Yesterday, I wrote about my inglorious introduction to New Zealand, which took place while I was cramped at 30,000 feet next to an overweight passenger. But even that plane ride from hell couldn’t dim the joys of New Zealand, which my husband and I explored by campervan. The experience was, without a doubt, my favorite travel adventure of 2011.
First, the campervan. My family used to rent RVs during the summer when I was a kid, so I know how spacious those can be. But I didn’t know what to think of a term that contained “van” in it. I imagined something along the lines of those VW vans that you see along the Mexican border. Not luxe, by any stretch of the imagination.
What we got, from Maui New Zealand, was far more posh. Our Ultima campervan, a Mercedes vehicle for two, was almost 24 feet long and had everything we needed, including an integrated BBQ, a stove, refrigerator and microwave, and a flat-screen TV and DVD player (which we didn’t use). I loved the fact that the sitting area turned into a king-sized bed and there was plenty of storage.
We lucked out, too, on our time of year. We picked up our campervan in Christchurch and spent most of our time on the South Island. November is spring down under, and the roads and “holiday parks” (what the Kiwis call RV parks) were mostly empty, particularly on the more obscure roads that we chose. I declined to drive on the left side of the road, but Don had no problems making the switch.
The conditions for our rental were a bit crazy. We only had 8 days to go from Christchurch on the South Island to Auckland on the North Island. Most of the forums that I consulted for research said that we were insane for considering a drive like that. To be fair, though, most of the commenters were Kiwis who have long vacations and aren’t used to driving cross-country distances like Americans. We would have loved to have taken a month, but my husband’s job meant we only had two weeks total in the country.
I plotted out an itinerary that reduced our driving to around 4 hours a day, save one long day where we took a car ferry from Picton on the South Island and drove up to Rotoroa on the North Island. Even with that compressed schedule, we were able to make time for bungy jumping in Queenstown, a flight-seeing trip and boat tour of Milford Sound and glacier hiking in Franz Josef.
And wow, the scenery. What I loved most about New Zealand was the diversity of the landscape. We’d go from snow-capped mountain peaks to temperate rain forests to landscapes that looked like Hawaii, in a matter of hours. We couldn’t wait to take off in the mornings, just to see what was coming next. And suffice it to say that as soon as we got back, we watched all the Lord of the Rings movies again, as a recap.
Besides being able to traverse the countryside, I think traveling by campervan is a particularly good Value Luxury way to experience New Zealand. We had received a discount on our rental through the Society of American Travel Writers, which had its convention in Wellington before our road trip. But the Maui website has rates right now that quote a two week Ultima rental in mid-March (which is still warm in New Zealand) for $2,446.
When you think about how much you’re saving on food (eating out in New Zealand restaurants is quite expensive, mainly because serving staff are paid a decent wage) and hotels (New Zealand has expensive lodges and budget accommodations, with not much in between), you can see the benefit. Just make sure you earmark those savings for excursions; while activities such as jet boating and bungy jumping and cave rafting are pricey, they are the type of experiences that will elevate your trip into a you’ll-never-forget-THIS memory.
At least that’s what we found. I almost cried when we had to return the campervan. I could have stayed in that thing for a month, roaming the open road and sipping NZ Sauvignon Blanc. It’s one of the best vacations I’ve ever had, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.