We recently took the kids on a fantastic road trip through the central North Island, taking in Ruapehu, Rotorua and South Waikato. We discovered South Waikato is a superb place to take kids, here’s our 7 favourite things to do there.
7 Superb Things to do in South Waikato with Kids
1. Sky Waka – Whakapapa
Our first stop was at the very bottom of South Waikato. My wife and I are both avid snowboarders (or at least we were until we had kids!). So we really wanted to take our kids to see snow for the first time. And with the amazing new gondola on Whakapapa, what they call the Sky Waka, it seemed a great time to go.
Within very easy shooting distance of Taupo, Turangi or National Park, take the gondola 1.8km up Tongariro National Park onto the majestic Mt Ruapehu.
You can head up for sightseeing and a meal at the Knoll Ridge Chalet, or for some great sledding/skiing/snowboarding during winter.
2. Tokaanu Thermal Pools – Taupo
And what to do with those tired muscles after all that fun in the snow? You have to stop in at Tokaanu Thermal Pools on the way home.
The hot pools at Tokaanu are perfect for families. You can hire a large pool and have it all to yourself for a stint. And there’s plenty of room in the main pools for you and the kids to kick back in.
The coolest part of Tokaanu Thermal Pools though is the short walk around the thermal area. Sure it’s no Wai-O-tapu, but there’s some great mudpools, and boiling hot, bubbling ponds. And it’s fun to wander around the path in just your togs in the middle of winter, staying warm from all the steam!
3. Giant Sheep and Dog – Tirau
On this particular trip we were travelling out from Rotorua, so Tirau was a great spot to stop for the day’s first coffee.
Home to the giant corrugated iron sheep, shepherd, and giant dog that houses the public loos, Tirau is a great example of small town New Zealand. There’s some seriously good cafes in Tirau and you should make time for a good potter up the main street, as there’s some seriously good boutique shops to potter in too!
We highly recommend the rather quirky Bugger Cafe. A great example of slow food and coffee made by real coffee lovers.
4. Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari – Te Awamutu
Te Awamutu is world famous in New Zealand for its rose garden, and during the Spring/Summer season it would be well worth stopping by for.
But an even bigger attraction (in our opinion) is the amazing Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. It’s the largest mainland ‘island’ sanctuary in New Zealand, surrounded by 47kms of predator proof fencing. See kaka, kokako, tuatara, weta and all other manner of birdlife. And take in the ethereal and ancient ambiance of the New Zealand bush.
There’s walking tracks and longer hikes available to suit just about everyone. From easy 30 minute strolls, to 1 hour loop tracks, to the ‘over the mountain’ trail that takes around 5 hours to complete. And for the kids, you have to take in the Canopy Tower, a 16 meter viewing platform that takes you up into the treetops.
5. Kiwi House – Otorohanga
I remember going to the Kiwi House in Otorohanga when I was really young. Seeing a kiwi for the first time was a pretty big deal! But that’s about all I remembered. So it was great to go back and see how much the place had grown. The Kiwi House now has New Zealand’s largest free-flight aviary, plus a few other aviaries, fresh-water exhibit, a Whio (native blue duck) enclosure, tuatara and a really successful kiwi breeding programme going back almost 50 years! Definitely not to be missed. And while you’re hanging out in Otorohanga, we totally recommend the fresh pies from the coffee cart parked next to the Kiwi House.
Also if you have little ones, take them to the Jim Barker Memorial Playground. Jim was a transport entrepreneur who started Freight Lines, then the Bluebridge ferry. The Memorial is an epic playground with flying foxes, in ground trampolines, Water pump and dame play, a replica ferry and more! Our kids didn’t want to leave!
6. Waitomo Cave & Ruakuri Cave – Waitomo
One of the big highlights of our roadtrip was a visit to the Waitomo Caves. This is a truly iconic New Zealand tourist experience and we just can’t recommend it enough. Make sure that you check out the combo deal and book Waitomo Cave and the Ruakuri Cave experience at the same time. You won’t regret this option at all.
The Waitomo Cave is the classic experience. You get to check out the amazing stalactites and stalagmites formed through the limestone over millions of years and learn all about the geology of the caves and the history of the tourism venture. Then you go deeper into the cave and embark on the boat ride through the amazing glow-worm grotto.
Take a break for lunch, and take in a walk around some of the native bush, or even lunch at the iconic Big Apple. Then get ready for tour number two, descending 12 meters underground down a spiral ramp.
The Ruakuri experience is totally different. Groups are much smaller (there were only 10 on our tour), and the tour is longer (about an hour and a half), so there’s lots of time to experience the cave properly and learn all about the geology of the area. Our tour guide Matt was really informative, and funny. He was truly awesome with our kids, interacting with them and keeping them entertained while Mum and Dad experienced the cave formations and resident glowworms. For the length of time of this tour, it actually went really quickly. And although there are far less glowworms in Ruakuri, you get much closer, and we spent much more time looking at them. So it felt more personal.
There’s a reason Waitomo is considered one of New Zealand’s best natural attractions, it is exceptional!
7. Hobbiton – Matamata
Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to visit Hobbiton in Matamata on this trip. But we hope to go back soon, as we’re told it is something really special and unique. Hobbiton is, of course, where The Shire was filmed in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Get up close to the actual Hobbit Holes on the 12 acre set and refresh yourself at the Green Dragon Inn.
Now that you’ve got a list of things to do with kids in the mighty South Waikato, check out more travel ideas and tips in our Grown ups: Family travel section.