Families who believe there's more to winter than snow can have plenty to enjoy in Te Waipounamu, writes Alexia Santamaria
Many North Islanders associate winter holidays in the lower South with skiing, but there is so much more beyond skis, poles and boards. On a five-day motorhome trip, my family followed the Central Otago Touring Route from Dunedin to Queenstown, past a whole lot of amazing family activities. Our teen and tween loved everything we did and would revisit them all in a heartbeat. Here are their personally tested top spots to visit when travel restrictions allow.
Natures Wonders tour
Having done a few wildlife tours around New Zealand, we can, hand-on-heart, say this is one of the most impressive. Visitors sit in the back of an all-terrain Argo eight-wheel drive vehicle as Perry, a real Southern character, drives around the Reid family farm at the end of the Otago Peninsula, stopping at vistas that will literally take their breath away.
But it's not just about views - this may be the closest you ever get to doe-eyed kekeno (seal) pups and sweet kororā (little blue penguins). Perry and his family have a very hands-off policy (no feeding, tagging, handling or any form of testing on the wildlife) and this has resulted in animals and birds who are comfortable around humans. Curious seals plonk themselves metres away from the viewing shelter and there really aren't words for how you'll feel when Perry opens up small hatches, surrounding visitors with hundreds of kororā.
Sutton Salt Flats
Okay, there might be a bit of whingeing here but that shouldn't put you off this incredible one-hour walk (bribe them with savoury scones and sweet treats at Kissing Gate Cafe in Middlemarch). This is New Zealand's only inland salt lake but it's the scenery around it that's most impressive. The landscape definitely has an otherworldly quality and will delight kids with vivid imaginations.
Curling is big in these parts and you should definitely give it a go. At the Olympic standard International Curling Centre, an instructor will take you through the basics before you play against each other or another team. Essentially there's a frozen court with a bull's eye at each end. You win points by sliding your granite "balls" as close to the centre as possible. The added fun is that you "sweep" with brooms to smooth the path ahead.
Lake Dunstan Trail
The Lake Dunstan Trail has only recently opened and we can claim to have done only a very small section, but even that was magical. We'd highly recommend hiring bikes (or e-bikes) from Central Cycle Trail Company. It's full of classic central Otago scenery and is an incredible way to see the best of Lake Dunstan, the Kawarau River and the mighty Clutha.
Highlands Motorsport and Tourism Park
I have to admit to rolling my eyes at the thought of this activity in Cromwell and chalking it up to one of those things I would suffer through because I'm the mum of boys. Turns out we all had an amazing day, starting with renting cycles from Trail Journeys for the "Power Hour" before the motorsport park opened. We all loved cycling the tracks as well as dividing our time between go-karting, a fast taxi lap (with a top speed of 180km/hour), the Highlands Museum (filled with interactive activities including virtual reality driving) and perhaps the most entertaining toilet you'll ever visit. There's also a great sculpture park with endless selfie possibilities.
Oxbow Adventure Co.
For adrenaline, Oxbow Adventure Co in Queenstown is where it's at. On a modified Jetsprint boat (formerly used for competitive racing), go from 0-100km in 2.5 seconds. Then take a ride in their custom-built, four wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer off-roaders which seem to have no limitations on what terrain they can tackle. You'll find yourself thinking more than once "surely we're not going in/over/around that". It's a ton of fun, guaranteed to impress even the surliest of teens.
Queenstown's bungy jump and luge have been there forever but that doesn't mean they've lost any of their fun factor. Show your kids how it's done by hurling yourself off the original AJ Hackett site at Kawarau bridge or take the gondola to the top of Bob's Peak, and screech back to base on a luge. The Queenstown Ice Arena is an excellent lower adrenaline option and aside from the usual ice skating, there are ice bumper cars - think bumper boats minus the wet pants.
This part of the country is well worth considering for your next South Island holiday. There are plenty of ways to get from Dunedin to Queenstown but the new Central Otago Touring Route has a lot of excellent family fun options along the way.
CHECKLIST: CENTRAL OTAGO
Check alert levels and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz