Piling a family of four into a campervan for a weekend away sounds like a great thing to do in summer. It's not the first kind of getaway to spring to mind in winter, but it turned out to be a fun and yes, cosy, way of taking a weekend break during the July school holidays.
The Maui Platinum six-berth looks huge when you collect it, but is no wider than an SUV - you just have to allow a bit of extra room for its length and be mindful of its height. Inside it's a triumph of efficient design, with a double bed above the driver's cab, two seating areas that convert into two more double beds, a 1m x 1m "bathroom" that manages to contain a toilet, basin, shower and vanity cupboard, and a "kitchen" with four gas burners, grill, microwave, fridge and sink. There's even a little extractor unit above the hobs and a TV with a built-in DVD player.
All linen, towels, crockery, cutlery and pots are provided in the multitude of drawers and cupboards that line the interior. This was our second campervan holiday, and both times we've had plenty of storage room to spare (though it pays to hire a van with two more berths than the number of people you're taking: if you're a couple take a four-berth, for a family of four, take a six). We found it handy to take the van home and load our supplies directly from the house.
Once you hit the road you find yourselves sitting so high, with such big windows around you, that you see parts of the countryside you'd never noticed from a car. Despite their bulk, the vans are surprisingly nimble and manoeuvrable, with plenty of power and steering as light as a car.
The pleasure is in the drive as much as your destination, and you find yourself meandering and stopping at rest areas you'd previously sped past to enjoy the view with a coffee you've made in the van.
We headed for Rotorua, one of our favourite family getaway destinations. We've visited maybe 10 or 12 times, but we still find new things to do. The well-located Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park is on the edge of Kuirau Park, one of the best little thermal experiences in the city that you can enjoy for free. A market is held at Kuirau Park every Saturday morning, and from there it's a five-minute walk to the main shopping and dining district. The Holiday Park lives up to the high standards of the Top 10 chain, with spotless bathroom and kitchen facilities if you don't feel like cooking or showering in the van. There's also a lounge heated by a gas fire, with computers and a big-screen TV.
The park has a pool open in summer, and is about to put in two landscaped thermal pools, expected to be completed next month.
On our first morning, Nick Chater of Multi-Day Adventures picked up the boys for a taste of mountain-biking in what many consider to be the country's mountain-biking capital. The many forest rides on offer can be a bit of a mystery, however, without local knowledge. Chater and his guides tailor rides to suit the fitness and ambition of riders.
My son Jed, 14, rode on a reasonably challenging mid-grade trail in the beautiful Waipa Forest on the southern outskirts of Rotorua.
The company provides top-of-the-line bikes and guides give a full run-down on the area. It's about to launch a bike-hire business at the forest and also designs kayaking, white-water rafting and hiking tours.
Chater also told us about Okere Falls near Lake Rotoiti, a 20-minute drive from Rotorua town. A 10-minute bush walk brings you to the dramatic falls, and a narrow stone staircase down the hill next to them leads you through a couple of natural caves where, it's said, Maori used to hide from warring parties in pre-European times. It's a beautiful and historic place.
Don't miss having lunch at the Okere Falls Store. It has a rustic, bohemian vibe, with a big communal timber table on its front deck, and serves generous, wholesome meals that are great value and some of the most delicious cafe food I've had.
We meandered back to Rotorua and headed for the Blue Baths for an end-of-day soak. There's a big central-heated pool, open to the sky, flanked by two hot thermal pools under cover. They're simple but it's all you need, and for a family are $6 less than the Polynesian Spa where an oversight in the redesign means that parents are relegated to "family pools", where they're denied the view over the lake that adults without kids can enjoy in other parts of the complex. If you have kids you may as well go to the Blue Baths in the Government Gardens, where you can enjoy a bit more historic flavour.
Just opposite the entrance to the Government Gardens is the Princes Gate Hotel, another historic building that welcomes the public to its restaurant. Arrive by 6.30pm and you can order the $30 three-course early-bird special - our Boston meatloaf and chicken hotpot were delicious. We enjoyed the surroundings as much as the food - rich Axminster carpet, wood panelling and generous couches in front of a roaring fire gives this hotel an old-world spa-town charm. On a cold winter's night, it was the perfect place to while away a couple of hours before snuggling back down in the campervan.
If I'd seen the look on my daughter's face while she was being pulled 40m into the air, I'd have told the operator to lower her back down. But she was glad I didn't, telling me, after she'd dropped like a stone and then swung in an arc at 130km/h, that the Swoop was the most "amazing, fun" thing she'd ever done. This invention is one of five adrenalin activities at the Agroventures development, just outside Rotorua.
You can also do the 43m Rotorua Bungy off a crane, experience the sensation of flying in the Freefall Xtreme, where you're suspended 4m in the air by 180km/h winds generated by the equivalent of a jet engine, and test your cycling power in the Shweeb. The latter involves sitting in a clear pod, suspended from a 200m-long metal track with your feet on bike pedals. Ingenious mechanics mean the power of your cycling efforts is multiplied many times - you can reach up to 45km/h and swing out on a 60-degree angle on the bends. A trip in a jet boat, by comparison, will see you racing around a lake at speeds up to 100km/h and swinging around 360 degrees on a dime. Great fun.
ph: 0800 651 080
Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park
1495 Pukuatua St
ph: 0800 223 267
ph: (07) 362 4399
1335 Paradise Valley Rd, Ngongotaha
ph: 0800 949 888
The Blue Baths
ph: (07) 350 2119By Estelle Sarney Email Estelle