By: Pooja Bakhshi
Pooja Bakhshi takes a self-driving, skydiving holiday with her family in New Zealand’s beautiful South Island.
I now consider myself to have entered the ranks of adventure travellers. Not because I went to New Zealand to bungee jump or sky dive, but because a 12-day self-drive holiday with 20-month-old twins is nothing short of an adventure. In fact, skydiving is probably easier than spending five hours in a car with two toddlers.
This was our second family vacation (the first, to Japan, was when the children were 14 months old, but that’s a story for another day), so we had no illusions about being able to see or do very much. Our goal was to take in the scenery and landscape of one of the most beautiful places in the world, leaving the adventure and activities for when the kids are older.
After researching on TripAdvisor forums, we planned our itinerary: we would fly from Singapore to Christchurch, then drive to Queenstown, stopping en-route at Lake Tekapo, Aoraki and Mount Cook, and Wanaka.
Friendly Kiwis and beautiful weather greeted us in Christchurch. The city is still reeling from the effects of the massive February 2011 earthquake. Cathedral Square was particularly hard hit; the 131-year-old, neo-Gothic Christchurch Cathedral had to be demolished. A transitional “Cardboard Cathedral” opened to the public in the second half of last year.
A trip to the Botanic Gardens (within Hagley Park) is a must for those with children. The twins loved running around on the open grounds, and were overjoyed to see ducks and birds everywhere.
We also took a trip to the Re:START mall, which marked a kick-start to the regeneration of the devastated city centre and has been built using shipping containers. Definitely worth a visit, and perhaps lunch inside one of the containers!
While there is plenty to see in Canterbury, we based ourselves in Christchurch and took two day-trips, the first of those to Akaroa and the Bays.
Akaroa, with its French and English history, is a beautiful little town that has an enormous range of activities to offer – cruises, kayaking, sail-boating, cycle tours and walking tracks. We were hoping to spot dolphins and penguins on the Nature Cruise, but it took us forever to get organised in the morning – often the case when travelling with children. By the time we reached Akaroa, the cruises had departed.
Instead of sailing, we walked. We were disappointed at missing out on the dolphins, but for the children, the seagulls sufficed. The twins thoroughly enjoyed jumping and walking along the wharf, watching and feeding the birds. We browsed the galleries and boutique shops and then walked into town to look at the charming buildings.
The walk worked up our appetite for a snack, and Akaroa’s waterfront restaurants are perfect to enjoy a flat white while watching sailboats out in the water.
Our second day-trip, to Arthur’s Pass, was less successful since we weren’t interested in navigating the walking tracks with kids in tow. Still, the scenery on the drive back was breathtaking – completely different from what we had seen driving in the other direction. A pair of parallel rainbows came into view, something the kids had only seen in books; the rainbow ends were so clearly visible, I considered going for the pot of gold.
The TranzAlpine train runs daily from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass; the ride is supposed to be one of the most scenic train trips in the world.
The name Tekapo derives from Maori words taka (sleeping mat) and po (night). Finely ground rock in the melted glacial waters gives the lake its unique turquoise colour.
The iconic Church of the Good Shepherd is a must-see in Tekapo. With the lake and surrounding mountains as its backdrop, it has become (arguably) the most photographed church in New Zealand.
Toddlers aren’t allowed to take the Twilight Stargazing Tour, so we had to give this a miss. Instead, we drove for 20 minutes up to Mount John Observatory the next morning – highly recommended for 360-degree views of the Mackenzie Basin. The glass-walled Astro Café atop Mount John is described by Lonely Planet as “possibly one of the planet’s best locations for a café”, so grab a cuppa while you’re there.
Mount Cook National Park is home to New Zealand’s longest glacier, the 27km Tasman Glacier. At 3,754 metres, the mountain is New Zealand’s highest. There are 27 other mountains in this alpine backbone which peak at over 3,050 metres, and hundreds of others, together making up the famous Southern Alps. Add to these, the amazing colours of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki nearby, and we decided that this was the perfect backdrop for a helicopter ride.
We were not disappointed. Flying over the clouds, literally, was one of the best experiences of my life. The 45-minute flight (extremely expensive: $415 per adult) takes you over all three glaciers (Fox, Franz Josef and Tasman) and includes a snow landing. Toddlers are allowed on; but despite the kid-sized earphones, the helicopter noise can be unsettling, so it might be wise to carry along a favourite toy (or an iPhone). My usually fearless daughter was teary during the entire ride.
Another spectacular place, Wanaka was the highlight of our vacation. Our stylish two-bedroom apartment at Criffel Peak View had lovely vistas of the mountains, and our balcony was the perfect place to enjoy a glass (or three) of wine. Caroline and Suzie, excellent hosts, welcomed us with fresh home-baked cookies.
When my husband brought up the topic of skydiving, Caroline lost no time in getting on the phone. Luckily, Skydive Wanaka was able to accommodate our requirement of diving separately the next day, so that we could take turns watching the kids.
The next morning, we woke up to a beautiful day, and a quick weather check confirmed that conditions were perfect. So, with the plane soaring at 12,000 feet, I jumped out (maybe I was pushed?). After the first few terrifying seconds of free fall, I was able to force a smile for the camera. And then the magic happened, the parachute opened and I was floating peacefully over Wanaka with incredible views of lake and mountains. Beats flying in a helicopter any day! My husband, who dived an hour later, agreed.
Afterwards, we visited Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World, a unique attraction specialising in eccentricity. On Caroline’s recommendation, we also drove to the picturesque Rippon Vineyard, the most photographed vineyard in the world.
The next morning, we enjoyed a yummy breakfast of Caroline’s blueberry pancakes in peace, thanks to Suzie who took the twins out to play with the cat.
In winter, Wanaka offers New Zealand’s best skiing and snowboarding options; National Geographic calls it one of the world’s 25 best ski towns.
Adventure Capital of the World is a title well deserved by Queenstown, home to adventure activities like skydiving, bungee jumping, white-water rafting and jet boating.
Yet there is plenty for those not seeking adventure. The Skyline Queenstown complex offers lots of family fun, including a gondola trip, Maori cultural performances and a luge ride. While I was perfectly happy sipping coffee and enjoying the views from the scenic restaurant, my husband decided to go paragliding – he immensely enjoyed it and commented how easy it was “for someone with sky-diving experience”.
For more family fun, a ride to the Walter Peak High Country Farm aboard the 100-year-old TSS Earnslaw (built in the same year as the Titanic) is in order. Walter Peak is a working farm on the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Although the ship is nothing spectacular, you can visit the engine room to see the giant steam engines at work. The twins loved the ride, especially being out on the deck. The farm had sheep, dogs, alpacas, red deer, Scottish Highland cattle and other animals; the twins enjoyed feeding the sheep and the deer. This was followed by a lovely morning tea and then watching ducks on the shore.
Don’t forget the wineries of this region. Central Otago is famous for pinot noir, which represents 70 percent of all plantings here. Queenstown and nearby Gibbston Valley are home to over 75 wineries – we visited three. Gibbston Valley Winery offers a wine-tasting tour through New Zealand’s largest and most innovative wine cave. We also visited Chard Farm and Peregrine Wines, located within a few minutes of each other. I’m mostly a red wine drinker, but I loved Peregrine’s rosé and bought a bottle to enjoy later.
On the way back to Queenstown, we stopped at the site of the world’s first bungee, at Kawarau Bridge. The bungee was closed so we walked to the bridge. As I looked down, I decided that sky-diving would have to suffice for this lifetime.
Our last morning was perhaps the most relaxing of our trip. After lunch near the wharf, we enjoyed a glass each of the rosé while watching a Kiwi teenager dance to “Gangnam Style”. By some miracle, the twins napped peacefully in their stroller. The weather was cool and sunny and perfect for lazing around on the lush green grass – sipping wine, watching the ships out on the lake and the paragliders in the skies. Having lived in Singapore for eight years, this was a fairly rare experience.
Singapore Airlines flies daily from Singapore to Christchurch. The 10-hour flight departs at 7.45pm, perfect for a toddler to get some sleep. The return flight departs Christchurch at 11.55am. There are no direct flights from Singapore to Queenstown. SIA flies to Queenstown via Christchurch or Auckland. British Airways and Qantas fly via Sydney.
Where to stay
Criffel Peak View, Wanaka
We paid $250SG/$1535HK a night for a spacious, well-equipped apartment ($1,600SG/$9826HK per week in the winter ski season).
Garden Court Suites and Apartments, Queenstown
We paid $180SG/$1105HK a night for a quality one-bedroom apartment
• If you’re hiring a car, book car seats in advance. Ask for ones that recline well so the kids can nap comfortably during the long drives.
• When driving in Christchurch, get directions from the hotel before you leave. Some roads are still closed, so GPS can be pretty useless.
• Most places we visited had vegetarian food options. In fact, from a vegetarian’s perspective, New Zealand is the easiest country I’ve travelled in, aside from India.
• Almost all motels, apartments and B&Bs will provide cots and high chairs. Enquire when you book the room.