Although the flight may seem daunting, it’s more than worth it to take the family on a New Zealand vacation, or Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud) as the native Maori named it, is a world-class, family-friendly destination with abundant parks, some of the best ice cream in the world and endless opportunities for kids to play both on land or water. Clean, green, environmentally conscious New Zealand offers some of the world’s most extraordinary views, friendly people and tasty cuisine.
I was fortunate to live in Auckland for five wonderful years. My son was born there and is a dual U.S.-New Zealand citizen. To get a true sense of New Zealand, give yourself at least three weeks. Since New Zealand is the size of California and contains many non-linear roadways, you may want to concentrate on a particular area and have a leisurely trip as opposed to trying to cram in what you can for a shorter duration. For this blog, I’m focusing on the Auckland/Northland area.
While living in Auckland, I definitely took advantage of the abundance of parks on offer. Parks are often near pristine beaches and some include free petting zoos. In Auckland’s St. Heliers, going for a swing near the waterfront was an almost daily treat for my son. This park has a spectacular view of Rangitoto, an 800-year-old volcano and the surrounding Hauraki Gulf. Closer to the city but still along the same stretch of waterfront, Mission Bay‘s park offers free pony rides on Saturdays for kids. There’s also an art deco-era fountain that’s lit up at night and rows of great dining options.
In the Western Springs area of Auckland, next to the Auckland Zoo, there’s ample space to let the kids play on a large selection of equipment. When my son was in a stroller, I loved walking around the scenic wetlands. As a toddler, he loved managing the pint-sized bridges to investigate waters teeming with swans, geese, eels, fish and native pukekoes. Pukekoes are New Zealand’s colorful version of the chicken and its great fun watching toddlers try to chase them!
Another park that appeals to all ages is Cornwall Park near bustling Newmarket. The entrance is breathtaking with a series of knarled puriri trees shading the entrance. In the summer, you can also spot several puhutakawa trees bursting with red, pom-pom-like flowers. On the west side, there’s an extensive set of equipment including a small train you can push small children in around a short course.
There are also obstacle courses for older kids. Quaint stone and wooden fences attempt to rein in chickens, sheep, and cattle, but they graze wherever they please, even to the top of the large extinct volcanic peek. Climb to the top and you’ll find one of the best views of the city.
A great activity to take children to is a farm show. There are several options just north of Auckland such as Sheep World. At Sheep World, you can take in a show, feed and pet young animals or meander around the rolling hills. Stop by the gift shop to check out fine woolen goods or take your little one to the park area with swings. Of course, there’s also a café on-site with coffee, homemade sandwiches and pastries.
Auckland Museum and grounds
You can take in a bit of history at the Auckland War Memorial. The memorial is situated atop an extinct volcano and is surrounded by lovely open park space. Here you’ll find flower gardens, small lagoons filled with wildlife and cricket fields where you can watch an impromptu test match. The museum itself houses interactive exhibits depicting all eras of New Zealand history. There’s also a special children’s zone with hands on activities, books, and mazes.
Kelly Tarlton, a famous New Zealand wreck diver, converted an old water processing plant into a unique shark tank and penguin exhibit. A new stingray exhibit just opened at Kelly Tarlton’s that enables kids to touch the rays. A tram takes visitors through the penguin area and educates them on Antarctic expeditions. There’s also a play zone with snacks and small rides. Don’t miss the amazing shark exhibit where small and large fish are literally swimming right above you.
Butterfly Creek was my then 2-year-old son’s favorite spot. A small train takes children around the hilly, scenic grounds. There are animals on display, a petting zoo and an in-door butterfly sanctuary. There’s also a course where kids can play on various equipment, a fish tank with Nemo and Dory, and a barn offering pony rides. Best of all there’s a yummy cafe where mom and dad can get a decent latte or an indulgent, gourmet sweet. Butterfly Creek is very close to the airport but has a relaxed, country feel. I recommend a visit here to tire the kids out before the long journey home.
The Sky Tower provides unparalleled, 360-degree views of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf. During holidays, fireworks often shoot out of the top. This structure affords several adventure oriented activities such as, gulp, bungee jumping off the top!
After a short drive north of Auckland, older children will love the high-speed ride out to the Poor Knights Islands and amaze at the pristine waters where you can view schools of fish from several leagues above. This area is one of the top 10 diving sites in the world.
Mercury Bay, Hot Water Beach
Just east of Auckland in the Coromandel peninsula, you can enjoy digging out your own private spa pool! When the season and timing is right, kids can make sand castles and paddle around pools of warm, thermal water. There’s a shop near the beach where you can rent child-size and adult shovels.
This spa and resort is fed by natural thermal waters and includes water slides, a soaking pool and fun activities such as night-time movie showings.
Not far from Cape Reinga, the spiritual Maori site and scenic lighthouse at the very tip of New Zealand, the kids will love sledding down enormous sand dunes at Te Paki. Many area tour operators stop in Te Paki to let tourists take a ride down the dunes.
AUCKLAND FAMILY DINING TIPS
I love that most restaurants serve cafe style. Simply place your order and pay at the counter first and the food is brought to your table. I loved not having to wait on a busy server to pay your bill; I could dine without stress knowing that I could dash out with my 2-year-old if I had to. Don’t forget, unless you are dining in a four-star restaurant, there is no need to tip.
Affordable, savory pastry pies are available nearly anywhere. This came in especially handy when we were trekking to see Tane Mahuta, Maori for God of the Forest. The little trek to see this enormous Kauri tree involved an unexpected "I’m hungry!" from my 2-year-old. Thank goodness they were selling pies even in the car park! Again, if your children get hungry and you’re on the move, you can find these filling treats anywhere from a local petrol shop to any food court.
No matter where you are in New Zealand, you can always find a tip top or Kapiti ice cream vendor to reward your little ones for good behavior. Whether you visit the zoo or the movies or are simply wandering down a city street, there’s a "dairy" or convenience store somewhere serving the best ice cream you have likely ever tasted.
Pizza in New Zealand tends more toward California style with interesting ingredient combinations such as apricots and brie. Do not expect to find Mexican food, not even nachos. Safer bets include fish and chips, roast meals (roast beef, lamb or chicken with potatoes and peas) burgers or pies. Kebabs, curries, and sushi are also abundant for the more adventurous, possibly older palates.
In my opinion, Burger Fuel is the best fast food
option in New Zealand. With gourmet burgers, kumara (sweet potato)
fries and funky, natural soda options served in an environment where
EMO and alternative music serves as background, I guarantee this is the
spot that both you and your kids will come to love.
This ultimate family-friendly cafe in the hip Ponsonby neighborhood has
baby food on the menu! There are plenty of toys for the kids and yummy
cafe meals for mom and dad. Bang bang is a welcome caffeinated oasis in
the middle of prime boutique shopping, too.
Travel with your car seat, if you can, for
children 2 years old and under. My son slept from Auckland to Los Angeles and had to be woken up to be fed. I credit
the safe, familiar car seat that produces similar results on car trips.
Air New Zealand is tops in catering to kids with a great activity
pack. These packs include coloring pencils, stickers, a magic slate, a
small card game called snap and a New Zealand-oriented coloring
Even if your toddlers are potty trained, I recommend putting them in
diapers for the flight anyway. My little guy slept so much that I
preferred not to wake him. He slept through changes but likely wouldn’t
have slept through a wake-up trip to the potty.
Auckland’s airport has a great children’s play area. Try to check your
bags and allow some time to let your little ones run around before
boarding for that long flight.
Be sure to have milk or a drink handy for take-offs and landings.
Making sure your child swallows will cut down on any ear pressure
discomfort they may encounter from the flight.
Related Orbitz resources:
Kimberly is the mother of a 4-year-old son born in New Zealand.
She spent five years thinking Christmas meant summer weather while living in Auckland. She currently lives in a suburb of Chicago.