A few years ago, the words “family vacation” would make me cringe. It would bring up images of cheesy theme parks and bad food. And that’s fair enough – plenty of people out there perpetuate that stereotype.
But let’s say you want to go somewhere a little different … somewhere the kid(s) will love, but where the parents don’t have to pretend to like it but actually do.
That place is Rotorua, New Zealand.
Yes, I know – New Zealand is really far away. You probably have that and a bunch of other objections. Let’s run through them. When we’re done, I’ll bet you’ll think this might be the best place for a family vacation.
New Zealand is Really Far Away
Yes, it is. But the time can actually pass quickly on the plane, even with kids. Look, I did this with a 2-year-old girl. The first leg of the trip from Phoenix to Honolulu (about 7 hours), she was awake the whole time. We kept her amused with books and selected toys, plus she liked the airplane food. On the second leg (which was delayed four hours), she kvetched for a few moments and then fell asleep shortly after takeoff. She was out for most of this 9-hour flight.
Airfare Must Be Crazy Expensive
There are deals to be had. We went during the beginning of high season, which is in December (summer down there – different hemispheres!).
Hawaiian Airlines has good deals, and they fly to Honolulu for connecting flights from many different US cities. We chose them because of reasonable fares, and we were eager to escape the morass of Los Angeles International Airport. Trust me, Honolulu is a far more pleasant airport for a layover.
Hawaiian Airlines definitely performed well, but didn’t quite win us over 100 percent. It depends on your city of origin, and even what airlines alliances you prefer. And your height. Seriously.
What’s There to do in the Rotorua Place?
I don’t even know where to start. Here’s a partial list of stuff you can do with kids of various ages: Zorbing, street luge, mountain biking (the trails here are phenomenal), nature parks, hikes, zip lines, animal encounters and aerial tours. I recommend a visit to Agroventures and the Agrodome, plus Rainbow Springs.
Oh, and Rotorua is built on a volcanic hotspot. Kids will be able to see the living earth at work, with mud pots bubbling and steaming lakes right in a public park in town (Kairua Park). Most of the buildings are geothermally heated, too. You can smell the volcanic gasses in various places around the town. A short drive out to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland will also amaze kids and adults.
The Rotorua area also has some stuff that I’ve never even heard of before … things I’ve overlooked even after two visits there.
I should also add that the Volcanic Playground was a huge hit with our little person. She never got tired of the lakeside network of slides, swings and crawly stuff. More than a few adults get sucked into a few of the playground features, too.
You’re also not far from Taupo, which is a beautiful area full of all sorts of outdoor activities.
What Are the Hotels Like?
One of the great things about New Zealand is that hotels are built for families. Most rooms include at least a small kitchen. This time, we stayed at Rotovegas, which also had a playground of its own, a full set of dishes and utensils, an in-room geothermally heated hot tub, two beds, reading lights, TV, free wifi and all sorts of advice and information. That was about $100 NZ a night for a room that will fit four pretty comfortably. They also have rooms that hold 4-8, and even a 20-person spot called the Rotovegas House. There’s also a gas grill at the playground.
What About Dining?
You can find just about anything here, from traditional Kiwi food to every variety of Asian. Our favorite meal was the spectacular platter of green-lipped mussels at Brew Craft Beer Pub; their burgers are also solid, but do yourself a favor and avoid the pizzas unless you like crackery crusts. And be sure to snag some crayons and paper for the kids to color on – right near the bar.
BTW, if you haven’t been to New Zealand before, you’ll probably like the way food service works at Brew (and in many other Kiwi restaurants): Get a menu. Place your order at the bar. Pay. Grab glasses and a free bottle of chilled water for your table. The food will show up at your table when it’s ready. Want something else? Another beer? Some dessert? Go back to the bar, order and pay. It’s so much faster, and tipping is pretty rare there. Servers don’t actually rely on tips to pay the rent – they make a living wage, which makes dining out marginally more expensive, but it’s really worth the difference. I wish we did this in the US.
Oh, and New Zealand loves high-quality espresso. No matter how small the town, you’ll find at least one classy espresso bar with well-trained baristas who know their business. The best I had in Rotorua were at Artisan Cafe and Fix. Artisan is more of a sit-down sort of place, with meals and pastries (including some amazing scones). Fix is a grab-and-go spot with delicious espresso – it also devotes its profits to various community endeavors.
If you’re a beer fan, just go back to Brew. They mostly have selections from the excellent Croucher Brewing, but also from other regional craft brewers. The local beer fans I met really favor it, and for good reason.
If It’s That Awesome, It Must Be Crowded
New Zealanders will agree. They’ll tell you it’s wall-to-wall people. But they’re idea of crowded is different from someone visiting from North America or Europe. The holiday season was pretty sparse. We never felt like “oh, that place is too crowded.” In fact, we were the only customers during our visit to the Agrodome.
Crunch the Numbers
I have a feeling that, if you crunch the numbers, you’ll find that visiting New Zealand isn’t as expensive as you thought – especially if you compare it to some of these crazy theme park vacations. Plus, you’ll expose your kids to something entirely new and different – plus there’s that volcano factor that will amaze them. My little person is a little too young still to get her head around that, but she’s had endless fun on playgrounds, walking in the forest and meeting all sorts of crazy animals.
So, that’s my case for Rotorua as the best place for a family vacation. What do you think?