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Touring New Zealand on a Budget? Try a Cushy Camper Van

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 19/03/2017 Sanjay Surana
© Alamy Stock Photo

In New Zealand, a few pieces of driftwood were all it took to keep my three iPad-devoted daughters occupied for hours. My wife, kids (a 15-year-old and 8-year-old twins) and I were on day four of our two-week RV trip through the country, and we had just pulled into a beachfront campsite on the South Island’s Lake Wanaka. The girls saw the mountain-ringed shore full of washed-up detritus and began building pyres (that could never be lit), wielding sticks to re-enact scenes from “The Empire Strikes Back,” and forgot all about the tablet.

After Darth Vader and Luke tussled with their lightsabers, we made sandwiches in the RV’s kitchenette for a picnic near the water. In the era of ephemeral Instagram posts, it was a Polaroid kind of day.

For years, my wife and I had kicked around the idea of a holiday via RV—or camper van as recreational vehicles are called in New Zealand—but could never bring ourselves to commit. With the kids enclosed in tight quarters for prolonged periods, we worried that their habitual bickering would escalate into close combat. And wouldn’t a camper-van trip, deathly uncool to youngsters, cramp their style, or worse, subject us to untold vehicular disaster (the girls vividly recalled the scene in the Robin Williams film “RV,” when the toilet-waste pipe explodes). Children aside, how would I survive two weeks cooped up day and night in that tiny space, let alone drive the thing? I can handle a minivan, sure, but how suavely could I maneuver a giant box on wheels?

Despite these manifold concerns, once we decided to spend a two-week school holiday in New Zealand, renting a camper van seemed the most efficient and economical option. After four years living in the frenetic city-state of Singapore, we try to use our vacation time to steep ourselves in the natural world. We wanted to see the razor-edge mountains on New Zealand’s South Island, and the forests, beaches—and, yes, the hobbit holes—of the North Island. (For those who’ve been living in their own hobbit holes for the past 16 years, New Zealand stood in for Middle-earth in the film adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy—and some of the movies’ sets still exist and welcome visitors.) Hotels, a rental car and three restaurant meals a day would’ve cost a small fortune. Instead, for $250 a day, we rented two Maui River RVs—one for each island, flying between them. The six-berth campers came with a roomy fridge, a snug shower, a kitchenette with a dining table, another table and chairs that could set up outside, and round-the-clock roadside assistance.

Camper vans clearly account for big business in New Zealand. When our plane from Singapore (via Sydney) landed in Queenstown, the South Island’s adventure tourism hub, a free airport shuttle took us directly to the Maui rental office. At first, driving the 24-foot-long vehicle terrified me. Every bend sent the kids flying—that’ll teach them to buckle up. The constant rattling of cutlery and glasses in the drawers sent my anxiety into hyper-drive. After an hour, however, I acclimatized to the van’s bulk and momentum. (Throughout the trip, I still limited my driving time to two hours a day.)

Our first call in the South Island was at Kidds Bush Reserve Campsite, on the banks of Lake Hawea, which we found on the website rankers.co.nz. We arrived just before dusk, and as soon as I parked, the girls dumped the iPad, leapt out of the van, ran to the pebble-covered shore and slung rocks into the lake for an hour. We met a few other campers, mostly New Zealanders, but they didn’t disturb the scene’s tranquility. Some nights later, in the alpine area of Queenstown, at the Lakeview Holiday Park—which reviews on the Campermate app noted had fine shower and cooking facilities—RVs were parked cheek by jowl. Had we really wanted solitude, we could’ve gone Freedom Camping, where you pull off the side of the road or retreat into the wilds, but as soft city folk, we preferred a few amenities.

At the end of week one, we dropped off the first van at the Queenstown airport, flew to Auckland and picked up a seemingly identical model, but the children didn’t take to it as much. This van, it turned out, was squeakier, bouncier, producing occasional mysterious sounds of whistling air. But we forgot its flaws as we drove to the beach town of Mount Maunganui. The mount, an emerald-green hill on the end of a peninsula and rich in Maori mythology, sits directly behind the Mount Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park, where we had reserved a space for a few nights. We slept and woke to the sounds of crashing surf.

Farther north at Waitangi Holiday Park in Paihia, a seaside town where tourists flock to take scenic boat trips around the Bay of Islands, we ate dinner outside our camper van on a grassy waterfront lawn. Paihia’s restaurants were packed, but we had our riverfront setting all to ourselves. Better yet, we had a home-cooked meal on the table in front of us.

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