From remote coastlines to inner city parks, Danielle Wright spends a family weekend with nature,.
Level 4, 64 Dixon St, Te Aro, Wellington, Tel: 0800 73 25 27 / (04) 801 6040. The Seal Coast Safari runs whatever the weather.
First stop on the seal coast safari tour is a visit to George, George, George, George, George ... and Mildred: six beautiful ostriches on the way to the south coast. They look us over while mechanical arms wave in a straight line from the wind farm on the horizon.
"Their brains are smaller than their eyes, but they have very big feet," says Kent Clark, our tour guide, who once ran for local government in the hope his name on the ballot would get the superhero vote. It worked.
We head past the radar station on the summit of Hawkins Hill, where winds reached 250km/h in the late 50s, and stop to feed bread to the deer and ducks before heading to the coast overlooking Cook Strait.
We drive along the bumpy black sand, past huts made of driftwood by grandchildren visiting locals and towards the Karori Rock leaning lighthouse, stopping to see spectacular (and smelly) seals making the most jagged rocks their cushions.
The area was once a hunting ground for seals but now they are back in their hundreds and completely unfazed by our presence as we drink hot drinks and eat huge muffins.
On the way back, we pass Carlucci Land filled with intriguing sculptures and stone masonry, as well as mini golf. We're amazed to be able to go from seals to CBD in less than 20 minutes and glad to have done the tour on our first morning to get a good perspective on Wellington, from its highest peak to its fault-line.
The Wellington Zoo
200 Daniell St, Newtown, Wellington 6021, Tel: (04) 381 6755. Ten per cent of proceeds from the Meerkat Close Encounter go back into a conservation fund.
Whenever we visit a zoo the animals seem to be asleep or hiding. Not the Wellington Zoo.
It's filled with strange noises and animals busy in their day-to-day routines: whether hanging upside down, jumping from branch to branch, about to pounce on unsuspecting insect prey or, like our favourite the Bolivian Squirrel Monkey, doing a good job imitating us.
"We are always more intrigued by animals that are most like us," says our zoo host, Ben, as he takes us past the giant lizard sculpture with the blue tongue slide and into the meerkat enclosure for a "close encounter", where we get to jump the fence inside the enclosure.
"Meerkats can dig up their own bodyweight in a matter of seconds," says our guide Amber. "They're known as 'sun angels' because they protect villagers from the moon devil believed to attack cattle and lone tribesmen in their native Africa."
They purr when we arrive and we notice one up on the highest rock in total concentration keeping a look-out as the others eat the food. Each takes a turn for about an hour and if there's trouble coming, the guard will bark in warning to the others.
As they walk all over us, we notice how light they are and each has a different pattern on its back, though it would be impossible for us to tell the difference. As we leave New Zealand's first zoo, — it's more than 100 years old — our kids are running and skipping: there's something about being close to our animal cousins that makes everyone, including us parents, happy.
Staglands Wildlife Reserve
2362 Akatarawa Valley, Upper Hutt, tel: (04) 526 7529. Open 9.30am-5pm, Family Pass is $56 (two adults and up to three children).
After a long drive through Upper Hutt bush on winding roads, the kids are ready to stretch their legs at Staglands Wildlife Reserve. We buy bags of marshmallows to toast at the open fire halfway round and set off into the bush.
We're greeted by some hungry pigs staring up at us with mouths wide open as we drop animal biscuits into their mouths. Before long, we find dozens of guinea pigs and a few bunnies, which the kids can handle and feed.
There are also trout and eels, horses, deer, donkeys, ducks, swans, doves and more pigs.
As well as animals, there's a stream, a barn, cart rides, a railway where the kids get pushed along in a wooden box by the parents, and Greyford, a re-created early bush settlement with the sign: "As the logs ran out, so did the people."
It's a beautiful spot for a walk in a bush setting with plenty of action at every turn.
Afterwards, we have lemonade spider drinks and cupcakes next to an open fire in the log cabin café, toasting our remaining marshmallows on a cold day.
Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary Experience
End of Waiapu Rd, Karori, Wellington, tel: (04) 920 9202.
A quick drive from our CBD hotel is a bird paradise set in 225ha with tracks for every sort of walk — from a quick stroll pushing a buggy to an all-day challenging tramp. There's also guided tours and feeding talks.
Our guide, Allison, shows us bright green spotted geckos, a shag colony, two takahe, giant weta hotels in carved-out tree trunks, a swinging bridge for a treetops view, two saddlebacks — the belted Galloway of the bird world — and a look through binoculars, much to the kids' delight.
"You don't have to walk far, you just need to listen and look," says Allison.
"When it's raining lightly, the birds come closer and lower and we get lots of twitchers who travel the world finding birds to photograph to tick off their lists."
We watch the two takahe, with paua shell colours in their coats, as they forage in the bush setting with mist and light rain falling. It's as if we're looking at a landscape painting of early New Zealand, as if nothing has changed.
After the tour, we walk through the exhibition — a history of conservation following 80 million years of our natural history. It's fascinating and interactive enough to engage the kids as they track insects and use the pukeko hand puppet.
For me, the most haunting images in the exhibition were of my favourite bird, the huia. I learn it was hunted to death for fashion in the late 20s and that it fed with its mate: she with a curved beak to pull out insects, he with a shorter stumpy one to break the ground for her. They were even known to throw bits of food in the air for the other to catch and they stayed in touch with a soft, low twitter as they fed.
A Maori lament on one exhibition sign reads: "Go, my tears, convey a message to the huia that eats my heart."
As we leave, our 4-year-old daughter tells Allison she has a memory box in her head where she will keep everything she saw. It's that "memory box" that makes family travel experiences so worthwhile.
For more animal magic head to Te Papa for the colossal squid display and a whale's heart big enough for the kids to climb through.
For an insider's tip, you can't miss the touch tanks and octopus feeding at the Island Bay Marine Education Centre full of south coast marine animals and a beautiful coastal drive to get there.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: With direct flights from Auckland to Wellington up to 6 times a day, Jetstar makes getting away for a cheeky weekend easy.
Getting around: Spend Saturday wandering by the sea at Oriental Bay, a Sunday in the groovy boutiques and cafes of Cuba St and Monday exploring the long road home. With so much to discover in Wellington, you'll need an extra day off.
Car rental: Visit budget.co.nz or call 0800 BUDGET.
Save your pennies: Enjoy the journey with Caltex. Use your AA membership card or pick up a free AA Smartfuel card (from AA or Caltex) and start saving on fuel.
This rewards programme lets you accumulate fuel discounts as you shop. Swipe your free AA Smartfuel card or AA membership card at participating Caltex sites to save 6 cents per litre when you spend $40 or more on petrol or diesel. Terms and conditions apply.
Plan your holiday: Celebrate the warmer weather with an almost-summer holiday, now. Plan your cheeky long weekend away with the GrabOne Experience — home of great things to eat, see and do in 13 regions around the country. Check out accommodation packages to suit all budgets at Escapes, or the huge range of products perfect for summer camping and holidays in Store. And Bottle promises to keep your chilly bin full all summer long. Find hundreds of adventures all over the country, booked instantly on GoBook.
Danielle Wright travelled with assistance from Positively Wellington Tourism and stayed at the James Cook Hotel.