Danielle Wright finds it's the simple, rather than most expensive, things in life that create the best family holidays.
Luxury accommodation is nice for a special occasion but when you want to have family fun, New Zealand has budget accommodation in spectacular locations and unique settings to create memories money can't buy. Here are some options:
DoC HUTS AND CAMPSITES
DoC manages more than 200 vehicle-accessible conservation campsites throughout New Zealand. Search its extensive website and discover your next holiday location at doc.govt.nz or call 0800 362 468. Serviced campsites are $7-$19 per person per night, with children at 50 per cent; standard campsites are $5-$16 adult with children at between 25 per cent and 50 per cent discount; basic campsites are free.
Tapotupotu, Te Paki Recreation Reserve, Far North Rd, Cape Reinga
This is the northernmost campsite in New Zealand and has sandy beaches, snorkelling, surf and the Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway nearby.
Great Barrier Island
There are six DoC managed campsites, as well as a DoC hut, on the island. A family of five can stay for three nights on Great Barrier at a DoC camping ground for less than $100, but, just be careful - ferries and flights over are expensive. Facilities are basic but the spectacular surroundings will more than make up for it.
Puketi, Puketi Forest, Pungaere Rd, near Waipapa
It's not all about beaches; try this camp at the eastern edge of the Puketi Forest, close to kauri trees and if you look closely, you might spot kiwi and short-tailed bats in the surroundings. This campsite is a great base for day or overnight tramps and mountain biking along the Pirau and Mokau Ridge roads. A trampers' hut with an indoor fireplace and two three-bunk cabins are also available.
Cape Brett Lighthouse
For some "voluntourism", check the DoC website and look for volunteer roles. The Friends of the Cape Brett Lighthouse has a few workdays each year where you can stay in the onsite Cape Brett Hut and help with maintenance. Contact (09) 407 0300 for more information. The hut has 23 bunks and if you're not a volunteer the cost is $12.20 adult/night, $6.10 youth/night (11-17) with children under 11 free.
Wentworth Valley Campsite
474 Wentworth Valley Rd, near Whangamata. Ph (07) 865 7032
The facilities are basic, but there are a number of walks through the regenerating native forest to mines, waterfalls and a swimming hole, and there are views of the Coromandel ranges. There are also pet eels, as well as onsite glow worm tours after dark. If roughing it gets too much, you can always drive a few minutes down the road to the four-star Wentworth Lodge complete with a helicopter perched on the front lawn.
Remember that bookings can't be made for the standard and basic campsites (just the serviced campsites) so first in, first served - have a backup plan in case your campsite is full.
If you're camping on a pest-free site, make sure you ask DoC what you need to do before you get there, and when you leave.
Our regional parks offer accommodation from campsites close to farm animals at Ambury to a 1950s waterfront bach at Scandrett. Spend some time searching the old ARC website for the best baches and campsites. Each park and accommodation option is very different, so you're bound to be surprised by whatever regional park holiday you choose.
As well as campgrounds, the Auckland Council has 16 authentic holiday homes ranging from original farmhouses to beachfront baches. Each has been carefully renovated to capture the essence of a "bach escape" with basic conveniences and furnishings that fit the era of the building.
Preschoolers camp at regional park campsites for free and prices range from $3-$5 for children and $5-$10 for adults, depending on the location. Here are some choices to get you started:
Choose from beachside campgrounds at Te Muri Beach, Mita (Otuawao) Bay and Sullivan's (Otarawao) Bay on the western peninsula or cross over to Scott Point to stay at the homely Baileys Cottage bach. There are plenty of sheltered bays, native bush, open pasture and historic sites to keep everyone entertained.
On the more remote east peninsula, try the bush-enclosed Big Bay bach a few steps from the beach and surrounded by cabbage trees and pohutukawa, or the campground at Lagoon Bay - just watch the shallow tidal bay doesn't leave you high and dry when out kayaking or boating. If you're staying in January over Auckland Anniversary Weekend, you'll see hundreds of classic boats in the Mahurangi Old Time Regatta.
Baileys Cottage is $128 per night over summer (sleeps six), Big Bay Bach is $106 per night.
Just past Matakana, turn right at the Omaha turn off, drive along Takatu Rd and the park is well signposted. For white sandy beaches to rival any across the Tasman, head to Tawharanui Regional Park with its rolling pastures and grazing cows and sheep overlooking a spectacular coastline once bustling with waka, now an open sanctuary for fish, birds - including kiwi - and native plants. Stay at the campground, or if you're organised, book the bach onsite up to six months in advance.
Take the airport motorway and follow the signs from the Mangere Bridge and Coronation Rd offramps to the park. $10 adult, $5 children.
Camp near the farm animals at Ambury's working farm, as well as birdwatching and hunting out volcanic history. It takes its name from the Ambury Milk Company, which milked cows and ran a town milk supply here from 1893-1965. You can still see the jersey cows milked once a day (10am) until the end of December. The large variety of animals look well-cared for and are accessible to all. And don't forget your bikes as there are great bike tracks in the park as well.
Whakanewha, Waiheke Island
From the Rocky Bay bus stop, walk up Omiha Rd to Upland Rd track and into the park. Poukaraka Flats campground costs just $10 a night. It's a discovery you'll want to keep returning to again and again - it's set back from a beautiful bay and child-friendly beach sheltered by native plants.
Spend the money you save on some of the island's expensive wines instead. If you stay during March, April and May, you might get settled weather and the place to yourself.
Take SH1 south, turn off at Drury and follow the signs to Waiuku. From there drive up the Awhitu Peninsula through Matakawau. About 2km past Matakawau turn right down Brook Rd into the park.
After a winding drive through rolling hills, on the southwestern shores of the Manukau Harbour you'll be welcomed by a peaceful retreat with a campground, bach and lodge facilities.
Options include a working farm and historic homestead, walks and mountain bike trails, pohutukawa-fringed swimming bays and long sandy beaches, as well as a visit to the Manukau Heads lighthouse. Awhitu House is a three-bedroom 1930s bach, while Brook Homestead campground is a basic option behind the homestead.
Peninsula Campground is located on a headland overlooking the Manukau Harbour, and there's also a camp lodge for larger school groups.
BACHES IN REGIONAL PARKS
The baches, such as solar-powered Keddle House in Anawhata on the wild west coast, are very popular and book up around six months in advance.
Enjoy some armchair travelling looking through all the options. Bookings for the baches must be made and paid for in advance, so plan to book your Christmas holiday in July - because you have to pay for it upfront, it will be one less thing to add pressure to the family finances over the holiday season.
Holiday parks seem as frequent in New Zealand as pubs do in Britain, and each has a distinct personality. It's just a matter of trying a few out and finding the one that suits your family best. Remember you don't have to drive far to feel like you're away from it all, saving you petrol as well - just avoid peak season December 23-30 when prices per night double in some parks.
Top10 Holiday Parks is a popular brand if you're new to this kind of holiday.
If you become a member and you'll receive discounts on accommodation, as well as on ferry costs and local attractions and restaurants. Membership costs $40 for two years.
Choose from campsites, cabins, lodges, units and motels all Qualmark-rated so you know beforehand how much roughing it will be needed.
Here are some options:
Hot Water Beach Holiday Park
790 Hot Water Beach Rd, Coromandel. Ph 0800 246 823
Across the road from the town's main attraction, this Qualmark 4.5 star-rated campground is a luxury compared to many others in the Coromandel.
A family-sized bathroom with underfloor heating was our best discovery here - it's much more civilised when both parents can help. December prices start from $42 per night (non-powered camping) to $165 (deluxe family villa).
535 Papamoa Beach Rd, Bay of Plenty. Ph (07) 572 0816
This is the holiday park you go to, when you don't like holiday parks. The Qualmark five star-rated park has a kids' club in the mornings to give the adults a break, a challenging, yet fun, playground, an onsite spa pool and family ensuite bathrooms for comfort, and of course, the beach is right on your doorstep.
December prices start from $21 per person, per night up to $230 per room per night for a beachfront spa villa.
Mt Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park
1 Adams Ave, Bay of Plenty. Ph (07) 575 4471
There are plenty of holiday parks not affiliated with the Top10 chain and the Mt Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park at the base of the Mount is one of our favourites. Camping doesn't always have to mean getting away from it all - with great shops and cafes nearby, you can pretend you're not roughing it if you need a break for half an hour.
If you ask nicely, the local Camping & Outdoor store will hire you a tent and put it up for you before you arrive - sounds like cheating, but it does save a few arguments after a long drive.
Peak (Christmas to February 7) prices are $55 per night for up to two people, then an additional $15 per child per night on top, or $130 per night for up to two people in a cabin.
FOREST AND BIRD
Become a member of Forest and Bird, the largest independent environmental group in New Zealand, and you'll have access to their lodges tucked away in New Zealand's most beautiful natural environments.
As part of the membership (basic is $57 per year and covers a family) you'll receive the quarterly Forest & Bird magazine to keep everyone's enthusiasm for the environment and birdlife alive.
Contact them before you go to see if there's an opportunity to volunteer while you're there.
Accommodation is basic, but scenery is not - see forestandbird.org.nz for details of lodges in Piha, Waiheke, Ruapehu and further down the country, as well as:
Near Pukenui, Far North. Contact John Dawn on (09) 407 8658 for more details or see the Forest and Bird site above. Price (per night): $12 adults, $6 children. Sleeps six people.
Arethusa Lodge is a prime spot for watching birdlife amid the peaceful surroundings of a 14ha wetland reserve. Grey duck, mallard and spotless crake are just some of the inhabitants found roaming this wetland. If you're lucky, you'll see sacred kingfisher nesting in the Arethusa Reserve.
The lodge has six bunks, a fully equipped kitchen and a separate bathroom outside.
At the base of Mt Ruapehu. Phone (04) 385 7374. Prices vary. The new lodge is just over a year old and is set among beech forest, 600m from The Chateau Tongariro hotel on the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu.
CAMPING TIPS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Nick Montague-Brown from Outdoor Action has these clever suggestions:
* Make a list of all the gear you're taking and use it to tick the gear into the car before you leave. Take a copy with you to make sure you don't forget anything when you return.
* Source as much of your camping gear before you leave home, once in a tourist spot you will often pay more of a premium on any bits and pieces you forget and this will eat into your holiday budget.
* Get your gear out and set up the tent at least once at home before you leave. Trying to get a missing pole or some extra pegs when you arrive at 8.30pm is going to be difficult, if not impossible. It's also a good way to introduce kids (and any other newbies) to camping, plus you will look like a pro when you get to the campsite.
* Although you're planning for weeks of endless sunshine there is a high probability there could be some rain among it. Plan for this by packing some board games or spending a day at the local museum.
* If it rains on the day of departure and you have to pack your tent and gear away wet, you must get it out as soon as you can and completely dry it all. Every year we see lots of family tents ruined by being packed away wet, or stored in a damp place.
DANIELLE WRIGHT'S TIPS:
* Leave the iPhone, iPad, portable DVD and any electronic devices you own at home. It's amazing how much you have to talk to your husband about when the kids are asleep and there's no television. You'll also be free of life's worries popping up on email.
* Take a broom. Sand and dirt can ruin a camping holiday for the mum, sweep it out every day to feel on top of things.
* Stop at farmers' markets when you can to buy local gourmet sausages and fresh salad ingredients for your barbecue.
* The further the dairy is from the campsite, the cheaper the milk.
* Take lots of "S" shaped clips to hang rubbish and anything else you want to keep out of reach.
* Ask for a campsite map before you go to plan for the best site. Some are booked up a year in advance so plan ahead. Choose one at the end of a row so you have more privacy.
* Take two cars - one for all the camping gear, and one for the family - at least one driver will arrive in good spirits.
* Don't buy matching camping gear from one brand - you'll give yourselves away as city people.