2011 in Review: Best Experience (Campervan, New Zealand)

by Chris on December 30, 2011

My favorite experience of 2011 was, without a doubt, renting a campervan in New Zealand.

Campervan on the South Island, New Zealand

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.

campervan New Zealand

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.

Parking the campervan, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

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.

Campervan parked at Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

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.

campervan New Zealand

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.

campervan New Zealand

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.

campervan, New Zealand

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.

campervan New Zealand

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.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kent @ No Vacation Required December 30, 2011 at 7:14 am

Okay… A return trip to NZ is in order so that we can do this. Love those pictures.


Margo December 31, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I’ve got to get here someday … what an amazing experience. And good job keeping the marriage together. It’s so true about the different ways Americans and kiwis view road trips! I


Angie Orth of Angie Away January 2, 2012 at 11:05 am

New Zealand really is fantastic! Your pictures are beautiful – sounds like a perfect trip.


Chris January 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Thanks, Angie. It was 🙂


cailin January 3, 2012 at 8:19 am

I would love to campervan around NZ! Looks like you guys had a great time 🙂


Rob January 3, 2012 at 11:24 am

I’ve never been to New Zealand but I always hear good things about it. I’ll have to try to get there someday.


Jade - OurOyster.com January 5, 2012 at 4:02 am

Looks amazing! I would love to travel NZ by camper van, but neither James nor I have driving licenses… so we ended up hitchhiking and camping NZ instead. I think camper van would be more fun though.


Cam January 5, 2012 at 11:27 pm

One of our most memorable travel experiences was driving a campervan from Auckland to Queenstown for a month. Though our ride was quite a bit smaller… er, cozy! 😉


Jon January 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Great Post. I had a fantastic time In New Zealand, my favorite spot had to be Milford Sounds. Just to anyone out there attempting to book a Campervan, you should consider http://www.travelsavernz.com. The knock quick a large discount off their prices, which easily made them the cheapest around. Great Photos, I wish I was back there. 🙁


Chris January 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Jon – We also went to Milford Sound, although we splurged on a flightseeing trip from Queenstown. Gorgeous landscapes!


Tony James Slater January 15, 2012 at 12:30 am

I know just how you feel! I travelled New Zealand for two years, working in the ski resorts, a supermarket, house-sitting, and volunteering. Had an unbelievable time, seeing the incredible sights – everything is just so BIG over there! In the end my girlfriend and I totally fell in love with the place. I’ve now emigrated to Australia, with the express intention of going back to NZ as soon as my papers come through (citizens of one country can work freely in the other, like with UK/Europe). Although I saw so much I’m sure there’s still more – I only had a week in Queenstown for example, long enough to go ‘canyoning’ – which is crazy fun – but not long enough to take up sailing on the lake… sigh. On the upside, it’s really, REALLY cheap to buy a house there :0)


Michelle January 21, 2012 at 3:01 pm

New Zealand is amazing, the place I felt most at home in the world away from Nova Scotia (they are even shaped a bit the same). I think it was due to the warmth of the people.

I would be living there now as an expat (I’m in England) except it is so isolated and I love my travel.


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