This action-packed, two-week South Island itinerary offers a wealth of wildlife and nature-based experiences that families will enjoy, whether the kids are toddlers or teens. Swim with (or just look at) rare dolphins near Christchurch, explore mountainous farmland in the Southern Alps, see colonies of albatross and penguins near Dunedin, take a glowworm tour in Te Anau, and see the great outdoors in Queenstown with luging and jet boating adventures.


  • Swim with dolphins in Akaroa
  • Go stargazing in an International Dark Sky Reserve
  • See albatross and penguins on the Otago Peninsula
  • Enjoy adventure sports in Queenstown

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Christchurch, Bus Tour, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 2 Punting, Gondola, Māori Experience & Kiwi Tour Christchurch
Day 3 International Antarctic Centre, Drive to Akaroa Akaroa
Day 4 Swim with Dolphins, Evening Penguin Tour Akaroa
Day 5 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Dark Sky Project Summit Experience Lake Tekapo
Day 6 Braemar Station Backcountry Tour, Tekapo Springs Lake Tekapo
Day 7 Drive to Dunedin, Explore Dunedin City Dunedin
Day 8 Otago Peninsula Cruise, Larnach Castle & Penguin Place Dunedin
Day 9 Drive to Te Anau via Invercargill, Explore Te Anau Te Anau
Day 10 Milford Sound Tour Te Anau
Day 11 Drive to Queenstown, Kiwi Park, Gondola & Buffet Dinner Queenstown
Day 12 Gondola & Luge, Dart River Jet Boat Safari Queenstown
Day 13 TSS Earnslaw Cruise & Farm Tour Queenstown
Day 14 Depart New Zealand  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch, Bus Tour, Historic Tram Dinner

Enjoy a four-course meal on the Christchurch Dinner Tram
Enjoy a four-course meal on the Christchurch Dinner Tram

Welcome to New Zealand! Your driver will be waiting at Christchurch Airport to transfer you to your hotel. Take some time to settle in before heading out to explore Christchurch. Depending on your arrival time, taking the hop-on hop-off bus tour is a great way of easing into the city. If you and your kids are tired from the flight, you can stay on the bus and enjoy the sights or get off wherever you like to explore. The bus goes past Cathedral Square, the Botanic Gardens, the Spanish-style buildings of New Regent Street, the Avon River / Ōtākaro, and other attractions.

In the evening, if your kids don't need to go to bed early, enjoy an elegant dinner in a historic tram that makes the rounds of central Christchurch's top attractions. Sit back and relax as you enjoy the views while being served a welcome drink followed by a gourmet four-course meal. 

Day 2: Punting, Gondola, Māori Experience & Kiwi Tour

Go punting on the Avon River / Ōtākaro

After a good night's sleep, you and your kids should be ready to experience three of Christchurch's iconic attractions in one day: the gondola, the tram, and punting on the Avon River / Ōtākaro. The historic tram is a delightful way to explore the inner city, especially if you didn't make it to the tram dinner on your first night. Enjoy a bird's-eye view of Christchurch and the Canterbury region, including the distant peaks of the Southern Alps, from the gondola ride to the top of Heathcote Valley. Punting on the river takes you through the city's green belt—a relaxing way to explore what is affectionately known as the "Garden City."

Later, learn more about the Indigenous Māori culture at the Ko Tāne Living Māori Village at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Begin with a guided kiwi tour of the reserve to see the rare and elusive animals. Following this, enjoy the Māori cultural performance, in which you will be entertained with a kapa haka performance. Your kids can have a go twirling poi (soft balls on the end of strings), and you can all tuck into a four-course hāngī dinner of meat and vegetables cooked in an underground pit.

Day 3: International Antarctic Centre, Drive to Akaroa

Explore the natural beauty of the Banks Peninsula

This morning, pick up your car for the self-driving portion of your trip. This will give you the flexibility to stop whenever you or your kids need. Before leaving Christchurch, head to the International Antarctic Centre, located at the airport, to learn about life in this remote region that neighbors New Zealand. The center has a range of interactive experiences that kids will love: see if you can survive an Antarctic storm, learn what it's like to work on the ice, and get up close to huskies and blue penguins.

Make the short (1.5-hour) trip to Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula, which offers a great contrast to busy Christchurch. Pass rolling green hills, streams, golden-sand beaches, and small settlements along the way. The Banks Peninsula is the remains of a long-extinct volcano. In 1840, French colonists settled in Akaroa in a bid to stake a claim for the South Island. They lost control to the British, but, to this day, Akaroa retains its French street names and culture. The Akaroa Harbour is teeming with wildlife, which you'll see in the following days.

Day 4: Swim with Dolphins, Evening Penguin Tour

Spot Hector's dolphins in Akaroa Harbour

New Zealand's only native dolphin, Hector's dolphin, lives in the sheltered Akaroa Harbour. Take a 2.5-hour boat tour to see the dolphins, and if your kids are strong swimmers and like the idea, your family can swim with them. Swimming with dolphins is not always possible so warn your kids about this, so they're not disappointed, but there's a very high chance you'll at least see the rare dolphins.

In the evening, visit Pohatu, the largest Australasian little penguin colony on mainland New Zealand. Much work has gone into protecting the endangered white-flippered penguins from introduced predators. Join a guided tour to view these birds in their natural habitat. Ask your kids to remain quiet so you can observe the birds returning from hunting at sea. You'll all enjoy seeing the cute creatures waddle up to their nests.

Day 5: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Dark Sky Project Summit Experience

Dark Sky Project Summit Experience
Look to the stars at the Dark Sky Project Summit Experience
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Today, travel into the heart of the South Island. Cross the vast Canterbury Plains and into Mackenzie Country on this scenic route. Passing through places such as Beautiful Valley, it's easy to understand where the names originated. Ascend Burkes Pass onto the high-country plateau and to the picturesque town of Lake Tekapo. Take your time and stop wherever your family needs along this scenic route: Geraldine is a handy spot, as is Burkes Pass. The journey will take around 3.5 hours, nonstop.

In the evening, travel to the Mount John Observatory above the village to learn about the southern sky using telescopes and even just your eyes. Your guide will point out the Milky Way Galaxy, Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri, and Sirius—one of the brightest visible stars. Learn about neighboring galaxies, such as the Magellanic Clouds, and constellations like Orion the Hunter and Scorpius. See star clusters like the Jewel Box, awe-inspiring planets, nebulae, clouds of gas and dust, and distant galaxies, which will spark your kids' imagination.

Day 6: Braemar Station Backcountry Tour, Tekapo Springs

Explore Lake Tekapo

Get off-road today on an exciting backcountry tour. The broad Mackenzie Basin is known for its sheep farming, and one of the best ways to experience it is in a 4WD vehicle. Going with a driver means you'll have access to the private Braemar Station, a working farming outpost for sheep, beef, cattle, and deer. Throughout the day, you'll enjoy views of Aoraki / Mount Cook, Mount Tasman, Lake Pukaki, and the Ben Ohau mountain range. Kids will love looking out for the various farm animals.

Later in the day, spend some time relaxing at Tekapo Springs, with its thermal pools, sauna rooms, and views of Mount John and Lake Tekapo. Dip into various pools, ranging in temperature from 96°F (36°C) to 104°F (40°C) and equipped with massage jets and fountains. Kids of all ages can enjoy the Aqua Play Area, with a shallow pool and interactive water jets, fountains, and showers.

Day 7: Drive to Dunedin, Explore Dunedin City

Kids will love Lake Pukaki

Drive from Lake Tekapo to coastal Dunedin today. The journey takes 3.5 hours, but there are several stunning stops to choose from en route. First, travel alongside stunning Lake Pukaki. On a fine day, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the lake and into Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Back on the main road, it's a short drive to Mount Cook Village and Twizel, where movie buffs will recognize the many "The Lord of the Rings" filming locations. A little farther is Ōmarama, where you can take a break at the Wrinkly Rams Café and watch an informative sheep-shearing demonstration.

Emerge at the coast at Oamaru, the Steampunk Capital of New Zealand! Check out Steampunk HQ, an off-beat art gallery, which will probably amuse older kids. A bit farther south, the 65-million-year-old Moeraki Boulders are a unique geological feature and worth the short detour to the beach to view.

Arrive in Dunedin and take some time to get settled after the drive. The central-city Octagon is a good place to grab some lunch. Founded by Scottish settlers in the 1840s, Dunedin is full of grand Gothic Revival architecture and is home to the country's oldest university. Head to the Dunedin Botanic Gardens in North Dunedin for a gentle walk after your day of driving. This Garden of International Significance is home to more than 6,800 plant species as well as wild native bellbirds, wood pigeons, and tui. Parents can admire the flora and fauna while kids have a run around the large grounds.

Day 8: Otago Peninsula Cruise, Larnach Castle & Penguin Place

See rare yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place

Today you'll explore the wildlife and history of the Otago Peninsula. Board the MV Monarch for a wildlife cruise around Taiaroa Head, home to the world's only mainland nesting site for royal albatross. Scattered along the rocks, you'll also see fur seals basking in the sun and possibly sea lions on the beach. In the water, you may also see penguins, dolphins, and other marine birds. Kids will love the variety of wildlife they will see.

Back on land, take a guided tour of New Zealand's only castle, Larnach Castle, built in 1871. Learn about the castle's scandals and history, and explore the beautiful Garden of International Significance. Your final stop of the day is Penguin Place, a natural nesting site for the rarest penguin in the world, the yellow-eyed penguin. It's the world's first entirely tourism-funded conservation program, so your visit will really make a difference in supporting these special birds.

Day 9: Drive to Te Anau via Invercargill, Explore Te Anau

Kids can enjoy playing on the shore of Lake Te Anau

Drive inland again today to Te Anau, but rather than immediately turning west, take the scenic coastal route via Invercargill and Southland. Go through the gorgeous Catlins area, and be sure to take a detour to Kaka Point to view its majestic cliffs and pounding surf. Continue through Invercargill to Riverton and Colac Bay, where your kids might like to watch the surfers, and then head north to Manapouri before reaching Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park.

Te Anau rests on the shores of the 133 square mile (345 sq km) lake of the same name, with an impressive depth of 1,368 feet (417 m). Depending on your time of arrival in Te Anau, kids over five will love taking a Te Anau Glowworm Caves tour. This starts with a cruise across Lake Te Anau. Your guide will take you along a limestone pathway, pointing out whirlpools, intricate rock formations, and a staggering underground waterfall. Board a small boat to glide through the darkness, surrounded by the blue-white pinpricks of thousands of glowworms. 

Day 10: Milford Sound Tour

Admire the views at Milford Sound

Leave your car behind today and let someone else do the driving so you can fully enjoy the views on the way to Milford Sound. After leaving Te Anau, you'll enter Fiordland National Park. Stop in the Eglinton Valley to check out the amazing views; the valley follows the path of an ancient glacier through Fiordland. Kids can stretch their legs on the next stop, at the Mirror Lakes, where you'll take a short stroll to see the famous reflections of the Earl Mountains. You'll see other lakes, rivers, and mountains along the way, as you travel higher in altitude and deeper into the Darran Mountains.

Kids will love traveling through the incredible hand-built Homer Tunnel through the mountains (and parents might feel a bit nervous!) There are no lights in the tunnel except those from vehicles traveling through. Emerging from the tunnel, the valley descends sharply toward Milford Sound. On a rainy day, see hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the mountainside.  

Board a small cruise boat at Milford Sound. As well as the personalized service of a small-group tour, a small boat is ideal for getting close-up views of wildlife (such as fur seals basking on the rocks) and waterfalls tumbling from the forested mountains. If it's raining, your kids are sure to enjoy getting wet, as cruises get quite close to the waterfalls. Marvel at awe-inspiring Mitre Peak, Milford Sound's iconic steep triangular peak that rises high above the reflective waters of the sound. After the cruise, return to Te Anau along the same road but making different stops to keep everyone interested.

Day 11: Drive to Queenstown, Kiwi Park, Gondola & Buffet Dinner

Views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

Today you'll cross vast tussock lands on your way to Queenstown, a journey of about two hours. Pass through Mossburn, the deer capital of New Zealand, where kids will like the large deer sculpture. Continue through the Southland countryside, where the road begins to hug the lake edge, and the Remarkables mountain range towers above you as you approach the adventure capital of New Zealand, Queenstown.

On the shores of Lake Wakatipu in the Southern Alps, Queenstown offers a range of gentle and not-so-gentle outdoor activities. Start with an activity that everyone will enjoy: a visit to Kiwi Park Queenstown. See kiwis and up to 20 other native birds and reptiles—including the tuatara—at this breeding sanctuary. You can also catch live conservation shows, too.

Before dinner tip: ride the Skyline Gondola high above the city. Kids will love the ride in the small carriages, and parents can appreciate the views of the town, lake, and mountains beyond from the top. Treat yourself to a sumptuous dining experience at Skyline's Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar at the top of the gondola. The signature buffet dining experience offers something for every member of the family, from locally sourced wild meats to seasonal vegetarian dishes and a delectable dessert bar. Watching Queenstown's lights come on below as the sun sets is a magical experience.

Day 12: Gondola & Luge, Dart River Jet Boat Safari

Queenstown Luge
Queenstown Luge

Head back up the gondola again for a morning of adventure, riding down the peak's two hilltop luge tracks. Kids (and parents) will love feeling like the Jamaican bobsled team as they zoom along the twisting track. Older, taller kids can ride solo, while younger ages can sit with their parents.

Later, ages five and over can journey deep into the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park for another thrilling adventure. Experience a unique combination of breathtaking scenery and an exhilarating ride as you follow the braided, glacier-fed rivers by jet boat, with exciting 360-degree spins along the way. Your guides will talk about the area's rich history, the greenstone trail, and countless Māori legends. You'll also get the chance to step off the boat and into ancient beech tree forests, which you may recognize from "The Lord of the Rings." 

Day 13: TSS Earnslaw Cruise & Farm Tour

TSS Earnslaw
 The TSS Earnslaw

After the active adventures of the previous day, kids and adults will enjoy the more chilled-out activities of today while still getting the chance to go outside and burn off energy. Take a cruise across beautiful Lake Wakatipu aboard the historic TSS Earnslaw. Stop at the Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you can savor a gourmet meal lakeside while soaking up the alpine scenery and colonial-era atmosphere of the homestead. After you've eaten, wander the beautiful gardens, or admire the skill of sheepdogs at work during a farm demonstration.

After returning to Queenstown, spend your last afternoon and evening at leisure. You could walk along the paved shores of Lake Wakatipu, rent bicycles or kayaks, or browse the upmarket boutiques in the town center.

Day 14: Depart New Zealand

Goodbye Queenstown!

It's time to leave Queenstown. Depending on your flight time, you may have time to do some last-minute activities in Queenstown, especially as the trip to the airport is short. Families with younger kids might want to check out the fun outdoor playground outside the Novotel Hotel, or those with older kids could head to Thrillzone, a great rainy-day attraction that includes escape rooms, virtual reality experiences, and even UV mini golf. Drop your rental car off at the airport before departing. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

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


Map of New Zealand Family Nature & Wildlife Tour: Christchurch to Queenstown - 14 Days
Map of New Zealand Family Nature & Wildlife Tour: Christchurch to Queenstown - 14 Days