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Van Life: Four Incredible Campervan Holidays

by Travelbag on 29 October 2019, 15:10PM

Campervan holiday

Staying in a chic hotel, smart B&B or remote wilderness lodge is nice and all, but having to book in advance can be tricky. How many nights will you want to stay? What if the town isn’t what you expected? What if the accommodation isn’t? That’s the beauty of a campervan holiday. You’re not beholden to any particular timetable – you can go where you want, when you want, and very little advance planning is required.

There are certain destinations that are almost purpose-designed for a campervan holiday. New Zealand – as Jo Gardner explains – is one of those places. The roads are empty, the scenery is stunning and fuel is cheap at less than £1 per litre. You can also rock up just about anywhere without prior notice – park on a deserted beach and the locals won’t bat an eyelid. With your accommodation already in tow, it’s a cheap way to see the country, too. Here’s how to hit the road in style.


New Zealand

What to expect

Two of the biggest campervan providers in New Zealand are Britz and Maui, both of which offer a range of vans to suit your needs. They all come complete with creature comforts – think sat-nav and Wi-Fi, kitchen areas with fridge-freezers and microwaves, showers and flushable loos. Driving a large van with a bed in the back might seem daunting at first, but being higher up actually makes you feel safer on the road, and oversized mirrors allow you to see everything clearly. The rental fleets are mostly made up of modern Mercedes, Volkswagen and Renault vans with automatic gearboxes; they even drive on the left in NZ, so you’ll feel right at home. Britz and Maui both let you pick a van up in one town and drop it in another, so you can see both islands without having to double back on yourself. 

What to see

First stop: the dramatic North Island. With its rolling green hills, dotted with cows and sheep, it’ll feel like a taste of home at first – but there are also rugged mountains, deserted coastlines and beautiful lakes. Start in Auckland and then drive the three hours to Waitomo, where ancient underground limestone caves are illuminated by hundreds of glow-worms. Spend the night at the Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park. From here it’s around two hours to Rotorua, famed for its bubbling mud, volcanic mountains and Maori culture. Stop at Hell’s Gate and wallow in a relaxing natural hot pool before heading to the nearby Blue Lake Holiday Park.


From Rotorua it’s an easy drive to Lake Taupo – the largest lake in New Zealand – where you can do just about any water-based activity imaginable, as well as skydiving and horse-riding. If you like your wine, get an early start and drive three and a half hours southeast to Napier, where the vineyards around Hawke’s Bay produce some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc. Lunch or dinner overlooking the vines is a real treat. If you’ve quaffed a little too much to drive, stay at Hawke’s Bay Holiday Park and get a good night’s sleep. The drive from here to Wellington – the crossing point to the South Island – will take around five hours, so fuel up with a good breakfast. Despite the name, don’t boot Wellington out of the water – recover from the long drive in the town’s peaceful botanical gardens. Tired? Stay at Camp Elson Inc, a basic yet pretty campsite with everything you need.

The ferry from Wellington to Picton the next morning will take three hours. New Zealand’s South Island is a different world: a majestic landscape of blue glaciers, dramatic fjords, snow-capped mountains and cute-as-a-button towns. First stop: Kaikoura, around 90 miles from Picton, to join a whale-watching cruise and spot giant sperm whales. Stay at The Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park and take in the views with a glass of something cold. Break up the long six-hour drive to Franz Josef Glacier the next day with a stop at Arthur’s Pass National Park, with its dense rainforest, shingle-filled riverbeds and thundering waterfalls. A highlight of any trip to New Zealand is a helicopter ride over the glacier – or you can join a heli-hike tour and walk across the glacier itself. The nearby Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park is a good place to stay the night.

Then it’s on to Wanaka, about three and a half hours away. Set against the backdrop of Mount Aspiring National Park, Wanaka’s an adventure hub with adrenaline-pumping activities including heli-skiing, canyoning, climbing and skydiving. From here it’s just an hour to Queenstown – a skiing town that’s as hip as they come. Think good-looking locals, quirky cafes and a dramatic lakeside setting. Take it all in before dropping your van off at the Queenstown depot.

My Franz Josef experience

As the rotors begin to spin, slowly at first and then whirring into a blur, I feel a surge of excitement. I’ve been in a helicopter before, but I’ve never headed towards a glacier. And Franz Josef is the world’s commercially steepest. As we rise higher into the sky, I ponder telling my guide that I’m terrified of heights, but I’m unable to speak: the glistening blanket of snow and ice below takes my breath away. Kitted out in weatherproof clothes and boots, and wielding a walking pole, I take my first tentative step on the ice… and fall over. This is going to be harder than I thought. Then I spot an ice cave with an iridescent blue centre and am transfixed. While my guide tells me how it’s formed, I trudge inelegantly towards it, camera at the ready. Back in the Britz van I’ve hired for three weeks, I turn the stereo up and drive the winding roads to the local campsite. When I arrive, my fellow travellers are already sipping on beer and firing up the barbeque. The topic of conversation? Where to go next... There’s talk of a skydive but I’m already high on New Zealand’s natural wonders. 

New Zealand South Island

New Zealand is certainly a great choice for a campervan holiday – but it’s not your only option. If you’ve already ticked off the Land of the Long White Cloud, consider this trio of alternative adventures instead.

Australia: Melbourne to Adelaide

On this scenic journey, you can discover one of Australia’s most famous drives: the Great Ocean Road. It’s best to start from Melbourne and drive east to west, so you’ll be as close to the sea – and the views – as possible. We’d recommend spending your first night in Apollo Bay, before driving to Port Campbell for your second night. On the way, you’ll see iconic rock formations like Loch Ard Gorge, London Arch and the Twelve Apostles – not to mention dramatic cliffs and bright blue seas. Once you’ve completed the Great Ocean Road, head north towards Grampians National Park – a mountainous nature reserve filled with wildflowers, wallabies and echidnas. Before reaching Adelaide, stop off in Barossa Valley. This wine region specialises in fruity Shiraz, and you’ll find several tours and cellar-door tastings on offer.

Top tip: Picturesque Lorne is a great place to stop for lunch – pull over on your way to Apollo Bay.

Great Ocean Road

USA: San Francisco to Las Vegas

Fancy an American road trip? This well-trodden route makes for a great one. Spend a few days in San Francisco, then pick up your campervan and set off for Yosemite National Park. This area of natural beauty lies about 200 miles east of San Francisco, so you can expect the drive to take around four hours. We’d suggest going along Highway 120 – it’s 30 miles longer than Highway 41, but it’s far more scenic. After a few days exploring the forests and mountains of Yosemite, continue on to Las Vegas, via Death Valley. You could split this six-hour drive into two days, or do it all in one go. Whatever you decide, it’s best to head south from Yosemite to Mammoth Lakes, then Lone Pine, then Death Valley National Park. One of the hottest places on Earth, Death Valley looks like something from a sci-fi film. The otherworldly landscape offers the perfect contrast to Sin City, where neon lights and glittering casinos await.

Top tip: On your way to Yosemite, stop off in Oakdale for reasonably priced petrol and a bite to eat.

Death Valley

Canada: Vancouver Island

If you want to combine incredible wildlife with knockout scenery, this Canadian road trip is for you. Enjoy a couple of days in cosmopolitan Vancouver, before boarding the ferry to Vancouver Island. It may be an island, but it’s by no means a small speck of land – Vancouver Island stretches for 290 miles north to south, and covers an area larger than Wales. You’ll start in historical Victoria, where you can take a boat trip to see orca, dolphins and minke whales. Then, your journey begins. There aren’t many roads on Vancouver Island, which makes the drive very straightforward – simply head north on Highway 1, then follow Highway 19 to Parksville. You can spend a night here, before driving west along Highway 4 towards Tofino. Weaving through the heart of Vancouver Island, this jaw-dropping route takes you past soaring peaks, tumbling waterfalls and untouched lakes. Just over 100 miles later, you’ll reach tranquil Tofino. Popular with surfers and animal lovers alike, Tofino is home to black bears, grey whales, sea otters and more. There are some fantastic walks nearby, too. Hike the coastal Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet, or spend a day exploring Pacific Rim National Park.

Top tip: Visit in May or June for the best chance of seeing bear cubs.

Vancouver Island

Discover the world at your own pace with one of our incredible self-drive tours, or find more holiday inspiration in our Escape magazine.

If you’re planning a longer trip, learn how to spend 40 days in Australia and New Zealand.

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