The New Zealand winter school holiday adventure that doesn't involve skiing

The French-accented township of Akaroa.
The French-accented township of Akaroa. Photo: Flickr

Let's play a word association game. I say winter in New Zealand, you say_____________. Was it skiing? That's the obvious answer yet our Pacific neighbour offers so much more than just softer powder in the frostier months.

Without further ado, I propose the ultimate South Island itinerary. While each place listed is exceptional, the in-between bits are just as good.

That's why a family road trip is the best - and most affordable, way to see the land of the long white cloud. So strap in the kids, set your all-ages Spotify playlist to shuffle and prepare to be awed by the most picturesque motor journey in the southern hemisphere.

Christchurch Botanic Garden, a "Garden of International Significance" according the New Zealand Gardens Trust, and one ...
Christchurch Botanic Garden, a "Garden of International Significance" according the New Zealand Gardens Trust, and one of only five gardens to be given this honour nation-wide. Photo: Wikipedia

First stop: Christchurch, South Island's capital and largest city. Make use of this fly-in destination and stay a while, even just to marvel at post-earthquake ingenuity. Its resilient and resourceful locals not only rebuilt, but built better. Some of the devastated classical buildings remain no-go zones but there's the famed Botanic Garden to ramble in. For shopping-enthusiasts, the slightly favourable exchange rate will be reason enough to hit the unobtrusive pedestrian malls, provided your little ones allow it.  

You don't need to leg it to Hawaii to swim with dolphins, you can do it in Akaroa, a one and a half hour dash south-east of Christchurch. Granted, the dolphins won't give you high-five's (they're wild) and the water may give you hypothermia (it can reach a chilly 11 degrees), but, pending your hardiness, it can be worth it. If subjecting your family's bodies to extreme temperatures isn't your thing, this charming, French-settled harbourside town has more to offer. You could say this about pretty much anywhere in New Zealand but there are scenic walking trails to traverse, or you could simply make do with a fresh, hot plate of 'fush and chups' in one of its quaint waterfront cafes.

For historic grandeur and exotic fauna, a surprisingly harmonious combination, head south, then pull over at Dunedin. This lively university town boasts the only castle in New Zealand; Larnach Castle. This colonial mansion, built between 1871 and 1877, is the closest thing to a fairytale setting in all the (South Island) land.  For the kids, its sweeping gardens are perfect for hide and seek or simply running amok. When you're done playing royals, check out the nearby penguin, seal and albatross colonies. The wild beach-dwelling critters will delight children with their playful antics, whereas the birds are a joy to behold. With wingspans of up to 3.3 metres, they are enormous yet seem to glide about the cliff top effortlessly.

Rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins, Dunedin.
Rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins, Dunedin. Photo: Wikipedia

Next, wind your way up to Queenstown. Many thrill-seeking youngsters congregate here, but they'll leave for the slopes in no time. This means you can explore its epic peaks and canyons in tranquillity. For adrenalin addicts, every kind of extreme sport is at your disposal. Come nightfall, however, the mountain-wrapped town heaves with bar-hopping hoards who avoid the hefty ski-village rates. It's best to pick lodgings away from the main drag since your kids are probably more larks than night owls.

For when bungy-jumping somehow doesn't cut it buzz-wise there's Franz Josef glacier, five hours north of Queenstown. This moving mass of ice isn't just for ogling. You can trudge across it, which is largely fine provided you have boots with crampons and wind-proof apparel, though no amount of Gore-Tex will save you or your tots from falling into a crevasse. Some strong advice: do it with an experienced tour operator. It may literally be life-saving.

After trampling across a frozen river, you'll yearn for heart-rate decelerating driving. Meander back to Christchurch over the course of a day. Pit stops can be made at Hotika and Arthur's Pass, for wind-strewn beaches and waterfalls, respectively.

Stately Larnach Castle and its surrounds, Dunedin.
Stately Larnach Castle and its surrounds, Dunedin.  Photo: Flickr

While the above spots are standouts, don't get too hung up on your 'to do' list. In this part of the world, National Geographic-like scenes await you at every vantage point. Endless plains abut stark, snow-capped mountains, with placid lakes in the foreground.  And that's just one particular vista. There's a reason youngster-favourite Lord of the Rings was filmed here: New Zealand's landscapes as wild and varied as fantastical as Middle Earth. And with the wintery chill driving most to the ski fields, there's no better time for you and your brood to get lost elsewhere.

Don't waste time thinking about it, visit Skyscanner to find out the best time to book and get ready for your New Zealand escape.