North Island Road Trip Day 1: Wellington to Palmerston North

Distance: 140km

Approximate Driving Time: 2 hours 10 mins


Road trip!

The last time my kids heard those words we embarked on a two-week epic journey around the South Island. By the end, we were all exhausted! This time, we were heading off on a five day trip during the school holidays to explore the lower North Island. With shorter driving distances – and hence more time to explore and have fun – the kids (Lee and Jason), my husband, Paul, and I were raring to go.

Being the July school holidays the weather was, well … July! Dull, wet and cold. But that just added to the adventure and we were well prepared with beanies, gloves and lots of waterproof and warm clothing – and a change of clothes easily to hand in the car. We headed north along the picturesque Kapiti Coast road where the Wellington wind was sending the waves crashing into the rocks. Leaving the coast, Levin is a great place to stop and stretch the legs. The kids love the huge Adventure Park that’s right beside State Highway 1.



Heading further inland we visited Owlcatraz in the town of Shannon. Owlcatraz is the home to a collection of friendly farm animals and birds, with the main attraction the ruru or morepork, New Zealand’s native owl. Before our guided tour, which all visitors are treated to, we were offered the use of umbrellas to ward off the drizzle.


Our first guide Don, who was full of fascinating stories, took us into the old Shannon jail (because it wouldn’t be Owlcatraz without a jail), then into the bush, imparting his knowledge of native flora and fauna until we reached the weka enclosures. These extremely intelligent native birds are full of interesting sounds and we were able to pat one of the tame ones who loves humans (but isn’t so keen on her own species!).

Then it was on to the farm animals; Ohakune the performing pig, handfeeding and patting the donkeys, deer and goats; and watching the crazy ducklings dive into the alpacas feed trough. We were followed along the way by some tag-along chooks who were hoping for a few dropped morsels. The owl house was home to the ruru (morepork). The dreary weather and lack of sunshine meant that the owls were very active inside their habitat. Ruru swooped past us and perched on trees within an arm’s reach. It was extraordinary to see these native birds up close after hearing them for years from deep inside the bush around our home.

A quick trip around the lake to feed the ducks and then we visited the man-made Wairuru Caves, home to glow-worms, for an extraordinary treat. Now, I’ve seen glow-worms before – in little caves on bush walks and even the famous ones at Waitomo. But this glow-worm colony was out of this world!


After spending some time adjusting our eyes to the darkness (it was very dark, hence this is for ages eight and above), we hooked on to the person in front and made our way into a magical wonderland that is almost beyond description. I swear I walked around the whole caves with my mouth gaping! Not to be missed, for sure. The kids kept an eye out for secrets along the bush trail to complete an entry into the treasure hunt.

We drove on to Palmerston North, a university town with more than a few surprises for family fun.


New Zealand Rugby Museum

Any aspiring All Black will love the New Zealand Rugby Museum in the Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History. It’s a treasure trove of sporting memorabilia from the very first itchy and scratchy national jersey with its gold embroidered fern, through the decades of the proud heritage of New Zealand’s national sport.

The fascinating displays abound with history and brought back many memories from my own childhood, watching the All Blacks on the TV with my dad. Also in the museum was a chance for the kids to show off their skills in the have-a-go arena. A scrum machine tested how hard they can push, there’s kicking practice to become the next Dan Carter and a fun tackle game that had them burning off some of that boundless energy. Needless to say, there was more than a bit of competition between the kids and their dad to see who was worthy of wearing the silver fern.


Te Manawa

As well as sporting history, Te Manawa features art, science and history collections, performances and changing exhibits. We ventured into the Sunlight – Ihi Kōmaru exhibition which was a hands-on journey into the science of the Sun and light. Light, lasers, colour – the kids loved exploring each and every interactive game or challenge. The competitive spirit was back with a speed camera that measured how long it would take each person to run to the moon! It was a feast for the senses; climb inside a giant inflatable sun to hear what the Sun sounds like, manipulate light, lasers and magnetic fields, or journey around the universe in virtual reality.


Don’t miss dessert!

We popped into Cafe Cuba for dinner, a popular, bustling licensed cafe and restaurant in the heart of Palmerston North. In the spirit of trying something new, we indulged in a tapas platter for us to share as our entree which was enjoyed by everyone.


The range of dishes was excellent, allowing us to opt for a touch of elegance with my fresh fish on lemon and prawn risotto and a bit of spice in Paul’s Thai beef salad, while Lee chose nachos and, from the kids menu, a tasty cheeseburger and fries for Mr ‘not-so-adventurous’. Desserts were divine so we were glad we saved some room! The staff were friendly and efficient and the cafe is full of character.


Time to relax

It was just a short four minute drive from central Palmerston North to our accommodation for the night at the Comfort Inn Kauri Court. The warm and comfortable studio units were a welcome retreat from the winter cold. The kitchen area was well equipped for a family stay and I didn’t think I would ever get Jason out of the superb spa bath – he now wants one at home!

As is tradition on our family holidays, a game of Five Crowns shortly broke out with the usual shouts of triumph and despair. The adjoining rooms meant that Paul and I could get just a smidge of peace and quiet while the kids watched TV in their own room to wind down from our busy day. The contemporary-style apartments that are available at Kauri Court would also make a wonderful base for a family of any size wanting to explore the region further.


View next post: North Island Road Trip Day 2: Palmerston North to Napier

This blog was written by Julie Scanlon of Kidspot. Julie and her family were sponsored by Choice Hotels Asia-Pac on their 5 day road trip of the lower North Island. 
For more information on Choice Hotels Asia-Pac visit or follow Choice Hotels NZ on Facebook. We acknowledge the support of Destination Manawatu in providing activities during the road trip and thank them for their assistance.

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