This two-week New Zealand adventure is perfect for families who love wildlife and the outdoors. Starting at Wellington's groundbreaking nature sanctuary, head south through Kaikoura, Christchurch, Tekapo, Aoraki / Mount Cook, Wanaka, and Queenstown. Along the way, you'll climb glaciers, swim with dolphins, stargaze, whale watch, and have a whole lot of fun!


  • Dine on top of the world on Aoraki / Mount Cook's Tasman Glacier
  • Swim with dolphins and get up close to giant sperm whales
  • Stargaze at one of the world's few certified Dark Sky Reserves
  • Ride on one of the Southern Hemisphere's steepest gondolas

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Wellington, Cable Car & Carter Observatory Wellington
Day 2 Wētā Cave Workshop, Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Wellington
Day 3 Interislander Ferry, Drive to Kaikōura & Whale Watching Kaikōura
Day 4 Swim with Dolphins, Whale Watching Tour Kaikōura
Day 5 Drive to Christchurch, International Antarctic Centre Christchurch
Day 6 Akaroa & Harbor Cruise Christchurch
Day 7 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Hot Pools & Stargazing Lake Tekapo
Day 8 Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, Explore Mount Cook Village Mount Cook Village
Day 9 Glacier Explorers Expedition Mount Cook Village
Day 10 Drive to Wānaka, Explore & Hike, Lavender Farm  Wānaka
Day 11 Mou Waho Island & Puzzling World Wānaka
Day 12 Drive to Queenstown via Arrowtown Queenstown 
Day 13 Lake Cruise, Walter Peak Farm, Skyline Gondola & Luge Queenstown 
Day 14 Depart New Zealand  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Wellington, Cable Car & Carter Observatory

Ride the country's only running funicular for city views and access to the botanic gardens
Take a ride on the Wellington Cable Car

Welcome to New Zealand! Your self-drive adventure begins today. Pick up your vehicle at Wellington Airport and drive into the capital to begin exploring. Take a refreshing walk along the waterfront to Te Papa—with its highly interactive exhibitions, the museum is popular with all age groups. If you'd rather head out of town, the kids will love exploring one of the nearby sandy beach bays. Alternatively, take a two-hour round trip to Martinborough and enjoy a leisurely lunch in beautiful wine country.

For a fun afternoon, start with a ride on New Zealand's only remaining funicular railway, the Wellington Cable Car (make sure to keep an eye out for the artistic LED installation in the tunnel). After a five-minute ride, you'll reach the Kelburn Lookout—a fantastic spot for a few photographs—and the Cable Car Museum, which houses much of the original machinery. Stop for a quick break at the café nearby and take in the view.

Afterward, take a two-minute walk to Space Place at the Carter Observatory. Kids of all ages will love the digital planetarium and astronomical artifacts. If you feel like stretching your legs, walk back to the city through the lush Botanic Gardens. There's a playground on the way for the littlest ones and plenty more to see; visit one of the special exhibitions, or pause at one of the permanent highlights, such as the rose garden.

Day 2: Wētā Cave Workshop, Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary

New Zealand's "Living Fossil," the tuatara

Today is a treat for the Tolkien and movie fans in your family, with a tour through the famed Wētā Workshop. Visit the workshop's museum and see the characters, props, and sets from films such as "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings," "Furious 7," "The Legend of Zorro," and "Master and Commander." Watch artists at work on costumes and sets and see how fantasy comes to life. Marvel at the bigatures and miniatures for which the workshop is famous.

Later, take a trip up the hill from the central city and lose yourselves in the wildlife ecosanctuary, Zealandia. The kids will love the chance to meet tiny Maud Island frogs, tuatara, and other rare and captivating species—or, even better, book a memorable guided night tour and see who can spot kiwi, glowworms, and ruru (native owls) by torchlight! 

Day 3: Interislander Ferry, Drive to Kaikōura & Whale Watching

Girl surfing
Try surfing at Kaikōura

This morning, transport your family on one of the world's most scenic ferry rides as you travel (with your car) on the Interislander to the South Island. Keep an eye out for New Zealand's oldest lighthouse on Pencarrow Head and enjoy the companionship of dolphins and sea birds as you cross the Cook Strait. Pass through the stunning Marlborough and Queen Charlotte Sounds before arriving at Picton.

After you arrive, head toward the sunny wine-producing region of Marlborough. Stop off to sample some products, or, if you wish, take a guided wine tour, then head onward to the spectacular Kaikōura Coast, where you can regularly view seabirds and fur seals. Continue the scenic drive between the Pacific Ocean and the ranges until you arrive in Kaikōura township itself. 

Once in Kaikōura, explore the beaches and town or take a 30-minute flight with Wings over Whales. Typically, you will see not only the magnificent sperm whale but also up to 500 dusky dolphins at play. It's also common to see an extraordinary variety of other whale and dolphin species, as well as fur seals. Enjoy views over Kaikōura Peninsula and township, including historic  (Māori fortified village) sites.

Day 4: Swim with Dolphins, Whale Watching Tour

Whale at Kaikoura
Whale watching in Kaikōura

For families with kids aged eight and over, take advantage of being in Kaikōura—one of the few places in the world where dolphins can be encountered every day—and head out snorkeling. You'll have a chance to interact with friendly dusky dolphins in a completely natural environment. Try your hand at a bit of dolphin singing and watch as they come closer to investigate! Families with younger kids over five might be interested in the non-swimming tour option.

If you didn't take the whale watching flight yesterday (or if you want to see the gentle giants from a different perspective), this would be a great day to take a trip by catamaran. The main highlights are the giant sperm whales, but you'll also see fur seals, dolphins, and other whale species depending on the season—maybe even blue whales or migrating humpbacks. Keep your camera ready for that perfect shot!

Day 5: Drive to Christchurch, International Antarctic Centre

Take a Christchurch City tram tour

This morning, drive south to Christchurch through the well-known Waipara Valley wine region as well as classic sheep farming country. If you have time, stop off at Hanmer Springs to check out the thermal pools. Once in the city, take the kids punting on the Avon River / Ōtākaro, led by a guide in Edwardian costume, or see the city center from a 19th-century tram. 

Later on, visit the International Antarctic Centre. Watch as this remote region comes to life for you and the kids—through the interactive exhibitions, you can learn how to survive an Antarctic storm and work on ice, handle a husky, and care for a little blue penguin. Round the trip off with an adventure of your choice in the 4D cinema.

Day 6: Akaroa & Harbor Cruise

Akaroa Lighthouse and Harbor

Spend your day in Akaroa, a quaint French-origin settlement. Encircled by magnificent scenery, the town has plenty to offer families. Wander through its museum, art and craft shops, and studios, or head slightly out of town to walk the Children's Bay animal sculpture path, stop off at an alpaca farm, or hang out at the beach. Back in town, have lunch at the Giant's House and enjoy an al fresco coffee while the kids explore the mosaic-filled gardens.

Afterward, take a cruise from the wharf to see Hector's dolphins, little blue penguins, New Zealand fur seals, and native birds, or put a historical spin on it with a tour by vintage sailing boat. In the evening, try a family-friendly penguin tour. Start by feeding the homestead's sheep before dressing in camouflage and sneaking out to the hides to try and spot penguin chicks feeding—tons of fun for the kids!

Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 7: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Hot Pools & Stargazing

Stargaze at Lake Tekapo

This morning, head for Lake Tekapo. Break up the drive by visiting the Cheese Factory at Barry's Bay, the Little River Art Gallery, or Vince's Gem Stone Museum. Geraldine is a great place to stop for lunch, with plenty of family-friendly choices. Once you arrive, head to Tekapo Springs for an afternoon of relaxation in the saunas and thermal pools. There's an Aqua Play Area for the kids, too, with a shallow pool and interactive water jets, fountains, and showers. 

Tekapo is one of the world's best places for stargazing (it's an International Dark Skies Reserve), so grab the opportunity to give your family an astronomical night to remember. Book one of the tours and enjoy a viewing platform equipped with state-of-the-art telescopes and binoculars. Your guide will help you spot constellations, planets, the Milky Way, and other far-away galaxies. All is not lost if the weather is cloudy— tours of an indoor digital planetarium are also available.

Day 8: Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, Explore Mount Cook Village

Mt Cook
Hike in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Take the spectacular drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook this morning. Passing Lake Pukaki, you'll be rewarded with views the full length of the lake and into the national park, so take a brief break at the lookout and put your camera to work. From the Visitor Centre at the southern end of the lake, you can often get great views of the mountain, which, at 12,316 feet (3,754 m), is New Zealand's highest.

At Mount Cook Village, visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre to learn more about the region and the center's namesake, New Zealand's most illustrious alpine climber. Stop for lunch at the Hermitage Hotel Complex and then choose from one of the many hiking options. There's something for all ages and timeframes, from the 10-minute Bowen Bush Walk to the four-hour Hooker Valley roundtrip—the Visitor Centre can help you work out the best option for your family. 

Day 9: Glacier Explorers Expedition

Tasman Lake
Tasman Lake

Today is all about exploring the spectacular Tasman Glacier, with a couple of experiences certain to captivate the whole family. Begin with a boat trip around the glacier lake to see 500-year-old icebergs up close. As you gaze up at the towering ice cliffs, your guide will point out the key landmarks. If you are fortunate, you may even see the glacier "calving" as an iceberg breaks away.

Later in the day, take a 35-minute scenic helicopter flight over the national park, flying around the top of the mountain for views right out to the Tasman Sea. You will land on the Tasman Glacier itself and experience standing with 2,000 feet (600 m) of ice beneath you—unforgettable! Extend your trip by 20 minutes and take the gourmet lunch option to enjoy a one-of-a-kind glacial picnic.

Day 10: Drive to Wānaka, Explore & Hike, Lavender Farm

Kayaking on Lake Whakatipu
Kayaking on Lake Wānaka

A scenic drive awaits you today, from Twizel (a "The Lord of the Rings" location), over the 3,185-foot (971 m) Lindis Pass, and through the tussock-covered hills marking your descent into Central Otago. Break your trip at Ōmarama's Wrinkly Rams Café to see a sheep shearing demonstration, and pause later for lunch in the quaint village of Tarras. As you drive into Wānaka, you'll be awed by its stunning alpine lake and surroundings.

Take your pick of the many attractions for the rest of the day. Fishing, kayaking, and waterskiing are popular lake activities, and there are plenty of beach access points. One of New Zealand's premier ski destinations in winter, in summer, it is famous for its wonderful hiking. There are a couple of easy walks from town suitable for the whole family (try the Outlet or Mount Iron Tracks) or venture farther into Mount Aspiring National Park. The local information center can help you find the right option.

Round the day off with a relaxing visit to the Wānaka Lavender Farm, just a few minutes out of town. Surrounded by lavender fields, enjoy a walk through the gardens. While the kids feed the friendly farm animals, take a moment to enjoy a cup of herbal tea and sample the lavender and honey ice cream. Try the local Lakes Honey and browse the many lavender-based products made on-site.

Day 11: Mou Waho Island & Puzzling World

Puzzling World, Wanaka
Take the kids to Puzzling World, Wānaka

Take the kids on an exploration of Mou Waho Island nature reserve today. One of five islands in Lake Wānaka and currently an area of scientific research, the island was once the domain of shipbuilders, steamers, and log rafts. You can still see an old stone wharf and hut on the eastern side of the island. The most famous feature, though, is the lake within the lake, Arethusa Pool, also home to its own small island. Take the short walk up Tyrwhitt Peak for the best view.

This afternoon, tease the brains of both kids and adults with a trip to Puzzling World, one of "the world's weirdest attractions." Lose yourselves in the outdoor mazes and optical illusion rooms and enjoy the craziness of living walls, wave ceilings, stone carpets, and hanging waterfalls. Leave with the strangest set of selfies you have ever taken!

Day 12: Drive to Queenstown via Arrowtown

Old gold mining hut, Arrowtown

Although today's drive is comparatively short at about 1.5 hours, plan on taking a whole day for it. You'll be passing through some of New Zealand's most scenic country, so you'll want to allow time for spontaneous walks, photo opportunities, and that striking first glimpse of Lake Wakatipu. Start by driving along the Crown Range Road, New Zealand's highest main road. If you're lucky, you may even meet kea (mountain parrots) at one of the lookouts.

Take a break in Arrowtown for lunch. Most famous for its stunning autumn colors, it is a charming destination at any time of year, with both an old-world feel and plenty to do. Kids will love exploring the huts in the historic Chinese settlements (don't forget to check out the toilet!) or panning for gold on the river Arrow. There are also plenty of walking, swimming, and cycling options, as well as a maze and hot pools. From here, it's just a short drive to Queenstown.

Day 13: Lake Cruise, Walter Peak Farm, Skyline Gondola & Luge

Sheepdog working sheep
Watch a sheepdog working sheep

This morning, meet "The Lady of the Lake," the historic TSS Earnslaw, and let her take you on a cruise of the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Stop off at the Walter Peak High Country Farm and enjoy a gourmet lakeside meal, gazing out at alpine scenery from the comfort of a colonial-era homestead. The kids will love meeting the farm animals here—watching the sheepdog demonstration is a particular highlight.

After you're back on shore, take a trip up one of the steepest cable car lifts in the Southern Hemisphere, the Skyline Gondola. The panoramic views are spectacular, but the fun is only just starting. Depart the gondola and take a ride on the peak's two hilltop luge tracks, always a hit with the kids, before you catch the gondola or hike back down.

Day 14: Depart New Zealand

Jetboating Kawarau River
Jet boat on the Kawarau River
Sadly it's the last day of your trip. Depending on your flight, spend a bit more time exploring Queenstown. If the kids are older, take them jet boating on the Kawarau River, while younger ages will love a visit to the Kiwi Park wildlife refuge, where they can meet New Zealand's "living fossil," the tuatara. Don't miss the Kiwi Encounter! Afterward, drop your rental car at Queenstown Airport and prepare for your flight. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, explore other ways to spend two weeks with the family in New Zealand, or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.


Map of Nature-Packed New Zealand Family Road Trip: Wellington & the South Island - 14 Days
Map of Nature-Packed New Zealand Family Road Trip: Wellington & the South Island - 14 Days