My husband was driving our rental RV on the North Island of New Zealand, past emerald green pastures dotted with snowy white sheep, when he asked where we should stop for the night. We were heading toward a swath of lush, jungle-like greenery that looked like a hybrid of the Sierra Nevada and Hawaii because groves of pine emerged from a tropical rainforest and a snow-capped peak rose above a beach.
In the passenger seat, I flipped through a directory that listed dozens of RV parks, several of which dotted the map near us, and answered, “We could go anywhere!”
The freedom to go anywhere — yet always be close to nature — is a large part of what makes traveling by motor home or campervan so appealing in New Zealand. Kiwi couples and families love to vacation at these campgrounds, which are known as “holiday parks,” so much so that camping seems to rival rugby as the national pastime. Much of New Zealand’s tourism industry is dedicated to promoting the parks and catering to campers’ needs.
Our two kids, sitting at the table toward the back of the RV, chimed in with criteria they had honed for choosing a park: It should have a trampoline by the beach or a rope swing over a river, preferably both.
For Americans, the idea of staying at an RV park may conjure AstroTurf visions of budget-minded bumpkins. Set aside those stereotypes, because New Zealanders make camping (or “glamping,” as my Queenstown friend calls “glamorous camping”) more comfortable, convenient and fun than many hotel-based family vacations we’ve tried.
We rented a motor home from Kea Campers, one of the better-known companies (Maui Motorhome is another), for a week in early December. After we turned it in, we continued to kick back at a lakeside holiday park by renting a cabin at one near Rotorua.
That’s one of the surprises about holiday parks: You don’t actually have to pitch a tent or drive an RV to stay there. Most have no-frills cabins ranging from one-room, box-like units (averaging $50 – $60 NZ per night) with shared showers and toilets, to very comfortable and well-equipped condo-like units with a full kitchen, bathroom and TV (averaging $90 – $110 per night).
A spot to park and plug in a motor home, meanwhile, averages $45 – $60 for couples (families can expect to pay about $10 extra per child). For that you get a parking spot, picnic table, shared kitchen and shower facilities, and other amenities such as a recreation room. Several of the parks we stayed at in the Bay of Islands region north of Auckland had more things for the kids to climb and bounce on than any playground back home.
But timing is everything when planning a New Zealand holiday park trip. The whole country goes on summer break from around December 20 through January, so rates for RV rentals shoot up and campsites fill up, necessitating advance reservations, which in turn crimps the ability to travel byways by whim rather than by a set itinerary. The cost quoted for a 4-person RV from Kea, for example, jumps $85 per day, from $279 to $364, from early December to late December 2010. Beating the peak season by traveling in early December is ideal.
Or, going Down Under during America’s Spring Break is an appealing option. March through May marks autumn in New Zealand, when temperatures range in the 50s to 60s and dry days still outnumber wet ones (check the climate on the New Zealand tourism website for details).
Our family found camps in the Top 10 Holiday Parks network to be the best and recommend the following route to sample some of them: for a sublime beach, head north from Auckland to Orewa; for Rainbow Falls and good restaurants, Kerikeri; for a forest fairyland, Kauri Coast; and for lakeside fun, Blue Lake Rotorua.
We haven’t scratched the surface of the South Island — yet. We’re hitting the road there for a month and plan to pass up hotels in favor of holiday parks. “On the road again” never sounded so good.
Watch this short video we made to see what Day One in a rental RV really is like:
FarFlungGal Sarah Lavender Smith is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area who’s five months into a year-long round-the-world trip. She blogs about her family’s adventures at away-together.com, with the tagline “One family, one year, many places, no regrets.” Photos by Morgan C. Smith.