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New Zealand for Families

In Hot Water
New Zealand for Families
A country of boundless beauty, welcoming locals, and unique cultural experiences, New Zealand is an ideal family destination that will leave kids speechless, parents thankful, and your cameras' memory cards full.
By Guy Needham, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
  • 1 / 10
    In Hot Water
    In Hot Water
    Children will be amazed by Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, under whose sands lurks a natural phenomenon—a thermal underground spring. The best time to visit is just before low tide, when you won’t have to dig far before you’re in the eponymous hot water. A few hours away by car, you'll get even hotter at the geothermal mud pools of Rotorua. The kids will love the bubbling liquids (but complain that it stinks like rotten eggs). Rotorua is perfect for a family mud bath, and afterward the gang can see the legendary Pohutu Geyser erupt for the 20th time that day.
    Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
  • 2 / 10
    Follow the Films
    Follow the Films
    It’s said that J.R.R. Tolkien thought of New Zealand when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and Sir Peter Jackson merely brought it to life. Whatever the real story is, there's no doubt that the Oscar-winning trilogy introduced a new generation of film lovers to New Zealand. Today, the whole family can relive the cinematic Middle Earth adventures at Hobbiton, a replica of the movie set located outside Matamata in the Waikato region. From Rotorua, there are tours that include exploring the Hobbit Holes, the Mill, and the rolling meadows. But before The Hobbit, there was The Piano, set on the black sands of Karekare Beach. A 30-minute drive from Auckland, this is an ideal place to get away from it all.
    Photo courtesy of Hobbiton Tours
  • 3 / 10
    Eating Adventures in New Zealand
    Eating Adventures in New Zealand

    Kai is the Maori word for food, and the quintessential kai is prepared in the traditional method of slow cooking in an underground pit called the hangi. After several hours, the hangi is uncovered to reveal the most succulent meat and luscious vegetables; kumara (sweet potato) is a must. If you need something a little quicker, there’s nothing more Kiwi than family fish-and-chips on the beach. This classic combination of lightly battered fish and fresh-cut potato fries can be bought at any local takeout shop. Adventurous families should also consider the Wildfoods Festival in Hokitika on the South Island. Held annually in March, the event serves everything from live huhus (beetle grubs) to wasp-larvae ice cream, fish eyes, and possum pie. One of the best farmers’ markets in the nation is the Christchurch Farmers' Market, held every Saturday morning.

    Photo courtesy of Wildfoods Festival
  • 4 / 10
    New Zealand Viewfinder
    New Zealand Viewfinder
    The most iconic building in New Zealand is Auckland’s Sky Tower. More than 1,000 feet tall, it’s the highest in the Southern Hemisphere. After a 40-second ride to the top, you're treated to glass floors, a revolving restaurant, and panoramas that stretch for 50 miles. For a more traditional ascent, there’s the century-old cable car in Wellington. Catch it in Lambton Quay, and watch the Wellington harbor expand as your ride makes its short journey to the Botanic Gardens. And for New Zealand’s best view? Take the Skyline Gondola all the way to the top of Queenstown. Once there, bring the family down the scenic luge track. Seeing the snow-covered Remarkables mountains reflected in Lake Wakatipu will make your jaw drop. Over in the South Island's Otago region, the vistas from the Taieri Gorge Railway are superb on this highly regarded day trip. Others may argue that the dawn's-early-light glimpses from the lighthouse on the North Island's East Cape are the country's most extraordinary sights.
    Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-angs/age fotostock
  • 5 / 10
    Maori Culture for Families
    Maori Culture for Families
    You can’t visit New Zealand without seeing a Maori performance. The ones in Rotorua provide a real sense of what it means to be Maori and include customs such as the legendary haka war dance. Also worth visiting to understand Maori history and culture is the lakeside village of Ohinemutu and the Museum of Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. In the city of Rotorua, visit Rakai Jade for a hands-on experience crafting traditional Maori jewelry and pendants.
    Photo courtesy of James Heremaia/Tourism New Zealand
  • 6 / 10
    Family Time at the Beach
    Family Time at the Beach
    Kiwis love their beaches. Every year the summer migration turns small seaside towns into holiday-resort destinations. From the golden sands of Gisborne—one of the first cities in the world to see the sun rise—to the isolated shores of Northland’s Ninety Mile Beach (which is actually only 55 miles long), New Zealand offers plenty of pristine places to take in sun and sea. On the more popular stretches, surf lifesavers patrol to ensure that everyone is securely swimming between the flags. If you decide to tour the country by motor home, make sure you take the coastal routes whenever you can. "Freedom camping" (where you don’t pay a fee) is still possible, and there are additionally many paid campgrounds with barbecue facilities and showers.
    Photo courtesy of David Wall/Tourism New Zealand
  • 7 / 10
    National Animals
    National Animals
    The kiwi—a symbol of the country’s armed forces, a taonga (Maori treasure), and a nickname for a New Zealander—is a national icon. Unless you’re in dense bush at night, you won’t see this endangered flightless bird in its typical habitat, but you can see it in special nocturnal areas at all the country’s major zoos. (Little-known fact: The kiwi lays the largest bird egg in the world proportional to its size.) If you're truly keen to see one in the wild, an excellent option is an after-dark tour on Stewart Island. Kapiti Island, a nature preserve north of Wellington, is another great destination for animal sightings. The other creature closely associated with New Zealand is the sheep: At one time, there were 60 million of them and only 3 million people in the nation. The best thing about sheep is that they love children; bring the little ones to Sheepworld north of Auckland or to Rotorua’s Agrodome for a woolly encounter.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism New Zealand
  • 8 / 10
    Kiwi Experiences for Kids
    Kiwi Experiences for Kids
    A few activities can show visiting kids what it’s like growing up in New Zealand. Start with learning to fish in the picturesque Bay of Islands. Families can join one of the many charters or rent a rod from a store in Russell and cast a line off the end of the wharf like the locals do. Next up: surfing. All New Zealand’s major surf beaches have lessons available, and it’s an ideal way for kids to get more comfortable in the ocean. To see some hidden rural areas, horseback riding is your best mode of transport. Equipped with safety helmets and professional guides, you can canter and trot for at least an hour across Pakiri Beach, about 45 minutes north of Auckland. During winter, a superb town to visit is Naseby in the South Island, where children can enjoy an action-packed schedule—including mountain-biking, luging, ice-skating, and the quirky sport of curling.
    Photo courtesy of Ian Trafford/Tourism New Zealand
  • 9 / 10
    Marine Encounters
    Marine Encounters
    There is nothing more awe-inspiring than a giant sperm whale emerging from the depths, spouting high, and then diving down with a mighty flick of its tail. Kaikoura on the South Island’s east coast is home to New Zealand’s best whale-watching, thanks to its deep underwater canyon. For a closer look, try the underwater tunnels at Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland. Stingrays float effortlessly overhead; sharks swim purposefully; and jellyfish do whatever jellyfish do. And the place offers more than fish: There's also a walk-through Antarctic Ice Adventure, with the world's largest display of antarctic and subantarctic penguins. Kids over 14 can go inside to meet the birds.
    Photo courtesy of Chris McLennan/Tourism New Zealand
  • 10 / 10
    New Zealand for Budding Thrill Seekers
    New Zealand for Budding Thrill Seekers
    It’s no surprise that a country as dedicted to thrills as New Zealand would have its share of unique theme parks. At the Rainbow’s End park in south Auckland, old favorites such as the log flume and roller coaster keep young ones occupied for hours. Downcountry, it gets a little more exciting: In Rotorua, kids can get inside a zorb—a big rolling ball—and tumble or bounce down a gentle hillside. If that’s not enough, perhaps it’s time for the South Island’s SuperBowl Ride—a big funnel of water moving at five meters per second that you can ride on a two-person inflatable tube. The SuperBowl is part of the thermal-pool resort in the mountain town of Hanmer Springs, less than two hours from Christchurch. If the need for speed still burns within (and your child weighs more than 66 pounds!), take them on an EcoZip adventure, where a three-stage zip line allows them to fly over trees and vineyards on Waiheke Island, a short ferry trip from Auckland.
    Photo courtesy of Zorb Rotorua/Tourism New Zealand