20-day road trip in New Zealand South Island with kids

In August 2020 we went on one of the most amazing road trips ever, 18 days around NZ South Island. We left from Tauranga, flew to Christchurch, rented a car, went all around the island, over the Cook strait, returned the car in Wellington, and flew back to Tauranga.

This is just a quick recap of it all because If I start writing about all the emotions, feelings, and the awe we felt, I might never stop writing. This trip is forever in our hearts, eyes, and mind.

This is the map I made for the kids to give them a sort of understanding of what to expect and where we are while driving.

A couple of things:

  1. As you'll probably notice, we didn't follow the original plan exactly: the family mood and harmony usually overrides it. We're not used to travel this fast, but we took it as a tasting menu.
  2. Glenorchy and Milford Sound were on the list, but we felt they added too many kilometres. Next time.
  3. We always try to do the longest drive either in the morning to get somewhere for lunch or just after lunch to get to a playground before dinner.
  4. I don't add links because they always get outdated (and this is not a travel blog). You'll find every place with a quick Google search.
  5. I wrote all the exact names of the Airbnbs we liked, please just search in the app: I only list the accommodations that in our opinion are worth mentioning. I’m in no way affiliated with Airbnb, but it has been our home for 3 years now, so we always rely on it.

Let's get started.

Day 1 - Tauranga - Christchurch

Our only goal for the day was to get to the Margaret Mahy Playground, where the kids played for several hours. We had dinner at the Italian restaurant Francesca's Italian Kitchen (New Regent St was nicely lit in the evening).

Day 2 - Christchurch -> Fairlie (2.5h)

  • We drove the Inland Scenic Route 72.
  • Stopover in Geraldine: lunch at The Running Duck (play corner for kids) and walk down the main street.
  • Drove to Fairlie. Bought famous pies at Fairlie Bakehouse to take to our Airbnb for dinner.
  • Stay overnight at Julie's farm: Julies gave us a farm tour, we helped her gather the sheep, and we fed the lamas. After putting the kids to sleep, Alex and I jumped into the Jacuzzi and stargazed (the most amazing night sky we've ever seen). In the morning we had an amazing breakfast that Julie had prepared for us (even her famous pancake dough!). We wished we could stay longer. On Airbnb you can find it as "Shear-Vue Farmstay: Farm Tour & Spa Pool | Fairlie" hosted by Julie.

Day 3 - Fairlie -> Tekapo (30 min):

  • Cass Valley Backcountry 4WD Tour with Tekapo Adventures: one of the highlights of the whole trip and an unforgettable experience. The Cass Valley will take your breath away! Our guide was Ben: he's wild, adventurous and told us some amazing stories about New Zealand and the valley.
  • Lunch at the Our Dog Friday (awesome veggie burgers).
  • Afternoon around the Tekapo Lake: playground with zip line, Church of the Good Sheperd and photo at the Sheepdog Memorial.

The name of statue dog was Friday and your kids will like the story: James Mackenzie was a Scottish shepherd turned sheep stealer. In 1855, with the help of his collie dog Friday, he drove flocks of sheep inland to avoid being found, and discovered the basin that now bears his name. Authorities were finally able to capture Mackenzie, but struggled to take control of the sheep due to his highly intelligent dog. The story goes that Friday continued to lead the sheep without its master. This bronze memorial to working sheep dogs was commissioned in 1968 by local farmers.

Day 4 - Tekapo -> Mt. Cook (1.5h)

  • Stopover: Lake Pukaki.
  • We stayed at the Hotel Hermitage (where we also had dinner). With more time, there are many beautiful trails starting from the hotel, but we came here for the Hooker Valley Track.
  • Hooker Valley Track (3h). For us, this was an unforgettable experience and we saw our first iceberg ever when we got to the glacier.

Day 5 - Mt. Cook -> Queenstown

  • Stopover: High Country Salmon to understand what a salmon farm is.
  • Stopover: Puzzling World in Wanaka. Definitely worth it: we all loved it, and ended up spending here about 3 hours (the maze took a good 45 mins).
  • That Wanaka Tree: just a lonely tree in the lake that everybody photographs because it's got its own IG hashtag #thatwanakatree. Not worth it (but I took the picture anyway! 😂)
  • Arrived to Queestown and checked into our Airbnb "The Stable’s" by Nicole (made in an ex horse stable!): easy parking, just 10-minute walk to the centre and the owner is very helpful.

Day 6 - Skiing in Queenstown

  • Coronet Peak: we buy the ski passes in advance and it was fine (but it was a week/school). It was the kids' first time on the skies, so we got them a 2h private lesson: after lunch, the kids did an extra 2h on their own as the slopes are very kid-friendly and magic carpets make it easy for them to be completely independent.
  • Afternoon at The Luge: great for fun and view! Oliver had his own car and Emily shared a car with me.
  • Wooden-oven pizza at The Cow for dinner.

Day 7 - Queenstown

  • We had planned to take a day trip to Glenorchy, but needed a break from driving.
  • Walk around the centre (European vibes).
  • Coffee at the Bathhouse Restaurant at the lake and with a beautiful playground for the kids.
  • Kiwi Birdlife Park: in New Zealand we developed a love for birds. This centre is nice, but not our favorite: although they rescue injured birds and the presentation is informative and entertaining for kids, birds are in cages (we have been to many bird sanctuaries in NZ, so we weren't expecting that).

Day 8 - Queenstown -> Curio Bay (3:30h)

  • Stopover: Waipapa Point Lighthouse.
  • Stopover: Slope Point, southern most point in New Zealand.
  • Admire the trees along the road, they grow sideways because of the constant strong wind.
  • Our Airbnb in Curio Bay was incredible! Search "Tiroroa - our barn with an “extensive” view" hosted by Mark and Katherine.

Day 9 - Curio Bay

  • Petrified forest: this forest existed in the Jurassic (that’s right, when dinosaurs lived!). It’s an unbelievable experience to see full fossil tree trunks and being able to count the rings in the rock! Make sure you go at low tide and do visit the free exhibit in the cafe.
  • If it’s open and you eat fish, have lunch at Blue Cod Blue (we couldn’t, but it was the place Alex had picked).
  • At sunset (ask the cafe for the exact time) we went back to the petrified forest to see the very rare yellow-eyed penguins come back to the shore after a day at sea. They're far away, but our experience was unforgettable: the male and the female arrived onto the shore in different places, so they started calling and running towards each other until they finally met and hugged. I thought my heart was going to explode!

Day 10 - Curio Bay -> Dunedin (1:30h)

  • The drive is simply stunning through a ginormous rainforest!
  • Stopover: walk on New Haven Beach in Surat Bay, where we saw our first sea lion (in the bushes overlooking the beach).
  • Albatross Centre. The drive to get here is longer than expected, but absolutely stunning! You watch a short documentary that tells you the story of the centre and then the guide takes you up to the observatory (binoculars are provided).  
  • Our Airbnb in Dunedin was "Light ‘n’ sunny private cabin with harbour views" hosted by Keren and her lovely family.

Day 11 - Dunedin -> Oamaru (1:30h)

  • Stopover: Sandfly Bay (read full article with photos in recommended post below "Sandfly Bay with kids"). This bay stole our hearts. Do not leave Dunedin without coming here.
  • Have a cheese roll in Dunedin before getting on the road: the simplest things are the best ones!
  • Stopover: Moeraki Boulders. The tide was getting high, so we couldn’t reach them. We sat and watched the ocean, instead.
  • When we arrived to Oamaru the kids burnt off some energy at the gorgeous Steampunk Playground.
  • Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony: in the evening blue penguins and fur seals come back to the shore. What a privilege to witness!

Day 12 - Oamaru - Christchurch (3:20h)

  • Stopover: Tame Wallaby Park. 43 years ago Gwen (the Wallaby Lady) started saving wallabies imported in New Zealand for sport. This place is insane, and Gwen (75yo) will tell you all the stories!
  • Lunch on the way, we stopped in Timaru.
  • Back in Christchurch we visited Quake City: we liked it and learnt a lot, but it’s definitely expensive for what it is.
  • We wanted to be close to the playground the kids loved, so we stayed at the Crowne Plaza Christchurch.

Day 13 - Day trip to Akaroa (1h back and forth)

  • Boat tour with Akaroa Dolphins to see Hector Dolphins, the smallest dolphins in the world! Akaroa is surrounded by the remains of a volcano, so when you’re on the boat you’re actually IN the volcano.
  • Akaroa is a cute French town and it’s definitely worth a visit. The road to get here is veeery curvy (so longer than expected), I’d probably stay overnight.

Day 14 - Christchurch -> Kaikoura (2:30h)

  • Canterbury Museum: this is incredibly worth visiting (and free)! Please do find the exhibit about Fred and Myrtle Flutey, you'll be amazed. When we went, there was a temporary exhibit about the moon.
  • We had lunch at a close-by cafe called Bunsen and then drove to Kaikoura.
  • When we arrived in Kaikoura, we were too tired so we ordered pizzas in, but Encounter Cafe would have been our pick.

Day 15 - Kaikoura -> Picton

  • Breakfast at the Beach House Cafe (play corner, also good for lunch).
  • Boat tour to see humpback whales: we just picked the biggest tour (our preference would have been to do a Kaikoura Kayaks tour, but there was no availability). Whale watching can be boring, but our kids did great (make sure you have some snacks and card games). Seeing the “tail show” is a magical experience.
  • Drive to Picton. We wanted to do a stopover at The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, but were too tired.

Day 16 - Picton -> Wellington (3:30h)

  • Ferry across the Cook strait.
  • We loved our Airbnb in Wellington! "Art Stable: inner city boutique apartment" hosted by Allison.
  • Afternoon in Wellington: Cuba street, Cable Car, Botanic Gardens, Frank Kitts Park (great playground)

Day 17 - Wellington

  • Walk through the city. Wellington is famous for its thrift shops, if you’re into that!
  • Te Papa museum: Level 2 was our favorite, with many interactive activities about volcanos, earthquakes and NZ native animals. Take away one great lesson: don’t mess with ecosystems!

Day 18 - Wellington - Tauranga

  • Zealandia: way more beautiful than we expected, it’s got absolutely stunning nature, over 20 species of native birds, and we finally saw Takahe for the first time! Do get all the way to the dam!
  • Flight back to Tauranga.

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Educating for the long term, Montessori, multilingualism, and full-time traveling life.