New Zealand’s northern nirvana

by Kirsty Russell

New Zealand is the perfect destination for families wanting to dip their toes into international travel. We chose New Zealand for our first overseas odyssey with our kids for several important reasons:

  1. It’s a short flight from Australia.
  2. There’s no language barrier.
  3. We’d be able to self-drive and choose our own itinerary.
  4. It was familiar, as I’d travelled their previously.
  5. It has cultural similarities to Australia.
  6. It’s safe.
The stunning backdrop of this photo is Taupo’s Huka Falls. Credit: Kirsty Russell.

While New Zealand was the ideal option for our first overseas adventure, it was still a huge leap of faith for us. Travelling with three kids – two of whom are autistic – tested our planning and perseverance. I can remember feeling physically ill the night before the flight and hardly getting any sleep because I was so anxious about it. I was literally terrified! I had no idea how the kids were going to cope with the confines of the plane, the pre-packaged food, the air-pressure changes or being so close to strangers. The fear of everything going wrong, with no chance of escape, was very real – and that was just the flight! However, our trip to New Zealand ended up being one of our best holiday experiences. 

A view from the summit of Rangitoto Island after a solid climb. Credit: Kirsty Russell

We kept to the North Island for ease of travel and for familiarity; I had travelled there before. We decided to self-drive and base ourselves for a few days in a few locations to avoid continuous travel. In the end, we spent 3 nights in Auckland, 3 nights in Taupo, a single night in Napier and ended with 3 nights in Wellington. Making the decision to limit our destinations was the right one. It meant the kids could relax and it allowed us to pace ourselves and have easy days when needed, helping us all to rest, recharge and recover. 

There were many highlights on our family friendly New Zealand adventure. Here’s a taste of what we loved most about the fascinating North Island.

Auckland

Despite being challenged by lost luggage, missing car seats and unconfirmed tour bookings in our first 24 hours there (it was not the start to our holiday we were hoping for!), we enjoyed our stay in cosmopolitan Auckland. Featuring harbour views and lots to do, our family enjoyed exploring the city on foot, experiencing the best of this accessible city.

One of our highlights was taking the ferry to Rangitoto Island, one of the ‘newest’ islands in Auckland Harbour. The ferry ride provided a unique view of the city from the water before we explored the island’s volcanic past. The highlight for us was securing our own sample of volcanic rock from one of the cooled lava flows on the island.

A trip to the Auckland War Memorial Museum was another highlight – it introduced us to New Zealand’s rich history. Meanwhile, the Weird and Wonderful Discovery Centre was a hands-on mecca, keeping the kids out of mischief while secretly educating them at the same time.

Checking out the view from Auckland’s Sky Tower was also a high point for us… literally! On clear days, you can see as far out as 80km from the main viewing platform. One of its most famous features is its glass floor, which allows you to look down onto the street below. It’s great for thrillseekers but not so great for those who fear heights (like my poor middle daughter).

Posing on the way up to the Rangitoto summit. Credit: Kirsty Russell

Taupo

After staying in a self-contained unit in Auckland, we spread out in a holiday park cabin when we stopped in the resort town of Taupo. Located on the northern end of Lake Taupo, the town is in the heart of the geothermal region of the North Island, an hour south of Rotorua.

The kids loved the freedom of the caravan park, especially having a dip in the thermal spring hot tub. With a jumping pillow, playground and kids’ activities, they were able to decompress, stretch out and enjoy being on holidays. After a morning out exploring, it was a relief to head back to the cabin, knowing it could meet all our kids’ sensory needs.

While in Taupo, we soaked in views of the magnificent lake, which sits in a massive volcanic caldera. Huka Falls, where the mighty Waikato River churns onto rocks before taking an 11m drop, was a spectacular sight. We also spent a fascinating afternoon at the Volcanic Activity Centre, which features an earthquake simulator and other interactive activities.

We took a daytrip north to Rotorua, via the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, to see the heart of New Zealand’s geothermal region for ourselves. While the pools and geysers are stunning, the sulphuric odour that accompanies these wonders is overpowering. It was a rough day for my son – with no escape from the odour, he struggled with sensory overwhelm, which stole much of his enjoyment of the day. Nevertheless, it was an experience we’ll never forget.

The Volcanic Activity Centre is a great stop to add to your North Island itinerary. Credit: Kirsty Russell

Napier

Our solitary night in Napier was not enough! We stayed there to break up our trip south to Wellington, but we would’ve loved to have spent more time there to further explore this seaside city.

Located on the east coast of the North Island, Napier is famous for being the main centre in the Hawkes Bay wine region, as well as for its art deco architecture. Completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1931, the city was rebuilt in the style of the times, and this glorious architecture is still beautifully preserved today.

We loved exploring Marine Parade, home to a bike track, water fountains, playground, sunken gardens and the iconic Sound Shell, an art deco stage surrounded by a gorgeous colonnade. It was the perfect place for a late-afternoon outing, allowing the kids to let off some steam after the drive from Taupo and letting us soak up some of the town’s atmosphere.

Next time around, we’ll definitely stay longer to check out more of this wonderful city and its surrounds. There’s the National Aquarium to explore, MTG Hawkes Bay museum to visit, and the view from Bluff Point to appreciate. Napier is definitely worth adding to your itinerary!

Wellington

The capital city of New Zealand was the surprise packet of our holiday – it is a wonderful place to explore with kids. The CBD is mostly flat and easy to navigate on foot. There are playgrounds aplenty, cafes and eateries, and so many family friendly attractions to explore.

We loved walking along the harbourfront of Oriental Bay, with its restaurants, attractions and playgrounds. Riding the cable car to the botanic gardens perched high up overlooking the CBD gave us amazing views of the city and delivered us to the wonderful Carter Observatory. Home to Space Place, an interactive, educational place, the observatory also has a planetarium and telescopes to investigate the night sky.

Te Papa museum, right on the waterfront, was a favourite with our kids. This architecturally bold building houses some of the most interactive museum exhibits you’ll find anywhere, fun and free. We also loved checking out The Beehive, the most distinctive building in the parliamentary zone and home to New Zealand’s government. 

Weta Workshop, home to all things Middle-Earth, held us all spellbound. There are guided tours, props from the Lord of the Rings movies and the Weta Cave, which is more than just your average gift shop. If you happen to visit Wellington International Airport, you’ll encounter giant art installations above the food court featuring Gollum and other memorable LOTR characters too.

Wellington Zoo was another highlight. With hundreds of animals to meet, we spent half a day there and particularly enjoyed the Australian part of the zoo, with its roaming native animals. There’s a variety of places to eat and play areas to explore. My kids got a kick out of the oversize insect and reptile play equipment at the Playground Hub.

The crazy critters in the zoo playground! Credit: Kirsty Russell

Overall, our first overseas experience was a huge success. New Zealand opened our eyes to the benefits of travelling as an autism family, and we came home with more confidence and an increased desire to keep exploring the world. 

5 reasons our trip was a success

  1. Visual itineraries We created a travel story that laid out exactly what we expected to do each day, helping to manage expectations and anxiety.
  2. The right planning We made the effort to seek the kids’ input to engage them in the holiday, including asking for outing suggestions that incorporated their special interests.
  3. Noise-cancelling headphones Our kids didn’t even know that we had taken off – they were so absorbed in what they were listening to, with the help of their headphones! 
  4. Rest time Taking it slowly and not pushing too hard every day helped us manage anxiety and stress.
  5. Keeping a record The kids documented the holiday in their own way, which helped them better process their experiences there and back home.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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