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Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound

One of the most common questions I was asked to help people resolve when I worked in the Fiordland Tourism sector was whether to do Milford Sound or Doubtul Sound. Both are incredible, gorgeous and breathtaking places that are well worth a visit (and if you have time, I always recommend both). But, most people don’t have the time or finances to do both, so here’s my guide to why I make recommendations one way or the other for different situations.

Active Travellers

Budget Conscious, With Kids

Stay in Te Anau the night before. Head off early self-driving, stop only at Mirror Lakes and for a toilet break if needed. Do a Nature Cruise as early as possible, then do the village walks – out to the point, and up to the lookout. Head home via stops at The Chasm, Monkey Creek, The Divide (walk up to Key Summit for amazing views), and Lake Gunn Nature Walk. Alternatively, pack an overnight bag and head in to one of the huts on the Hollyford Track before you return to Te Anau. If your kids are older (late high school age), and have good physical fitness, a kayak and walk on the Milford Track would also be an absolutely amazing way to see the sound.

Budget Conscious, No Kids

Ideally, you’ll be in a campervan for this one, because if you’ve got time but not heaps of money, and are active, I’d fill up my campers fridge and pantry and spend multiple days along the Milford Road, and at least one night at the lodge / Campground in Milford Sound, allowing heaps of time to explore and do multiple of the walks that are available. If you don’t have a camper, just prepare for a long day of walks, or consider doing one day into Milford Sound and another to do some of the walks.

Treating Yourself, With Kids

Walk in to Milford Sound. Literally. Book yourself into a guided walk with Ultimate Hikes. While kids must be at least 10 years to go guided, we had a 7yo on our independent trip and she rocked it. The bonus of going guided is you get a night in the lodge with a view of Mitre Peak included, and finish your trip with a cruise on the sound. Your transport to and from Queenstown is all included, as are your meals. You carry only your clothes, lunch and camera. Sweet.

Treating Yourself, No Kids

Depending how much you are treating yourself, I’d double-whammy this one. Hike the Milford Track, then take yourself off to Doubtful Sound overnight. If you don’t have the time or inclination for both, then I’d pick just Doubtful Sound overnight. It’s the lazy-persons idea of an active holiday, but you’ll get the opportunity to kayak and swim in the sound in the evening, and being out of contact with civilisation for 24 hours while eating amazing food and seeing stunning scenery? Unbeatable.

Relaxed Travellers

Budget Conscious, With Kids

Starting in Te Anau for the night, self-drive in to Milford Sound. Leave reasonably early, and enjoy various stops along the way. Aim for a late afternoon Nature Cruise on the sound, then head back.

Budget Conscious, No Kids

Pick up one of the multiple buses into the Sound. This is best done departing from Te Anau, where it’s a later start than from Queenstown, but the road is quieter. This way, you don’t have to worry about parking in Milford Sound (which can get really full), and you get the awesome commentary from the driver which will help you learn heaps about the road, while relaxing and enjoying the view.

Treating Yourself, With Kids

Head in to Doubtful Sound. Its so much harder to get to (an hour across the lake, then an hour on a bus over the pass before you set foot on the sound itself), so there are a lot fewer people around. Overnight is best if you can swing it in your schedule, as you get to be on the sound itself for about 20 hours. Day trippers are best staying in Manapouri or Te Anau, as it’s a long day.

Treating Yourself, No Kids

These were always the most fun people to help out. If you’ve got the time and money to do it, DO BOTH. This will also be the only time I don’t advocate for staying in Te Anau around your trip, despite the extra travel time in a bus I’m suggesting. What you want to book is a coach-cruise-fly day or overnight trip to Milford Sound, followed by the overnight trip to Doubtful Sound. You’ll need a night in Queenstown between the two. The views on the flight are raved about (its something I’ve never afforded to do).

Whichever way you chose to visit the gorgeous Fiordland National Park, you’re assured amazing scenery. Don’t worry if it rains, that just makes the waterfalls more impressive. Go summer for long days and short nights, lots of sandflies, kayaking, and overnight boats. Go winter for solitude, daytime boats, epic views of the milky way, and being stuck in Milford Sound when it snows.

PoTW – Martinborough

This is a cute wee playground with a small range of equipment, but it is right next to the newly built library and community centre, which also means right by a cafe and public toilet. Shade is variable, the flying fox is neat, and if you happen to be in town with kids, its definitely worth a stop to let them burn off some energy. It’s also a great spot to escape to on the bustle of Martinborough Fair days. It’s also recently had a refresh, giving it a really nice feel.

PotW – Margaret Mahy, Christchurch

The Stuff news site is constantly pounding a drum that this is the “largest play area in the Southern Hemisphere”, but I have been unable to find any statistics to prove this statement. Looking at exclusively the play equipment spaces of the playgrounds we have been to, it is up among the largest, but we have been to many other playgrounds where the additional features (splash pads, pump tracks, courts, lawns, miniature railways, cycle parks) make for a much larger total recreation space.

That off my chest, this IS genuinely a lovely play area. Its nice to have something family-focussed in the centre of such a damaged CBD. The parking at the playground is reasonably generous, which is important when no-one uses buses in Christchurch. 

The play equipment offers a great variety of activities for all kids. From the giant slide and massive climbing frame, to water movers and a flying fox. You will need to keep an eye on any runners you have, as the playground is unfenced and continues right down to the river bank, where it has a dock for the punts that glide by.

There are few to no cafe’s or shops nearby, but a regular fleet of food trucks resolve that issue, and there are toilets built within the playground.

Bring a change of clothes as there is water play as an option, and be prepared to be a kid yourself as some of the equipment is just too enticing to ignore.

PotW – Aotea Lagoon, Papakowhai

The recreation space at Aotea Lagoon has a wide range of features – from the lagoon itself, to a miniature train, a running track, often a coffee cart, a splash pad and the playground itself.

The splash pad is a reasonably new addition to the park and is very popular. It has little to no shade, and offers very few places to sit and watch from, but is great fun nonetheless. Its a bit of a walk over to the playground, which is a good thing because it stops the playground equipment ending up wet on sunny days.

The playground itself is not massive, but the appeal of this park is not really its playground – its all those other features it offers.

Parking is available on street and off, at both ends of the reserve. It can get busy, so be prepared for that.

PotW – Carrington Park, Carterton

Another fantastic destination playground. Good parking off the road, fenced, a toilet block right there, picnic tables and a band rotunda. A basketball court, a skate bowl, adult exercise equipment and a large sports field out the back add to the variety of play available here.

The shade is generous (fantastic on a hot wairarapa summers day), and the play equipment is in good condition. The separately little kids zone is amazing if you have runners. The main play space being at the back of the park, away from the road, makes it surprisingly quiet for its location alongside the state highway. Bring a picnic and hang out for a while. Or pop across the road to the supermarket for something to eat (although be warned, the road is busy and it can take a while to get across!).

We stop in Featherston a lot, so don’t stop here nearly so often, which is a shame, as I think its a truly awesome park.

PoTW – Pirie Street, Wellington

Pirie Street, Mt Victoria
Wellingtons ultimate late-afternoon playground, Pirie Street gets sunshine until super late, year-round. The only vehicles that go past here are the buses heading in and out of the Mt Victoria Bus Tunnel, and far fewer routes go that way than they used to, so its also really quiet. There’s space to ride a bike, a basketball hoop, standard play equipment, and a fenced toddler section. For the more adventurous, there are also trails up into the Green Belt, including the option to head up to Mt Victoria lookout itself. Parking has always been fine, although we’ve never been during a busy time at the adjoining bowls club, but I’m not sure where the closest toilets are.

PotW – Oamaru

On a hot summers day, Oamaru somehow doesn’t capture the breeze from the ocean it sits nearly on, but at least this playground has shade in the carpark and some shade in the playground itself.

The wider reserve the park is within is massive and the playground itself has  a broad range of play equipment. There is generous parking, plenty of space to run around, and a host of spaces to sit and enjoy a picnic, or to explore. 

The whole park is worth an explore and could fill in an extensive afternoon. Even better, its right next to the local Top10, so if you are camping, this is on your doorstep!

We “Got Lost” and it was AMAZING

Inspiration

We were one of the first families to buy a copy of the “Getting Lost” game when it was released by Cat and James in 2018. Somehow before then I hadn’t found their blog, but they did an AMAZING job with their pre-launch marketing and it was all over Facebook. I couldn’t NOT buy it, this sounded so fun.

Somehow, we just never really used it though. We tried once, not long after we got it, to get then-Mr5 out of the house when he was sick (with what turned out to be flu), but he didn’t get it. He recently rediscovered it in the car, and decided he *really* wanted to use it.

Covid-19 lock down had sucked my travel mojo right out the window, and we had nothing planned for the school holidays – so the idea took root. Take our copy of the game and drive. See where we ended up. Stay there a couple of days and then head home. In the back of our minds, we did have Palmerston North and then home via the Wairarapa as our plan due to the weather forecast, but we didn’t let on to Mr7.

The Adventure Day

Thursday morning we were off. We had four days ahead of us and no bookings. School holidays had seen a number of places booked out. This could be interesting.

Our instructions sent us to a local street (because the first google result that came up for “lake” was 800km away in the South Island, yay for search history), then we looped around Plimmerton and Pauatahanui Inlet before stopping for ice cream for morning tea. We found some exceptional playgrounds (in particular Paekakariki and Otaki), played in the incoming tide at the To Horo river mouth and enjoyed lunch at Coastlands.

The 165km we drove this day took us 5 hours because we made so many stops. It was so absolutely worth it though. We stopped in so many places we would normally never make a specific trip to (because they’re too close), or stop at along the way (because we usually just want to GET there).

What we discovered

  1. Plimmerton
    It might have been raining when we followed a white car into Plimmerton (the instruction was “follow a black car” but we couldn’t find one), but that didn’t stop us having a look around. I had forgotten just how long a suburb Plimmerton was!
  2. Paekakariki Playground
    While at the top of the Paekakariki Hill Road, our next instruction was “find a playground”. So we plugged that into our NavMan, and it came up with Campbell Park. Despite the light drizzle, this was an epic discovery. What an awesome playground!
  3. Te Horo Beach
    If you follow the road straight to the beach (rather than down through the village), you come to a point where the stream meets the surf, and you get some very cool effect as the tide comes in with it pushing up stream. Heaps of entertainment, and the local we got chatting to was lovely.
  4. The swings at the playground in Otaki
    “Find a street starting with M” sent us to Mill Street, Otaki, where there happened to be another playground. This one had the most AMAZING set of swings, with a super high cross beam that made for an incredible sensation.
  5. Palmerston North
    We opted to spent two nights in Palmerston North, and on the first night we walked to the square to see the light up clocktower. Very pretty. The new pedestrian-centric road layouts there are nice to see too. We also absolutely adored the Victoria Esplanade gardens – the play space, the miniature train (with its huge loop), the WildBase recovery space for native birds.
  6. Manawatu Gorge walking track
    I’ve been wanting to do this for AGES. So this was finally our chance. We didn’t go all the way across (as it would have been most of a day there and back), but we did the west side loop, and had a great time. Got gorgeous views all the way to Taranaki from one of the seats.
  7. Te Apiti
    We’re geeks, so no crossing of saddle road is complete without a stop to hug a wind turbine. We weren’t the only ones out in the cold and blustery conditions.
  8. The Cheesecake Shop in Woodville
    Gluten Free cabinet treats, and a range of cheesecake options available to take away. Spending our money in these small towns felt good over our break. We bought ice creams and/or morning tea every day, and ate out regularly.
  9. Pukaha / Mt Bruce
    We actually stayed for the Kaka feeding that rounds out their talks this time (our third visit), and it was great fun. The kaka seem a little less friendly than they did back in 2015 when we first visited and they liked to hang around to try and steal food, but that’s actually a good thing.
  10. Martinborough
    After a night at the bach at Castlepoint (taking some very muddy back roads to get there, which was hilarious), we opted for lunch in Martinborough, where we also visited the lolly shop and the playground. A cute wee town, it’s been too long since we were last here as a family.

Stay / Eat / Getting Around

Stay: We spent two nights in a one-bedroom room at the Cornwall Motor Lodge. The bedroom had two single beds, with the main bed in the living room. There were kitchen facilities in the room, which was great. Get a room away from the road, it will be darker and quieter. For our Saturday night stay, we wanted to stay near Greytown if we could as they had a lights festival on, but the closest option was Upper Hutt, by which point we may as well be at home. So we went to the bach instead.

Eat: We splurged at a number of awesome spots. From ice creams at the Pauatahanui Store, chocolates at Kapiti Chocolate Factory, and cheesecakes at Yummy Mummys, to lunch at Munch in Palmerston North (100% recommend to anyone GF, as you can eat EVERYTHING) and Cafe Medici in Martinborough. Dinners were mostly self-cooked.

Getting Around: We took our own car, unsurprisingly. This is a trip you need a car for. You could maybe do some of the Getting Lost clues as a pedestrian or cyclist in the middle of town, depending on the town.

PotW – Featherston

This is easily one of Mr7’s favourite playgrounds. Its hard now to go through Featherson without stopping to play, which makes trips to the beach house longer for sure! The play space is generously proportioned, offering a range of play equipment and space. There are seats scattered across the play area for parents and a toilet (although one with those awful non-seat rubber rings on metal bowls) at the State Highway side of the park.

The flying fox is a particular favourite piece of equipment, as it goes quite fast, and the net bowl swing is also popular. 

Parking is generous, around two sides of the playground, and in the weekend you can park down the driveway of the GP that is behind the space. If you are lucky, the Mini Fell Engine will be running – it appears to run some weekends over about lunchtime during the summer (we are never in Featherston at the right time). If you have time, the Fell Museum (across the road) is also worth visiting. Its about 5 minutes walk to the supermarket, who sell ice creams and cold drinks, and in the vicinity of the supermarket are several cafes and boutique shops that are worth exploring.

PoTW – Balclutha Bridge

Lanark Street, Balclutha
Our first stop here was entirely by accident, needing somewhere to pass some time before we could drive the last half hour to our accommodation in the Catlins. And it was a fantastic accident. The playground is generously sized, with a good range of play equipment. It is easy access for cars, with good parking, and has multiple mature trees for summer shade. In Autumn, I can imagine it would be a haven for leaf throwing, as the trees are all deciduous. It’s only downfall is that toilets are quite a way off, either in the showgrounds, or at the i-site. For older kids, its not far, but it was a long way on little legs.

As an added bonus, New World is two minutes walk, so if you need the makings of a picnic, you can top up there!