If your kiddo is dragon obsessed and breathing fire to go someplace in search of real dragons, we’ve found a place that offers the next best thing to having your own backyard cave. Wellington, New Zealand is where the amazing Pete’s Dragon (recently-released on DVD) was filmed and we took a trip there to bring you the deets on how to make this the most epic family vacation you’ll ever take. Read on to learn more.
If the thought of heading to New Zealand with your kids in tow seems like a recipe for disaster (12 hours on a plane?! Someone pass the wine!), we are relieved to report that the flight is surprisingly painless. Air New Zealand’s flights only leave at night: get to the airport with kiddos in their jammies, enjoy a delicious in-flight meal, brush your teeth, and fold out your Sky Couch for some shut-eye.
What is a Sky Couch, you’re probably wondering? It’s a totally genius, affordable upgrade to regular economy seats that allows you to fold up the footrests and turn the entire row into a bed that sleeps two. Yes. You read that right. An actual bed! When you wake up, you’re in New Zealand, refreshed and ready to start your day exploring this incredible country. And the best part? Jet lag is a fraction of what it is when you fly to Europe. New Zealand is 19 hours ahead of Pacific Standard time, which is only a 5 hour difference. You might wake up earlier in the morning for a few days – but all the more time to check out the sights!
What to Do
Te Papa (55 Cable St) is a huge museum at the Waterfront that can’t be missed – and it’s totally free (as are many of Wellington’s museums). You could spend the entire day exploring the many kid-friendly exhibits in this gorgeous building. Kids can get hands-on in one of the many Discovery Centres, and they’ll love the wood carved Maori buildings. After visiting Te Papa, enjoy a pizza at One Red Dog (56 Customhouse Quay) and hit up the playground at Frank Kitts Park.
Insider tip: Bring a lock with you or buy one locally. Your family will get a kick out of leaving one behind in the tradition of Paris’ Pont des Arts and Pont de l’Archeveche (bridges). Find the locks on the footbridge that crosses Frank Kitts Lagoon along the waterfront.
Art is everywhere in Wellington. You and your kids will be inspired to play and touch the many public installations and take photos galore in front of their many murals. The Waterfront area especially has many treasures to be discovered. Let your imaginations go wild at the City to Sea bridge, which is a pedestrian bridge and public art installation made from wooden sculptures.
If your kids are old enough, definitely take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Weta Cave, home of the Weta Workshop (1 Weka St, Miramar, Wellington) the masters of prosthetics and animation behind movies like Pete’s Dragon, Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit. (Bonus: parents will totally nerd out on the magic of this place!) Around Wellington, you’ll find a lot of references to Weta Workshop’s incredible work. Don’t miss the Great Eagles in the Wellington airport—complete with Gandalf.
The Wellington Zoo (200 Daniell St, Newtown, Wellington) is over 100 years old but looks brand-spanking-new, with an incredibly creative design. Plus it’s your one chance to see a kiwi bird (they’re nocturnal). It’s a 15 minute cab ride from downtown Wellington and definitely worth the trip!
Cuba Street is a bohemian feast for the eyes and belly. Home to eclectic cafes, boutiques, art galleries, and music shops, the area also has a very cool fountain the kids will love and a small playground. Head over there around dinner time for some playtime, followed by dinner at any of the eateries.
Where to Eat
Picky eaters rejoice! New Zealanders enjoy much of the same fare as Americans do, so you should be able to please any palate. We highly recommend the local scone as a quick and tasty breakfast. If you enjoy coffee, you’ll love the espresso in Wellington (arguably the home of the Flat White). Order yours to go or enjoy it inside any of their beautiful cafes. Our favorites include Red Rabbit/Leeds Street Bakery (6G/14 Hannah Factory Laneway) and Mojo Coffee, which has locations all over the city – our favorite spot was at the Waterfront (37 Customhouse Quay), right next to the enormous sea urchin art installation. After you’re finished with your meal, don’t wait around for your check: pay at the register. PS: tips are not expected in New Zealand—save your pennies for Cuba Street!
Good to know: Bacon is not served crispy.
When you get coffee, order the kids a hot chocolate: they’ll get a kick out of the beautiful presentation, complete with berry-flavored marshmallows on the side that are like nothing they’ve ever tasted.
Wellington has enough to entertain you for weeks, but if you’d like to explore more of the country, it’s also very centrally located on the southern tip of the North Island. Take a ferry over to the South Island, or head north and explore more of the North Island. At the Wellington Airport, you can rent a car from any number of agencies (we used Thrifty).
Driving Tip: New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, and their steering wheel is on the right. All of the controls are reversed, which takes some getting used to – you may hit the windshield wipers instead of the blinker a few times. You may also hit the curb (not that we are speaking from experience here).
Not up for an adventure on the wrong side of the road? Take a quick flight on Air New Zealand to any number of amazing stops on the North Island (check out Auckland, Lake Taupo, Bay of Islands, and Napier) or South Island (Queenstown, Fiordland National Park, Christchurch, and the Franz Josef Glacier are good bets).
One of the best things about New Zealand is its incredibly friendly culture. Lost? Just stop any Kiwi (not just a fruit—it’s also what you call a New Zealander, and a bird!) and ask. They’ll be more than happy to point you in the right direction, or offer you some advice on what to check out next. The hardest part of the entire trip will be leaving—no joke.
When to Go
New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means our summer is their winter. This means the winter holidays in the US make it an excellent time to visit. New Zealand summers are typically 65-70 degrees and sunny. But if you ask us, there’s no bad time to visit New Zealand. Wellington winter’s rarely drop below 55 degrees although they can be rainy and windy (so pack your Wellingtons!).
Have you ever been to New Zealand? What was your favorite part of the country?
—All story and photos by Sara Olsher. Special thanks to Air New Zealand for the incredible experience!