Independent Families: 'Can small kids have fun in New Zealand?'

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The Independent Travel

Q. We are thinking of taking a long family holiday to New Zealand with our two children (who will be two and four) in the spring. We would like to base ourselves in two or three key areas to balance sightseeing with more relaxing days, perhaps staying in private houses or self-catering cottages. What advice can you offer for planning our trip? Are there companies that specialise in family-friendly travel - and don't charge the earth for it?
M Cowie, Derby

A. Four-year-olds don't bungee jump (though they'd probably like to, given the chance), so New Zealand isn't an obvious holiday choice for families with young children, particularly given the long flight there and back. However, there's more to the country than its reputation as a world leader in adrenalin sports. It has superb, clean beaches, rich Maori culture, low crime levels, a different breathtaking landscape round every corner, and more (non-poisonous) wildlife than you can shake a pair of binoculars at.

You've got two islands to choose from: the fertile, volcanic North Island, with the yachting centre of Auckland at its "winterless" top end, and arty Wellington, the capital, at the bottom. Or South Island, with a rich landscape of glacial rivers and lakes, riven by the snow-capped spine of the Southern Alps, and a rugged, fjord-dented coast populated by fur seals and sperm whales. Together, they are about the same size as the UK, but with only a smidgen of its population - so there's an awful lot of outdoors out there.

Plan your trip using Tourism New Zealand's excellent online travel planner: www.newzealand.com/travel. This has a huge, searchable database of destinations, events, activities and accommodation, and allows you to save relevant information into a personalised web page (alternatively, you can call the helpline on 090 6601 3601). It has a particularly good choice of accommodation, including the "home stays" you mention - private homes that take guests, a characteristic feature of Kiwi tourism.

Begin in the North Island, with a stay at Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula. It's a typically friendly small town, and many Kiwi families come here for their holidays - there are some 18 beautiful (and usually empty) beaches within a 30-minute drive. Local activities suitable for children include many easy bush-walks, cruising Whitianga's Marine Reserve in a glass-bottom boat, or going for a ride in the town's pony carriage. At Hot Water Beach you can make your own DIY spa bath by digging a hole in the sand above a thermal stream. The Mercury Bay Beachfront motel (00 64 7 866 5637; www.beachfrontresort.co.nz) has two-bedroom, ground-floor apartments (from NZ$170/£67 per night, self-catering), opening directly on to a large lawn with trampoline and Jacuzzi.

One hundred miles south is Taupo (00 64 7 376 0027; www.laketauponz.com), in the volcanic centre of North Island. It's a lively tourist town on New Zealand's largest lake, and a good base for day trips to see glow worms light up the caves of Waitomo, visit a replica Maori village near sulphurous Rotorua, or feed trout at Rainbow Springs Park. Stay at Paeroa in Acacia Bay (00 64 7 378 8449; www.taupohomestay.com), a comfy lakeside B&B with its own beach and just three guest bedrooms; rooms cost from NZ$225 (£88) per night and could accommodate all of you together.

Flying is the quickest way to South Island, using one of Air New Zealand's domestic routes (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk) - for instance, from Rotorua in the north to Queenstown in the south. Despite being the country's "adventure capital" (skydiving, jet-boating, rafting and, yes, bungee jumping) there's plenty to entertain small children: gazing at Lake Waikapu from an underwater viewing room, for instance, or riding up Bob's Peak on the Skyline gondola. You're also in reach of a giant maze at Puzzling World in Wanaka, or gentle wildlife-watching boat trips at Milford Haven.

Waihakamara Family Retreat (00 64 3 443 6846; www.waihakamara.co.nz) in Wanaka, an hour's drive north, would make a great base: four-star, ranch-style accommodation on an organic farm, with supervised children's activities such as donkey rides, treasure hunts and feeding the animals, plus a child-minding service and an adventure playground. Current rates are NZ$460 (£181) per night half-board for two adults and two children sharing a family suite.

There are no tour operators dedicated exclusively to family travel in New Zealand, but talk to New Zealand Travel Encounters (00 64 7 866 2250; www.nzencounters.com), as about 40 per cent of its customers are families. It has two well-thought-out, 14-day self-drive packages aimed at families with older children, starting at NZ$8,190 (£3,233) for two adults and two under-12s, including 4x4 hire, self-catering accommodation and escorted sightseeing. For independent travellers, it offers an itinerary planning service, recommending accommodation and activities to suit interests and budgets. For £200, you'll also get brochures, maps with highlighted routes, a personalised guidebook and 24-hour support during your trip.

Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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