New Zealand for Families

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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 camera cards full.
By Guy Needham, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
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    In Hot Water
    Children will be amazed by Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, a natural phenomenon caused by 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 hot water. A few hours’ drive away, you'll get even hotter: at the geothermal mud pools of Rotorua. The kids will love the bubbling mud 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 twentieth time that day.
    Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
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    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 true 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 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 Auckland’s Karekare Beach. A 30-minute drive from town, this is an ideal place to get away from it all.
    Photo courtesy of Hobbiton Tours
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    Eating Adventures in New Zealand
    Kai is the Maori word for food, and the quintessential kai is prepared in the hangi style—a traditional method of slow cooking in an underground pit. 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 combination of lightly-battered fish and fresh-cut potato fries (chips) can be bought at any local takeaway shop. Adventurous families should consider the Wildfoods Festival in Hokitika on the South Island. Held annually in March, the event serves everything from live huhu beetles to wasp larvae ice cream and possum pie. One of the best farmers markets is the Christchurch Farmers Market held every Saturday morning.
    Photo courtesy of Wildfoods Festival
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    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 with glass floors, a revolving restaurant, and views 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 it makes its short journey to the Botanic Garden. And for New Zealand’s best view? Ride the Skyline Gondola all the way to the top of Queenstown. Once there, take the family down the scenic luge track. Seeing the snow-covered Remarkables mountains reflected in Lake Wakatipu will make your jaw drop. Also in the South Island's Otago region, the views from the Taieri Gorge Railway are superb on this highly-regarded daytrip.
    Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-angs/age fotostock
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    Maori culture for families
    You can’t visit New Zealand without seeing a Maori performance. The ones in Rotorua provide a real sense of Maoridom and include traditions such as the legendary Haka war dance. Also worth visiting to understand Maori history culture is the lakeside village of Ohinemutu, and the Musuem 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
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    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), New Zealand offers plenty of pristine places to take in sun and sea. On the more popular beaches, surf lifesavers patrol to ensure that everyone is swimming safely between the flags. If you decide to tour the country by motorhome, 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 many paid campgrounds with barbecue facilities and showers.
    Photo courtesy of David Wall/Tourism New Zealand
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    National Animals
    A symbol of the country’s armed forces, a taonga (Maori treasure), and a nickname for a New Zealander, the Kiwi is a national icon. Unless you’re in dense bush at night, you won’t see this endangered flightless bird in its natural habitat, but you can see it in special nocturnal areas at all of 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 really keen to see a Kiwi in the wild, an excellent option is taking part in an after dark tour on Stewart Island. The other animal closely associated with New Zealand is the sheep. There was once 60 million of them and only 3 million people. The best thing about sheep is that they love children; take the little ones to Sheep World north of Auckland or to Rotorua’s Agrodome for a wooly encounter.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism New Zealand
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    Kiwi Experiences for Kids
    Throughout the country, kids can experience 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 hire a rod from a store in Russell and fish 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 a great way for kids to get more comfortable in the ocean. To see some hidden country, horseback riding is your best mode of transport. Equipped with safety helmets and professional guides, you can ride and trot for at least an hour across Pakiri Beach, 45 minutes north of Auckland. During winter, an excellent 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
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    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, made possible by a deep underwater canyon. For a closer look, try the underwater tunnels at Auckland’s Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium. 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 Sub-Antarctic penguins. Kids over 14 can go inside to meet the birds.
    Photo courtesy of Chris McLennan/Tourism New Zealand
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    New Zealand for Budding Thrill-Seekers
    It’s no surprise that New Zealand has its share of unique theme parks. At the Rainbow’s End park in south Auckland, old favorites such as the log flume, roller coaster, and pirate ship keep kids occupied for hours. Down country is a little more thrilling; in Rotorua kids can get inside a "zorb"—a big rubber ball—and roll (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. SuperBowl is part of the thermal pools resort in the mountain town of Hanmer Springs, less than two hours from Christchurch.
    Photo courtesy of Zorb Rotorua/Tourism New Zealand