NZ South Island: 3 family-friendly destinations you won’t want to miss

family walking up mountain

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted April 06, 2022

Creating a fun itinerary that suits the whole family can be a challenge when travelling to some destinations. Not so on New Zealand’s South Island, where there are so many exciting adventures that every taste and every age range is catered to.

Here are the top three South Island destinations for that perfect family vacation. 

New Zealand's best family-friendly activities on the South Island

Tahuna, Queenstown

As the Adventure Capital of the World, Tahuna Queenstown is a playground for the whole family, set against one of New Zealand’s most spectacular backdrops. A prime way to experience that awe-inspiring backdrop is by whizzing past the mountains and lake views on a zipline through the forest canopy.

Eco-tourism hosts, Ziptrek, offer four tours that start near the Skyline Gondola. For the apprehensive adventurer, choose the intro Moa tour. For the risk-taker, book the all-encompassing Kea adventure and whizz back to central Queenstown down the world’s steepest zipline.

The luge is another popular Queenstown attraction for the whole tribe. The kids will love the go karting action; the adults, the outstanding Queenstown view. If you’re an active bunch, walk the steep Tiki Trail to the luge track. Alternatively, the Skyline Gondola gets you there without exertion.

If anyone in your family is a Lord of the Rings fan, Queenstown and its surrounds have multiple filming spots to discover (or re-enact) those iconic scenes from the franchise. While you can DIY a road trip to see them all, a tour offers a more effortless day out.

Recreate the scenes from Isengard, Amon Hen, and Lothlorien Forest on this half-day adventure. Alternatively, this 4WD tour includes Lord of the Rings highlights and an opportunity to try panning for gold (and keep what you find).

For rainy/snowy days, the iFly, located in central Queenstown, offers the best bad-weather activity: indoor skydiving! Forget the terror of jumping 5,000 metres from a plane, this is a thrilling and safe way to try your hand at skydiving, and it’s suitable for everyone from five to 105. 


Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Credit: Miles Holden
Aoraki Mount Cook, Canterbury. Credit: Miles Holden


Only an hour from Queenstown through the Crown Ranges, Wanaka is a stunning alpine town nestled around New Zealand’s fourth-largest lake. Offering a more community-focused vibe than thrill-centric Queenstown, Wanaka has exceptional outdoor activities and quirky attractions that keep everyone in the family entertained.

Gateway to the majestic Southern Alps, Wanaka is a prime location for mountain-based activities. In summer, a 3-hour glacier hike to Rob Roy not only showcases the idyllic alpine scenery but offers an opportunity for a geography lesson as you walk to the foot of this 20,000-year-old glacier.

In winter, ski and board Wanaka’s Treble Cone ski field, the South Island’s largest resort. Ski on- and off-piste, book beginners in for lessons, and for the non-ski/boarders, send them off on an alpine gondola ride. For the truly gung-ho, why not book a 3-run heli-ski adventure?

Puzzling World is one of Wanaka’s most popular family-friendly attractions, testing the whole clan’s brainpower. Walk the huge maze, adjust your mind in the illusion rooms, and snap family selfies at Puzzling World’s unusual photo opportunities.

If you’d like to get out on the calm waters of Lake Wanaka, a 2-hour cruise to Mao Waho Island offers a scenic ride that’s also steeped in the history, geography, and culture of the island.

If you’re travelling with a selfie-addicted teen or tween, win brownie points by visiting Wanaka Lavender Farm. Here, 20 acres of lavender gardens, plus some adorable farm animals, present Instagrammable moments that’ll impress the friends back home. 


two men and a child feeding alpacas grass

Feed the animals in Wanaka. Credit: Miles Holden


If you’re looking for a more off-the-beaten-path destination that ticks a ton of Kiwi travel boxes – beautiful, unique, educational, fun – then add a stop to Tekapo to your South Island itinerary.

The small township of Tekapo has plenty of wow factor thanks to its starry night sky, a highlight of any visit here. Located in Aoraki Mackenzie Basin, Tekapo was the Southern Hemisphere’s first Dark Sky Reserve. Reserve status is given to areas of the world where the light pollution is so minimal that exceptionally clear night skies are the norm.

While you only need to look up to be bedazzled by Tekapo’s night sky, a guided tour at the Mount John Observatory amplifies your experience, plus it adds an educational element from the informative guides. The night sky is central to the Māori understanding of the world. If you’d like to discover more about Māori astronomy, book a tour with Dark Sky Project.

Also in Tekapo is the Tekapo Springs Hot Pools. Along with housing three lake-shaped pools, saunas, a day spa, and an aqua play area, the views of the spectacular turquoise hues of Lake Tekapo and the Two Thumb mountain range enhance your visit.

Aoraki Mount Cook is only an hour from Tekapo and a worthwhile detour. Glacier kayaking is an idyllic introduction to the country’s longest glacier. As too is flying over craggy Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, in a ski plane.

Visit each of these destinations independently, or weave them together to create a comprehensive family-focused itinerary. If you return to Queenstown, the total drive time is 7.5 hours (including Mount Cook); it’s 8 hours if you continue from Tekapo to Ōtautahi Christchurch. 

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