Danielle Wright discovers the City of Sails is the best place to be this holiday season.

Auckland is a different place over the summer holidays. The streets and malls no longer have a shortage of carparks or the hideous Christmas rush. The beaches, playgrounds and bush walks are virtually free of merrymakers. Here's just some of what's on offer ...

Auckland Zoo

Have a night off from the kids on Saturday, January 11 when the zoo holds its Kids Only Safari Night. Wave goodbye as you drop them off at the Old Elephant House with their sleeping bags. They get to see the animals at a time when they're most active. The night includes a barbecue, icecreams, popcorn, an animal-themed movie and a torch-lit zoo adventure. If you'd rather stay with the kids, there's a public safari night on Friday, January 10.

Until the end of January, the zoo is also running the Top Trumps Trail, a treasure hunt where kids find facts about animals on special cards matched to giant versions around the zoo. Each card contains interesting information - who knew wetapunga, the largest of New Zealand's 70 weta species, is a Maori name meaning "god of ugly things"?


Don't forget to say hello to the new baby giraffes. August-born Shira (named after one of the volcanic cones of Mt Kilimanjaro) and November-born Mdomo (named after her prominent mouth - the name is Swahili for lips). Then look out for the red panda babies, due sometime around Christmas.

99 Motions Rd, Western Springs.
Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum

Always a great family activity, over Anniversary Weekend, there will be family fun events with make-your-own sand pictures of iconic Auckland images as well as a waka-building display. The waka Quest will be taking paying passengers for a sail on the Waitemata. Or try a tall ships experience on the brigantine Breeze. There will also be the beloved tug boat race during the weekend.

Quay St, Auckland. Sailings depart at midday and 2pm (bookings for the sailings are essential, ph 09 373 0800).
Dare to Explore

Auckland Libraries will again run its free summer reading adventure, Dare to Explore, aimed at children 5 to 13. This programme worked miracles on my son - a reluctant reader - he moved up two reading groups afterwards. The activities can be done at home, on holiday, at the library, on the internet and with friends. There's also a party at the end and activities at the library throughout the programme, which this year has a theme of "the world". Kids receive a passport, which is stamped as they achieve the goals that incorporate reading into their daily lives over summer. They might need to design a theme park ride, write a book review, read a book outside, dress up for an extreme climate, make binoculars or find out about the seven ancient wonders of the world.

Sign up for free at any local Auckland library.
Parnell Baths

This is the first summer of free children's entry at Auckland council-owned pools. If you can bear the crowds, Parnell Baths is the place to be on a hot summer's day. For over-anxious parents like me, the interactive aqua playground is ankle-deep and there are pools of different temperatures. Apart from the history to soak up (the salt-water swimming baths date back to the 1880s - if only the 1920s water slide was still around).

Judges Bay Rd, Parnell.
Stardome Observatory and Planetarium


In December, see true Christmas night lights with the "Let it Snow" show, which features seasonal music and animations visually enhanced with laser, lights and special effects, as well as a multi-media finale by the Trans Siberian Orchestra. (Adults $10, children $8.)

The observatory also hosts Space Explorer sessions every weekday (January 13-24, 10am, 11am and 1pm). Children aged 5 to 12 watch the Solar System Odyssey show in the dome theatre before doing experiments such as melting chocolate in a solar oven or rocket launching in the park. ($8 adults, $10 children.) There's a great playground across the carpark, too.

670 Manukau Rd, Royal Oak, Auckland. Times of shows vary each day. Ph 09 624 1246 or book online.
Cornwall Park

Sick of sand in your picnic sandwiches? Head to historic Cornwall Park, which has plenty of shady trees, beautiful flowers, a dozen barbecues (free firewood provided, as well as gas options) and lots of room for picnic blankets. From January 18 to February 2 there will also be a summer art exhibition at Huia Lodge, which is celebrating 20 years as an Information Centre in February. A family fun day is planned on Sunday, March 9.

Every Sunday from January until March there will also be a music series from 1-3pm at the Band Rotunda. Choose from Latin American music from Mambo Kings, rock-infused country/blues from The DeSotos and romantic string melodies from the Starlight String Quartet, among others.

Greenlane Rd West, Greenlane.
Potters Park, Balmoral

We love discovering new playgrounds. The latest discovery is Potters Park in Balmoral (173 Balmoral Rd), which has a splashpad. It's fitted with play equipment such as fountains, showers and sprays. There's no standing water so it's safe for even the youngest in the family and helps with water confidence. Bring your togs (or a change of clothes), a towel, plenty of water and sunscreen. Other favourites include the Snakes and Ladders playground in Farm Cove with its wiggly slide snakes. Another water-feature play park we love is Wainoni Park in Greenhithe. It also has a tractor, fruit trees and plenty of room for a game of cricket.

NZ Historic Places Trust Auckland Passport

Get a stamp in your passport without leaving Auckland with the NZ Historic Places Trust Auckland Passport, which gets you into the NZ Historic Places Trust's three main properties in Auckland for a discount.

Highwic in Newmarket was the country home of a wealthy pastoralist and stock agent, when the area was on the edge of the city. It's now in the heart of the shopping district, yet provides an old-fashioned respite from the modern world with its Carpenter Gothic architecture and gardens with croquet, quoits and grass tennis available. Original owner Alfred Buckland had 21 children, so expect lots of family fun at this property.

Mt Albert's Alberton has been described as "colonial Auckland's party house", where the elite of the day gathered for balls, hunts, garden parties and music. It was also a centre for social reform in the 19th century, and for women's rights in particular. There's a beautiful garden with a classic fountain and a shop where you can buy items such as Victorian-era toys.

Tiny Ewelme Cottage, a time capsule in Parnell, has a sitting room set up exactly as it was in 1890. It's crammed with genuine, irreplaceable family antiques and heirlooms. An oak tree in the garden is one of the oldest in Auckland.

Available for $18 an adult (normally $28.50); school children admitted free.

Highwic House is one of the destinations on the NZ Historic Places Trust Auckland Passport.
Highwic House is one of the destinations on the NZ Historic Places Trust Auckland Passport.

Howick Historical Village

On Sunday, January 19, the Howick Historical Village hosts a special summer picnic Live Day. The whole village fills with activity as more than 30 costumed villagers go about their daily tasks. A blacksmith's forge is in operation and there's food to sample as well as a Victorian school lesson if the kids are missing school too much! If you want to volunteer, they are still looking for people to participate (tell your teens that it even counts towards the Duke of Edinburgh volunteer requirements). Then on January 23 (9.30am to 2.30pm) there's a special Secret Picnic holiday programme ($30 a child, ages 5-12). Pack a picnic, load up the horse bus and go on an adventure: crafts, games, water slides and more.

Bells Rd, Lloyd Elsmore Park, Pakuranga.
Out and About

Southern Auckland local parks will have events under the banner Out and About.

Search for eels and glow worms in Totara Park's night-time glow worm walks, check out the summer skate series, family fun days, art in the park and an amazing race to search for clues hidden in the park.

Other parts of Auckland have similar events in parks, such as the Summer Family Fun events all over the North Shore (until April 15). Also try the amazing events in parks from In2It - choose from go-karts, sports or waterslides, among others.

There are also summer bat walks at Cascade Kauri in the Waitakere Ranges at dusk (book through Arataki Visitor Centre 09 817 0089) - keep your eyes peeled and be patient for these special park visitors.

Auckland Botanic Gardens

On Sundays from 11.30am to 2pm, you'll not only see intriguing sculptures and lush gardens, part of the Sculpture in the Gardens exhibition, but there will also be live music in the gardens. The centre has a room set up for children wanting to learn more about their natural environment. Over the holidays, you can book workshops for children such as photography for teens and nature journalling. Don't forget to vote for your favourite sculpture in the People's Choice category.

Hill Rd, Manurewa.