R&R by RV at New Zealand’s Family-Friendly Holiday Parks

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.

The view out the back of our RV at a camp spot in Waiwera, a half hour north of Auckland.

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.

My son loved the zipline at the Kauri Coast holiday park near the North Island's Waipoua Forest.

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.

Cooking on wheels and eating on picnic tables has never been so much fun!

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.

19 Comments on "R&R by RV at New Zealand’s Family-Friendly Holiday Parks"

  1. This looks like SO MUCH FUN! I have two friends who RV’ed NZ for their honeymoon. Three weeks and they had a blast. This is such a fabulous idea.

  2. Love love this post!!!

    Thank you for so many great tips! New Zealand has been in my top list this past few months. With so many posts from many travel bloggers, I feel like it’s a sign. 🙂 Plus this will be a great way for me to fulfill my LOTR dream trip. 😉

  3. Wow, I NEVER would have thought of RVing New Zealand, but this looks like the perfect family vacation. Plus, you’d get a completely different experience and look at the country than you would staying at a hotel. What a great idea–thanks for all the good info!

  4. This post allowed me to dream. That photo of the clouds is awesome!

  5. Camping in NZ is a great option. I’m glad to hear you had a good experience with Kea. I would suggest to any of your readers who want to come down to NZ or Australia that they avoid hiring from Tourism Holdings who run Maui, Britz and Backpacker brands. We had a terrible trip with them in Australia a few weeks ago. I won’t go into the details but there were several days of trouble, the company didn’t want to be reasonable and when I sent an email of complaint, nothing was done…until a friend of ours who is a founding shareholder in the company took our letter to the Chairman of the Board. It may be better in NZ, but it is the same company. Avoid.

    On a more positive note, we had an OUTSTANDING experience with Spaceship Camper Van rentals in NZ. Instead of a full RV, you rent a modified mini-van that has a convertible sleeping area and a stove that swings outside of the van for safe cooking. There is a DVD player embedded in the top of the van and they have places throughout NZ where you can pick up FREE movies. They also have a jack to plug your iPod into the sound system.

    The mini-vans are cheaper and easier to drive than a traditional RV. Plus they are all named after sci-fi characters- good geek fun. You wouldn’t want to take the kids in this unless you rent the additional pup-tent, but it is a great cost-effective option for a couple or single person. Website at http://www.spaceshipsrentals.co.nz/

  6. Jennifer Margulis | December 31, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Reply

    Sounds amazing. I have some friends who did this and had a fabulous time. Stephanie, I wonder if it’s the same people?! My friends were on their honeymoon as well.

  7. Oh this looks like so much fun! Selling the house for RVing is my husband’s dream.

    Thanks for contributing. Happy New Year!

  8. Hi all, thanks for all the positive feedback — I’m glad you liked the post! It occurred to me I should have mentioned that in the video we made of our first day in the RV, the camp pictured was probably the least attractive in terms of the facility. All the others we stayed at were a lot nicer!
    To Frugal Kiwi: Sorry to hear of your experience, and thanks for passing long those links.
    Happy new year — and feel free to check our family blog’s New Zealand category for additional ideas on where to go & what to do.
    Sarah aka FarFlungGal

  9. We just campervanned our way through New Zealand and thought it was a great way to see the country. We ended up staying at a lot of the Kiwi holiday parks because we were able to get into the internet network. If you haven’t checked it out yet, consider looking into IAC network – for $40, you get 30 days worth of internet as long as you stay at holiday parks or go to internet cafes that use IAC (and that’s a lot of them). The website is: http://www.internetaccesscompany.co.nz/

    You will love the South Island. It was our favorite part of New Zealand and we spent way more time on that side than we expected. Lots of great activities for kids on the South Island, too.

  10. Meredith Resnick - The Writer's [Inner] Journey | January 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Reply

    This looks like an incredible amount of fun. I love the idea of RVing (though I’ve not yet done it!) because I could take my dog with us!

  11. I just added this to StumbleUpon as a way to keep track of this post. New Zealand is on my “hopefully this year” list, and I’d love to camp! Thanks so much.

  12. You’re going to love the South Island. I haven’t tried RV’ing but you’re post just might have convinced me to give it a try.

  13. How I would love to get myself down to NZ sometime.

  14. Great article. There’s a lot of good data here, though I did want to let you know something – I am running Mac OS X with the up-to-date beta of Firefox, and the layout of your blog is kind of funky for me. I can understand the articles, but the navigation doesn’t function so great.

  15. RVing is a great way to see New Zealand, but I would also recommend “baching”! We did both on our recent NZ adventure and while driving had it’s freedom, there was nothing like our cozy holiday home overlooking spectacular Lake Tarrawerra on the North Island! Kayaks, books galore, a fire place…and even a boat! Best of all it was cheap as!! found it at book a bach – nz site… Regardless you will love New Zealand – it is nearly as beautiful as Queensland Australia :-)LOL

  16. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed your website.

  17. I travelled around NZ in a motorhome a few years back, when I was eight months pregnant. I should have taken a photograph of my husband trying to lever me into the loft bed that sits above the cabin. I agreed to sleep up there because I felt bad making my mother-in-law sleep up top. What was I thinking?

  18. Michele Lipari | April 21, 2010 at 6:01 am | Reply

    Extremely interesting blog post thank you for writing it I just added your blog to my favorites and will be back.

  19. rijles in amsterdam | March 30, 2011 at 2:16 am | Reply

    Seem to be a very good post because this is the information im seeking for since last week. Grateful to have arrive in your website. Many thanks!

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