Queen Elizabeth Park, Masterton. © Jet Productions

Families need to discover these 10 Kiwi Gems in the North Island


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So, you think you know New Zealand? But have you discovered all of these family-friendly Kiwi Gems around the North Island?

1. Whoa! Studios, Auckland

Combine a live theatre experience, a film studio, an excellent restaurant and possibly the best playground in New Zealand and you’ve got a recipe for a great family day out. 

Whoa! Studios in the Auckland suburb of Henderson is a multi-faceted family extravaganza designed to surprise and delight.

The Whoa! Studios Urban Playground is unlike any other play experience in New Zealand.

With a rocket ship, pirate cove and a centrepiece of the country’s only hand-crafted crochet climbing net that took Japanese artist Toshiko Horiuchi Macadam two years to complete, it’s a compelling destination for kids of all ages. 

Alongside the playground, pantomime-style puppet performances are held live in the on-site theatre each weekend, with a cast of family-friendly puppets created by the talented teams behind some of New Zealand’s best-known film and television productions. 

2. Katikati Bird Gardens, Bay of Plenty

On the edge of Tauranga Harbour you can wander through beautiful gardens with exotic birds for company. 

The Katikati Bird Gardens were established in 1976 and have flourished ever since, with 1.5km of pathways meandering between water-lily ponds, a purpose-built lake, natural wetlands, and an abundance of colourful plants.  

The resident birds are dotted throughout the grounds in spacious enclosures or wandering free so you can enjoy close encounters of the avian kind. 

Spot herons, shags and even rare spoonbills in the harbourside wetlands, tūī, kererū and doves in the treetops, peacocks, pheasants and ponds full of swans, teal and paradise ducks.

3. Coro Zip, Coromandel

At Driving Creek on The Coromandel Peninsula, you can choose between chugging through native forest on New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge mountain railway or zooming above it via zipline. 

Driving Creek is set amongst native kauri and rimu forest that has been painstakingly cultivated over the decades from farmland to resemble what it would have been like in pre-European times. 

To further immerse yourself in this remarkable regenerating environment, ride the train to the start of the Coromandel Zipline, where you can fly on eight separate ziplines spanning gullies, streams and taking in the native forest from above.   

4. Hampton Downs, Waikato

Unleash your inner racer on the track at Hampton Downs. 

Challenge your friends or family to the fastest lap time on either the 530-metre or the new 830-metre Go Kart circuits at the Hampton Downs Motorsport Park in North Waikato. 

With fast, responsive karts, you’ll fly around the outdoor circuit, designed to challenge your driving skills with straights, hills and snaking bends.

Home to many major motorsport events, keen drivers can take their turn on the Hampton Downs track, reaching speeds of up to 70km/h in single or tandem Go Karts that will thrill all the family 

5. Wingspan, Rotorua

At Wingspan, New Zealand’s National Bird of Prey Centre, you can get up close to our native falcons, or kārearea. 

Wingspan, on the outskirts of Rotorua was established in 2002 as a conservation initiative to help protect these remarkable native birds. 

Kārearea are rarer than kiwi, with only around 4,000 remaining in the wild.

When they’re temporarily in captivity at Wingspan, kārearea quickly forget how to hunt properly so the falconers keep their skills fresh with daily lure training sessions for when they’re released back into the wild.

Having recently moved sites, the new Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre is still under construction, but three days a week visitors are welcome to experience the new development, learn about Wingspan’s extensive conservation programmes and witness the falcons’ in-flight training.

6. Eastwoodhill Arboretum, Gisborne

Eastwoodhill, the National Arboretum of New Zealand, is home to 135 hectares of beautiful exotic and native trees.  

About 30 minutes inland from Gisborne, Eastwoodhill is a garden that has been growing for 110 years. With more than 3,500 varieties of trees, it is the largest and most comprehensive collection of Northern Hemisphere trees in the Southern Hemisphere. 

A multitude of walking tracks wind through seasonal gardens vibrant with colour – especially during spring when the magnolias and rhododendrons are in bloom. 

In the summer months, you can stroll through shaded, leafy glades with specimen trees so impressive they earned Eastwoodhill recognition as a Garden of National Significance. 

7. Splash Planet, Hawke's Bay

A never-ending river, a water-fuelled pirate fortress and a tangle of twisting slides can all be found at New Zealand’s only water theme park. 

Splash Planet in Hastings is a popular spot in the hot Hawke’s Bay summers, with bountiful opportunities to get wet. 

The park’s first incarnation was as Fantasyland back in 1968, but the sprawling 6.5-hectare site has been re-imagined as a mecca for watery fun. 

Shoot down the hydro slides and water rides; splash on the bumper boats and relax on the lazy river. 

There’s plenty to do if you’d rather keep dry too, with go-karts, mini golf, kayaks and kid-friendly jeeps to drive. 

8. Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki

One of New Zealand’s best and most innovative private museums, Tawhiti Museum in South Taranaki recreates the region’s history in vivid 4D detail. 

Today, Tawhiti Museum is a testament to creativity with scale model dioramas and lifesize figures crafted with incredible realism and painstaking attention to detail.  

One of the museum’s more recent additions is the Traders and Whalers exhibition, created in conjunction with Weta Workshop. Here, visitors can take a theme park-style ride in a small boat through dark, underground canals for an immersive historical experience.  

Outside, you can catch the narrow gauge Tawhiti Bush Railway, which runs through the bush on tracks reclaimed from Taranaki’s logging past, explore the extensive farm machinery exhibition and stay for a cuppa at Mr Badger’s Café.

9. Queen Elizabeth Park, Wairarapa

Queen Elizabeth Park is an 81-hectare gem in the middle of Masterton. 

There’s a large lake with pedal boats that you can hire and feed the friendly waterfowl as you potter around the shallow waters. 

A miniature train runs around the lake edge on weekends, there's a mini golf course, and kids will love the extensive adventure playground with a giant hamster wheel, castle and pirate ship. 

Cross the Waipoua River on the bouncing suspension bridge to spot – and hand-feed – fallow or red deer and let the kids have a blast at the skate park.  

Alternatively, simply take a walk beneath the boulevard of old English trees and along the top of the Waipoua River stopbank.

10. Wētā Workshop, Wellington

Wētā Workshop is world-famous, but in Wellington, you can have your own hands-on experience of cinematic craft. 

From a 45-minute excursion to a full-day tour, at Wētā, you can immerse yourself in the world of movie-making. 

Get up close to props and models used in the Lord of the Rings films, watch visual effects artists at work or visit one of the real, miniature television shooting stages used in Thunderbirds are Go. 

You’ll be surprised by how much of Wētā Workshop’s magic comes from re-purposing everyday items to create crafty genius. 

At Wētā’s Miramar workshops, you can also have a DIY experience, creating your own chainmaille, makeup effects, or learning the basics of sculpting. 

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