensitive children!
We wanted to make up for missing out on the dolphin swim in Kaikoura, and Eko Tours – the only licensed operators in the Marlborough Sounds – were there to help us do it. The price was pretty much the same (NZD 160 per person, NZD 80 for children aged 8 years +) and their ambitious and knowledgeable guides gave us a really nice 3-hour tour – I can highly recommend it.
You can expect beautiful views, lots of seabirds and seals, and an 80% chance of being able to swim with dolphins. Unfortunately, we were the 1 in 5 that didn’t get the chance. We did, however, enjoy a very rare opportunity to observe a Hector dolphin mom with a very small calf. And we got a refund (NZD 50), as well as biscuits, coffee and hot chocolate for the children, which was most welcome.
Accommodation: Collins Memorial Reserve
Location: 63 Freeths Rd, Koromiko 7273, NZ
Opinion: Close to Picton (10 min. drive), close to the road, toilet okay, picnic tables. Good spot to stay before taking the ferry the next day.
Final moments, final thoughts…
Our ferry was due to leave from Picton harbor the next evening, so we spent our last hours at a nearby park. There’s some great stuff for kids, including a pirate ship, carousel and water playground. A winner, all round. Funny how things you have no expectations of are often the most enjoyable.
Looking back, we did have a lot of great moments on New Zealand’s South Island. You can’t help but admire the stunning, often untouched nature. And no matter where you go, there is always something for children to learn about or explore. The unpredictable weather can leave a slightly bitter taste, of course. We were there in early fall – maybe you’re more likely to have better luck at another time of the year.
Anyway, that wasn’t the end of the trip (but could it be the end of the bad weather…?). Next stop: New Zealand’s North Island…