Got kids to entertain? Here are five great ideas for family-friendly days out in Wellington.
1. Ferry nice indeed
It often gets taken for granted as a commuter service, but the East By West Ferry operation is a great way to experience Wellington and one of its greatest assets: the harbour.
One of the most popular excursions for Wellingtonians has always been across the harbour to Days Bay. It’s a gorgeous beach on a summer’s day, and Williams Park behind it offers a place for picnics, for kicking, hitting or throwing a ball around and for licking an icecream from the Pavilion Café. You can use Days Bay as a setting-off point for excursions into the wider area – the very popular Butterfly Creek walk sets off from nearby, and if you’ve brought bikes over on the ferry (which you can do at no charge) or hired them from the Days Bay Boatshed, then you and older kids can peddle around the corner to Eastbourne, or tackle the easy, lovely ride beyond to Pencarrow Head with its historic lighthouse and truly formidable set of stairs.
If all this sounds like too much landlubbing, you can (weather permitting) just stay aboard the ferry for the round trip of the harbour, and the perfect way to round it all off is with a pizza at One Red Dog, a short distance from where the ferry docks.
2. Mindfood: The Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa
In spite of its curmudgeonly detractors, Te Papa rightly prides itself on being a far cry from the kind of museum where you wander timidly amongst static displays in cavernous marble halls. Much – if not most – of what is on offer at our national museum is designed to give little people the opportunity to feed their minds through all of their senses, including touch. (Where else in New Zealand, perhaps even the rest of the world, will your kids get the chance to crawl through a life-sized model of a blue whale’s heart?)
For the very young, there is StoryPlace, where kids can be entertained and informed by Te Papa’s wonderful staff at one of a number of timetabled sessions during the day (these are very popular, so bookings are essential). Outside, the beautifully landscaped Bush City includes a very lifelike reconstruction of a limestone cave, complete with cave wetas and fossilising moa bones, and there is a sandpit where kids can diligently uncover a fossilised mososaur skeleton – or just jump into the sandpit.
With the wider delights of Wellington’s waterfront literally on the doorstep, you can make Te Papa the centrepiece of an exploration of our beautiful capital city’s main attraction. That way, you’ll be sure to find plenty of excuses to come back again, and again.
3. Wild at Heart: Animals, Animals, Animals
Besides Wellington Zoo and Zealandia (worthy of visits in their own right), one of the best days out in Wellington with animal-mad kids is Staglands in the Akatarawa Valley to the west of Upper Hutt, a kind of 25-acre theme park-cum-petting zoo-cum-wildlife sanctuary. Here you can handle bunnies and guineapigs and lambs, and you can feed the fowls, pigs, goats, sheep, horses, deer and even trout and eels. There are lots of birds about, many of them rare in the wild – the shy whio (blue duck) and the beautiful, regal kārearea (falcon) are two of note.
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There are static displays of the area’s pioneering history (if the kids are playing up, there’s always the jail cell and the stocks), and running through the property is a stream, over which there is a rope swing, and beside which you can spend a sun-drenched hour having a picnic and even a swim (if you can put those hungry trout and eels out of your mind), serenaded all the while by chooks and peacocks. Littlies will be thrilled by the free ride you can hitch on a tractor and trailer across the river.
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When it’s the kids’ turn to be fed, there’s a great café on site. You’ll need to make sure they wash their hands – the level of grime they will have acquired will be proof of a good day out, as if the grins weren’t enough.
4. Pursue Your Inclinations: The Remutaka Cycle Trail
For older children – eight and up is about right – the cycle trail along the route of the old Remutaka Incline is an adventure that’s hard to beat. It’s an 18-km gravel path, nicely graded (especially if tackled from the Wellington side) that passes by the relics of the busy railway it was until 1955 and through four tunnels. You’ll need a very good torch! The quality of the experience depends very much upon the weather: it can be spooky, cold and wet when (as often happens) it is enveloped in low cloud, and it can be very challenging for small riders when the wind is high. But in good weather, it’s a superb day out, which everyone will finish with a sense of achievement.
Of course, by riding through the tunnels and down the hill, you’re putting a mountain range between you and whatever mode of transport you used to get to the start but never fear: there are at least two commercial shuttle operators who will reunite you, your bikes and your ride. Call Valley Shuttles, or Remutaka Shuttles.
5. A Walk in the Park: Botanic Gardens
Quite apart from being a great place to stroll (it covers 25 hectares, much of it on fairly steep terrain, so the network of paths can provide easy or hard walking as you prefer), the Botanic Gardens has a number of attractions besides. It features both native and exotic plantings, and the seasonal flower displays – especially the massed plantings of tulips in the spring – are breathtaking. The Begonia House has a child-pleasing goldfish pond, and next door there’s the Picnic Café for hot chocolates in the winter and ice creams in the summer.
A short walk away is The Dell, a sheltered lawn that is a favourite spot for school picnics and which regularly hosts outdoor concerts. There’s also the Sound Shell, which is the centrepiece of the annual Summer Series of concerts and performances.
Kids gravitate to the duck pond: best get there reasonably early before the residents have had their fill: torpid ducks that spurn the treats thrown by children are inclined to disappoint. And please note that bread is bad for ducks: defrosted frozen peas or rolled oats are a better choice. A short walk up a steep-ish hill there is an excellent playground, with a flying fox and some of the best swings in Wellington. It lies beautifully to the sun and can be a place to bask while the children amuse themselves year round, and while kākā from Zealandia a few kilometres distant squawk and shriek overhead.
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For slightly older and more inquiring minds, the Carter Observatory offers stimulating displays on all things relating to space and the business of studying it. And nearby, there is the Wellington Cable Car Museum, which occupies the original winding house for the still-operating Cable Car. Naturally enough, the Cable Car itself is a highlight for children of all ages, and it’s a great way to finish off a ramble through the gardens.