Post-lockdown, getting out of the city into peaceful wide-open spaces has fresh appeal and right now, with spring in full blush everywhere, it's a great time for a rural holiday.
Besides, when you check in for a family farm stay, you'll be giving your kids a digital-break, life lessons with the birds and the bees, and adorable animal encounters. With farm stays up and down the country in epic, often remote landscapes, you can explore out-of-the-way places while creating happy family memories.
Like the farms they're on, farm stays come in varied shapes and sizes from basic to 5-star — some even allow family pets and BYO horses. So, here's a pick of the regional crop with varied rural experiences and prices, all in stunning out-of-the-way places.
Muck in on the land
Guests can boot up, muck in or simply chill out on Mahaanui, a hilly 600ha sheep and beef farm at Tiniroto, on the inland Gisborne to Wairoa road. It's been in the Bennett family for 60 years, and hosts Simon and Sally like to give their guests "an experience, not a stay".
This big country welcome comes with free rein for walking and biking marked trails, swimming, kayaking, fishing in the river, and helping out on the farm whenever it's safe and practical. There's a roomful of farm boots, bikes, kayaks and life jackets for loan, animals to pet and feed, a hill-top picnic table, and safe swimming holes like the wonderful waterfall just down the road.
Along with impromptu farming activities based on whatever nature's up to, Simon can also do a guided farm tour ($50 adultspp/$15 kids) highlighting farm practices, with mustering and shearing demonstrations.
Two self-contained accommodations each have enough room for two families. Tucked into its own garden, the 3-bedroom / 2-bathroom cottage easily sleeps eight, expanding to 11 if needed. Bring your own supplies (the nearest shop is back in town) and feed the family from the well-equipped kitchen. There's a flat-screen TV with satellite channels and, even better, incredible night sky views from the patio. The Quarters (one twin bedroom plus bunk room, 2 bathrooms) accommodates 10, backpacker-style. Ask about bringing your furry family friend.
For something different, they've just opened a romantic retreat for two, a cute cabin set in a secluded riverside forest glade, complete with a private hot tub and catering options.
Mahaanui is an hour from Gisborne or Wairoa, seven hours from Auckland or Wellington. Mahia Peninsula and Lake Waikaremoana are just over an hour away. From $120-$220 p/night for a family of four.
Blue Duck Station, Whakahoro
A slice of history
On the edge of Whanganui National Park, steeped in rainforest with hilltop panoramas of Mt Taranaki, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, Blue Duck Station is a farm not quite like any other. Run by farmer-conservationists Dan and Sandy Steele, the station is part working farm, part conservation project, adventure and volunteer tourism destination dedicated to passing on their passions.
The station straddles a mix of steep to vertical backcountry of paddocks, virgin and regenerating bush sandwiched between the national park, the Whanganui and Retaruke rivers where the only passers-by are either on the Te Araroa Trail, the Mountain to Sea cycleway or starting off on the Whanganui Journey — the "Great Walk" that's really a canoe trip.
This untamed landscape is home to rare natives like the whio (blue duck), bats and giant weta. It's also a living memorial to stories of courageous Māori warriors, marauding invaders and intrepid early settlers. Though too many lost the farming battle, the Steeles are now overseeing a return to nature, letting difficult hillsides reforest, harvesting honey from the regenerating manuka, and protecting the wildlife.
Blue Duck guests can immerse themselves in farm life, horse trek, mountain bike, hike, hunt or volunteer to save wildlife. The bush safari experience includes a gentle kayak to a waterfall where the endangered blue ducks roost, or take a guided jet boat tour deep into the wilderness and walk across the iconic Bridge to Nowhere.
Accommodation options include self-catering eco-lodges, cosy cottages, converted shearing quarters and backpacker cabins. There's an on-site cafe and, in construction on the station's highest point (495m elevation) for a summer opening, an exclusive fine dining experience with private eco-cabins and thrilling 360-degree views.
Just getting to Blue Duck Station at 4265 Oio Rd is an adventure. It's off SH4, an hour from either Ōwhango or National Park Village. From $180-$395 p/night for a family of four.
Cascade Creek Retreat, Milton
Retreat to the range
Cascade Creek Retreat is a passion project — part whimsy, part eco-love — where Otago farmers Janene and Dave Divers are redefining "southern hospitality" with their hand-built, five-star log cabin. Off-grid and offline, the 2000ha sheep and beef farm in the hills south of Dunedin has distractions aplenty for a digital-free family break.
With livestock and birds as the only near neighbours, guests can free-range the river, cascading waterfalls, bush and kilometres of farm trails (a 5-minute stroll or a day's hiking) and come home to a comfy hammock and twin outdoor baths filled with hot-running water, perfect for wiling away an evening under the stars.
For the kids there are resident horses and woolly pets Coffee and Cream — adorable black-faced Swiss Valais sheep — just across the fence, and glowworms to hunt in the valley. Visits to the menagerie of animals at the farmhouse, 4km away, can be pre-arranged.
The rustic log cabin construction hides a luxurious interior of two bedrooms, bathroom, open-plan living with a huge open fireplace, and a fully equipped kitchen. Everything about the retreat is thoughtful, from the lovely recycled fittings and pieces rescued from scrap heaps to the solar and hydro power that keeps it all ticking.
There's generous accommodation for six guests (two king beds, one queen) which works well, Janene says, for multi-gen family holidays. Optional extras include a personal chef or ready-prepared meals.
Cascade Creek Retreat is 30 minutes from Dunedin Airport, an hour from Dunedin, the Catlins Coast and Roxburgh in Central Otago. From $475 p/night (breakfast included) for a family of four.
Kepler Mountain View
Cosy up with the locals
Cute and cuddly, the colourful alpaca neighbours at Kepler Mountain View cottage may charm your socks off but no worries, you can buy new socks here as well. Cottage hosts Jessie and Ray Haanen fell under that charm a few years back, leaving previous lives for a new one, breeding alpacas on their 12-acre holding near Lake Manapouri.
Alpacas are gentle, social creatures, and will run to greet to you. "They're all named and love a bit of chat over the fence, especially if you've got a handful of alpaca nuts. We keep some in the cottage for our guests to share with them," Jessie says.
The alpacas have also inspired farm tours and stays, and Jessie's work as a fibre artist, felting with alpaca fibre, silks and merino wool. Guests are welcome to wander in and out of the onsite studio and Wild Wool Gallery full of unique one-off works. There are farm tours to meet the resident locals or lead them around on "an alpaca trek". Called "cria", the super-cute alpaca babies arrive from mid-November to late December.
Framed by the spectacular Kepler Mountains, Alpaca Cottage is a self-contained retro-styled holiday cottage in a private garden with a barbecue area and an outdoor spa to enjoy the stars from. Manapouri is a small village on the edge of Fiordland National Park so the night sky is a spectacular feature. There's one bedroom and a fold-out bed in the living area, just enough room for a small family to snuggle up under the cosy alpaca duvets.
Manapouri is the perfect base for exploring Fiordland, and Ray and Jessie are knowledgeable hosts. Guests are welcome to leave the car if going away on overnight tours into Doubtful Sound, Milford, and on the many walking tracks. Manapouri is 15 minutes from Te Anau, two hours from Queenstown Airport. From $165 p/night for a family of three.
Dingleburn Station, Lake Hawea
Epic high country adventures
Epic barely begins to describe the sparse hills, crystalline lakes, braided rivers and jagged mountain backdrop of the South Island's vast high country landscapes. Guests at Dingleburn Station, a 7000-hectare farm on the shores of Lake Hawea and home to three generations of the Mead family, 10,000 merinos and 350 prime Angus beef, will find all of that and more.
Until the 1960s, the only way in was across the water but even today, there are no sightseers coming in here and once you're in, you're in for a spectacular outdoors adventure. The adventure begins as you drive in on the narrow gravel road with its steep drop-offs, in part blasted out along a rocky cliff-face, where traffic management means you can only leave in the morning and arrive in the afternoon. Note that road access is limited to high-riding 4WDs with experienced drivers.
The station settlement sits on the northwestern side of the lake, tucked in behind a peninsula, hidden from the world. From spring lambs to autumn musters, farm life never stops, and guests are free to explore at their own pace. The lake has summertime swimming and picnic spots, and other activities include hiking, mountain biking, horse trekking or just rambling the trails, fishing for trout or salmon, and taking photos of the ever-unfolding landscape. Guided fishing and hunting trips can be arranged, and guests can bring their own horses by arrangement.
The Meads have worked "the Dingle", producing superfine merino wool since 1988, but only began hosting farm stays in 2017. The homely comfort of the renovated shearers quarters (The Quarters) works well for large family groups (six bedrooms / 24 beds), plus the self-contained one-bedroom Cook Shop. The guest season runs from mid-October until late April, and accommodation for a family of four is from $280 p/night.