Long flights and jet lag are enough to put anyone off taking their children to New Zealand - William Gray tells us why it's the perfect family destination
"Let’s get things hot and mad, and then we’ll be off!”
With a flurry of switch flicking, our pilot fired up the Cessna and set our New Zealand family adventure in motion. Moments later we were climbing above the Bay of Islands, our six-year-old twins’ faces squished against the windows as they peered down on a flawless jade sea.
New Zealand is a long, long way to go with young kids, but don’t let distance or jet lag stand in the way of one of the world’s best family holiday destinations. North Island resembles a giant thumbs up, and that’s precisely the reaction you’ll get from your kids when they discover this far-flung adventure paradise – even if, like us, you only have time for a seven-day stop-over en route to Australia.
We whittled down our list of North Island essentials to three key areas: Northland, Coromandel and Rotorua. A flying safari with Salt Air to Cape Reinga at the tip of Northland set the pace for our non-stop itinerary.
Tracking north across the dazzling silica sands of Rarawa Beach, we landed near the cape where a minibus whisked us to a lighthouse presiding over the whitewater hurly-burly between the Tasman Sea and Pacific. There was time for playing chicken with the waves at nearby Tapotupotu Bay before sandboarding on the giant dunes behind Ninety Mile Beach. Then it was back in the plane, racing a thunderstorm to Pahia, before driving west to Opononi.
A few years previously, we enjoyed a more leisurely tour of South Island in a motorhome (a great choice for families), but there are plenty of other excellent options for kid-friendly accommodation in New Zealand – not least the bachs (small weekend huts), or self-catering seaside holiday homes. Our beach bolthole at Opononi even had a couple of kayaks stashed in the garage – perfect for exploring Hokianga Harbour. The main draw of Northland’s west coast, however, is Waipoua Forest, where Maori guides led us that night, chanting greetings to Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s most revered kauri tree.
The next day, a six-hour drive south to the Coromandel Peninsula allowed the children a much-needed nap. We arrived in time for a pre-sunset paddle at Tairua’s Ocean Beach before another early start the following morning.
Kiwi Dundee tours is renowned for its insights into the region’s pioneer days, and while poking around in old silver mine shafts twinkling with glow worms is mesmerising for most kids, it’s the tour’s climax at Hot Water Beach that makes it unforgettable. At low tide, geothermal water bubbles up through the sand – simply make a dam, temper with a little seawater and you can happily poach away for hours.
But the main reason Coromandel made our top three was Ricky Parker of the Whangamata Surf School. Ricky offers introductory lessons in which he’ll get your kids riding waves like proper surf dudes in little more than an hour.
If ever our fast and furious trip began to fray around the edges, it was at Rotorua where the sheer range of activities could easily keep you occupied for a week. In barely a day we still managed to squeeze in volcanic mudpits and a Maori haka at Te Puia, sheep shearing at the Agrodome and a ride on the Skylines Luge.
So there you have it – non-stop North Island with kids. Sure, it would have been great to squeeze in a farm stay. And perhaps a day or two in Auckland. And, of course, Wellington’s Te Papa museum. And I suppose once you’re in Wellington, South Island is just a ferry ride away…
William Gray and family travelled with Bridge & Wickers (