Family-Friendly Road Trip: NZ South Island Coastal Road

Aerial shot of a car driving on island coastal road

2.69min read

Published 19 January 2017


Pass through mountainous terrain, heritage towns and natural forests as you traverse New Zealand's Southern Island from coast to coast in search of adventure, culture and the next memorable sight on the horizon. 

Days 1-2: Christchurch

Suburb on the beach side
The beachside suburb of Sumner is one of the most popular swimming spots for locals in the warmer months. (Image: Getty)

Sitting on the edge of the Canterbury Plains, Christchurch is the gateway to the Southern Alps. For now, check into Spencer Beach Holiday Park, which couples units and cabins with swimming pools, mini golf, volleyball, a flying fox and playground.

Explore the city down low on the tramway or with a leisurely walking tour, or get a bird's-eye view from the Crater Rim via the Christchurch Gondola.

Thrills can be found on the water in a high-speed jet boat or an inflatable raft as you pass Lord of the Rings scenery before battling unrelenting rapids.

Zip lines and treetop obstacle courses challenge and entertain at Adrenalin Forest, while Orana Wildlife Park brings you closer to the animals with giraffe feedings and a ride through the lion habitat.

Day 3: Greymouth

Pancake rocks by the beach
Be sure to stop at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks just north of Greymouth to see the blow holes and interesting rock formations. (Image: Getty)

Driving inland from Christchurch you're followed by farms and expansive fields that don't break the horizon until the sudden rise of the Southern Alps. The road is lined with eye-catching scenery that continues to spark conversation right through Arthur's Pass when the snow-tipped peaks bunch towards you.

Greymouth, a small, welcoming commune, is preceded by Shantytown. This recreated gold-mining town is a throwback to life in the 1860s with steam train rides and gold panning.

Greymouth Seaside Holiday Park's sea-view apartments, self-contained units and cabins are perfect for families. The award-winning holiday park also has a large playground, games room and beach access.

Greymouth is best used as a gateway to Paparoa National Park. The 40-minute drive north to Truman Track reveals a relatively easy walking trail that leads you through native forest out to the Tasman Sea.

Day 4: Haast

Swing bridge over river showing a mountain on the background
In Haast it's all about the great outdoors. Don't miss the Blue Pools Track, to see the clear glacial waters and epic scenery. (Image: Getty)

Today's drive is an eight-hour slog to Haast along the West Coast Highway and will require a fresh supply of snacks and entertainment for the backseat travellers.

Break up the trip with stops at Hokitika, home to glass-blowing and sculpture studios; Ross' colonial town with historic jail, bank and cottages; and Franz Josef Glacier, which almost reaches the coast.

These all help prepare you for Haast, one of New Zealand's best landing points for a nature excursion. Entertainment focuses on the wild, with river safaris, fishing and visits to seal and penguin colonies.

Look to Haast Lodge for affordable and cosy rooms close to restaurants, shops and a playground. Haast River Holiday Park is another viable option, thanks to its self-contained units, go-cart hire and games room.  

Days 5-6: Queenstown

Top shot of a town near the coast
Queenstown is full of family fun year round, from the snow fields for all levels to adrenaline sports, hiking and excellent food in town. (Image: Getty)

Follow the Haast River along the Haast Pass highway where more mountainous terrain awaits through Mount Aspiring National Park. As you break out of the rainforest, you're joined by two regal lakes that lead into Wanaka.

Wanaka is an adventurer's toy box with jet boating, horse riding, whitewater rafting and multiple ski fields nearby. The city also has a quirkier side that shines through at Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World.

Take time to enjoy this part of the South Island, but leave enough for Queenstown. Arguably the adrenalin-capital of New Zealand, Queenstown uses its surrounding mountains and lake to serve up blood-pumping experiences such as canyon swinging, ziplining and skiing.

Treat yourself to self-contained lakeside accommodation at the Esplanade or The Haddens. There's also the Queenstown Holiday Park Creeksyde if you'd rather spend money elsewhere or are planning to explore more of the South or North islands.  

Keep the peace with these family road trip tips:

  • Opt for self-catered apartments or resorts over fancy hotels. A stocked minibar can be a budget nightmare when tiny hands are involved.
  • Pack colouring books and plain paper for made-up games that don't rely on batteries.
  • Keep the music varied and remember headphones.
  • Invest in a portable DVD player or iPad. Movies can make the hours fly by.
  • Pack pillows for sleeping en route.
  • Sugar-free lollies are tasty and won't exaggerate the stir-crazies.
  • Play games that incorporate the scenery outside, such as I-Spy and 21 Questions.
  • Let the kids sleep in a separate room so you can stay up without keeping them awake.

This story first appeared in Travel Ideas Magazine.

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