New Zealand may have come of age but a little nostalgia never goes out of style when it comes to having a great family holiday. If you want to give it a try, you don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy a retro New Zealand holiday with kids.
Celebrate Kiwi pop culture at Otorohanga which is known as the Kiwiana capital of New Zealand. The main street is filled with retro Kiwiana murals, sculptures and art installations celebrating New Zealand cultural icons. The Classics Museum at Hamilton is filled with classic cars, racing bikes and scooters plus vintage toys, pedal cars, and historic photos. If the weather is good, hit the trails in Waiorongomai Valley near Te Aroha and explore the Piako County Tramway, New Zealand’s oldest bush tramway with rail still in place. After clambering around the old gold mines and miners’ lodgings and up the steep Butlers Incline, Te Aroha Mineral Spas should be your next stop to soothe any aching muscles.
Te Aroha was New Zealand’s most popular spa town in the late 1800s with around 30,000 bathers soaking in the natural hot soda springs each year. One of the original Edwardian bath houses has been restored and reopened to bathers a few months ago. This region is also home to another one of New Zealand’s most famous historic tourist attractions. In the late 1800s, Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti began escorting visitors through Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Many current staff are their direct descendants. If you’re looking for luxury accommodation near Waitomo, Kamahi Cottage is perfect. The romantic self-contained B&B is set on 450 hectares of farmland that has been in the owner’s family since the 1940s.
“Thunderbirds are Go!” during Weta Workshop’s Miniature Effects Tour which includes a tour of the set used for the remake of the original Thunderbirds television series. Blending model making, high-tech filming techniques and a cult TV series, this tour is loads of fun. Highlights include viewing the ingenious moving models used for Tracy Island, seeing the Thunderbird hangars, and learning how the crew create the realistic Thunderbirds’ action scenes using a miniature shooting stage. Head downtown and you’ll find the quirky Wellington Museum which has exhibits covering everything from what it was like to work as a local sailor to the city’s reputation as New Zealand’s UFO capital. Don’t miss The Attic on the top floor with its cutting edge storytelling technology and exhibits.
It’s an easy walk from here to Wellington’s famous cable car which has been operating for more than a century. The cable car travels from the CBD to the Botanic Gardens and offers superb views over the harbour and beyond. It is best enjoyed when the weather is good so you can make the most of the views and walk back into town past the garden’s gracious old trees and pretty flowers. Adjacent to the Wellington Cable Car, you’ll find the Doubletree by Hilton which is housed in an Art Deco building dating back to 1928. The hotel has high ceilings with beautiful design details and celebrates the grandeur of days gone by. Nearby Cuba Street is a vintage shopping haven with stores selling retro clothing, books, records, homewares and more.
Get your geek on at the Museum of Transport, Aviation and Technology – better known as MOTAT – which covers 40 acres and is spread across two sites. Marvel at the glamour of 1950s air travel, check out a fully operational 1877 pumphouse, and play classic 80s video games for free in the retro gaming area. Entry includes a ride from one site to the other on MOTAT’s heritage trams. If you’re looking for somewhere retro to eat, Happy Boy Eatery in Royal Oak and Kiss Kiss in Balmoral are your go to with neon lighting, bright colours and plastic tablecloths – not to mention delicious food. Archie Brothers Cirque Electriq in Newmarket isn’t just an arcade with bumper cars and bowling, it’s also a retro diner. Think big milkshakes, hotdogs, pink burger buns, and jellybean cocktails for over 18s.
For an equally cool yet classier drinking and dining experience, enjoy high tea at sea on the Maritime Museum’s newest heritage vessel, the Nautilus which sails around Waitemata Harbour. You’ll find the perfect nightcap at Caretaker, a gorgeous cocktail spot inspired by New York’s classic cocktail lounges. This moody bar is fitted out with cosy tables, leather seats, smoky mirrors and dark woods, creating an intimate setting to indulge in a drink or two. Cocktails change weekly and include unique tipples such as a beer cocktail from 1864. When the night is over, rest your head at the Art Deco-styled Hotel DeBrett which blends mid-century modern furniture with New Zealand art and luxurious touches.
From an interactive ride through Dunedin in a 1950s bus to dressing up in period costume and playing 80s video games, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum is as much fun for adults as it is for children. Grown-ups will enjoy the historic Speight’s Brewery tour which includes pouring lessons and beer sampling with a generous dash of Kiwi humour. For a trip back in time visit the Dunedin Railway Station or Olveston House, a perfectly preserved Jacobean-style mansion that was bequeathed to the City of Dunedin. With an eclectic collection of fine art and furnishings, it still feels like a cosy family home and is a delight to explore.
Best Café has old-school formica tables and is the place to go for fish and chips served with a traditional plate of bread and butter. Good Good has a retro caravan, astro turf, neon signs and seriously good burgers. Plato is renowned for its authentic 70s vibe, astounding collection of retro ceramic crockery and salt and pepper shakers and delicious seafood. Get your caffeine hit at Modaks Espresso which is decked out with kitsch art and retro tables. Shopaholics are spoiled for choice at Two Squirrels Vintage, Finders Keepers and Vintage Honey’s Parlour which sells preloved and new rockabilly clothing and accessories. Relics’ vintage vinyl, CDs and hi fi gear are enough to rock any audiophile’s world.
Immerse yourself in Queenstown’s gold mining history with a visit to Arrowtown, a gold rush town that attracted miners from around the world in the 1860s. It’s free to explore the Chinese mining village which offers a fascinating look at what life was like for those trying to strike it rich. The Lakes District Museum has two floors of exhibits and a treasure hunt for kids. You’ll also find plenty of cafes and cute shops and boutiques to explore. Nearby Skippers Canyon also has many remnants of the region’s gold mining history including an old settlement with a school and an original miner’s house.
The TSS Earnslaw is the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the Southern Hemisphere and is still sailing the waters of Lake Wakatipu today. It takes around half an hour to reach Walter Peak High Country Farm on the other side of the lake. The area’s rugged beauty must have been a bonus for William Rees who named the farm after his eldest son Walter in the late 1850s. Walter Peak High Country Farm flourished thanks to the Queenstown gold rush and 40,000 thrived on paddocks which stretched up the surrounding mountains. Their fine Merino wool once topped the London wool sales but these days the picturesque farm’s main business is tourism. Book the barbeque lunch cruise and you’ll get a superb meal served overlooking the surrounding mountains.
Historic accommodation options abound with choices including Eichardt’s Private Hotel, Hulbert House and The Dairy Private Hotel which was Queenstown’s original ‘dairy’. Atmospheric dining can be found The Bathhouse, a sweet little restaurant housed in an original Victorian bathhouse. The New Zealand Railways Shipping Office dates back to 1869 and is home to the Boat Shed Café & Bistro. The Millhouse near Arrowtown once provided the town’s water, power, and flour and is now an intimate award-winning restaurant.
Nelson’s brewing heritage is celebrated at the Hop and Beer Museum and there’s a display celebrating the golden age of coach travel. Early settlers used to visit the nearby Ngarua Caves on Takaka Hill by coach. These days visitors arrive by car to see caverns filled with stalagmites and stalactites and the fully intact Moa skeleton which was found inside one of the caves. If this doesn’t appeal, you could take a ferry across Nelson Harbour and climb the historic lighthouse, try your hand at archery in one of New Zealand’s last remaining ancient forests or quench your thirst with a glass of ale at The Moutere Inn, the oldest pub in NZ. Established in 1850, the hotel still provides accommodation to weary travellers. For something cute and quirky, Golden Bay Hideaway has a restored House Truck with an outdoor bath and superb water views.
Explore the region in an iconic sports car with Rent A Classic or zip around the city and waterfront on a vintage scooter. If you would prefer to look at historic vehicles rather than drive them, the recently re-opened and upgraded Nelson Classic Car Museum has 150 cars from the last 100 years on display. Founders Heritage Park brings New Zealand’s history to life with interactive displays and local artisans such as fashion designer Jill Alexander who creates vintage inspired outfits and accessories in a beautiful Victorian studio and workshop.
Looking for some different things to do in New Zealand? We’ve also written about how to spend 24 hours in Martinborough, what to do in Wellington, Queenstown’s best adrenalin activities, the Walter Peak Gourmet BBQ Lunch Cruise in Queenstown, the best things to do in Dunedin, and what to do in Queenstown in summer.