There is a moment two hours into every family road trip when this all suddenly feels like a very bad idea.
The young ones are restless. Driving is boring (it's hard to argue with them on long stretches of motorway leading out of the city centres). Your destination is too far, your lofty ambitions of showing them the country too high.
But most of the fun of campervans is in using your vehicle as a home, and not in using your home as a vehicle. By which I mean: campervans aren't that great to drive, but they are a lot of fun to live in. For that reason, plan short spurts of driving from the get-go. An hour here, a quick leg stretch there. Another hour on the road, then the long-promised icecream at the next dairy you pass.
We set out from Auckland with a rough three-night plan - a slow loop from Auckland to Russell, around the Hokianga, and home down the west coast.
First stop: Waipū
Our first stop was the charming Waipū, just under two hours from Auckland, which is packed full of great cafes and shops to browse. A stop at the pizza barn offered pizzas piled high with sausage and cheese, and the delicious (and very strong) McLeod's beers - watch the ABV on these, and get a takeaway if you're the driver.
Then it was on to Ōpua, another hour and a half, where we drove on to the vehicle ferry that chugs to and from Okiato all day long. This five-minute $13.50 trip will save you the winding drive around the harbour - if you've got kids in the car, you're going to appreciate that.
Second stop: Kororāreka, Russell
In Russell, we parked up at the Top 10 campground. This was our first experience of a Top 10, and we were hugely impressed. It's beautifully situated, and each powered site has views back across the water to Paihia. There is a large playground, a huge kitchen, and the showers in the immaculate bathroom block were better than ours at home.
That evening, we grabbed our torches and wandered down the road to the Duke of Marlborough, one of the most famous restaurants in New Zealand. The Duke walks the line between being a fancy restaurant and offering the warm welcome for which New Zealand is famous. Inside, punters drink and talk around the piano; outside, fine dining takes place on the sheltered veranda, and diners can watch passersby stroll along The Strand, overlooking picturesque Kororāreka Bay.
Kororāreka - the Māori name for Russell - translates as "delicious little blue penguin". You won't find any penguin on the menu these days, so we settled for kingfish, pasta with local shellfish, and giant icecream sundaes.
Third stop: Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The next day we passed through Paihia on our way to Waitangi, a place I have wanted to visit for many years, having not been since I was a child.
As I stared at a genealogy tree in the reception, our guide approached. The first thing I said to him was, "Busby, that's not a name you hear very often." "Kia ora," he replied. "My name is Dan Busby."
Dan, a fourth-generation Busby, led us on an hour-long tour of the Waitangi Grounds, giving us such insight into the history of the place, which was woven into his own family's story. This guided walk was personal, historical and incredibly insightful.
The grounds themselves are beautiful. On a still day, standing beneath the flagstaff, you can hear the boat lines slapping from right across the water. Dan taught us about the whale oil and kauri trades here, and about British Resident James Busby's relationship with local Māori. (With no military background or support, Busby was on good terms with the local community, but out of his depth when it came to keeping the rowdy population of Kororāreka in check, with their gambling, womanising and criminal ways).
Te Rau Aroha (the Māori Battalion Museum), the Treaty Grounds' newest feature, opened this year. Housed in a dimly lit contemporary building, the exhibition is hugely impactful - rich with information and emotion. Kids may not last the distance in here, but if you can, take your time exploring the full story of the commitment the Māori community made to the armed forces. You'll learn about the history of the New Zealand Wars, the Boer War, and World War I and II. The Whare Maumahara (house of memories) is a quiet contemplative space to remember all those who have been impacted by conflicts throughout history.
An afternoon in Paihia
We took in two stops at Paihia - the first was the fabulous second-hand bookshop that operates out of a tiny garage (wander down Williams Rd on the first and third Saturdays of the month to shop a great selection for an absolute bargain). The second was the fabulous Charlotte's Kitchen.
You'll find Charlotte's at the end of the Paihia Wharf, a light and bright modern restaurant. There are views across the marina and the bay (this is also where the foot ferry leaves to take passengers to Russell).
You're eating right over the water here, so best to order from it. Baked oysters in miso butter, tempura oyster with spicy mayo, and whole flounder with nam jim sauce were just some of what we greedily ordered. If you're keen to see your kids eat something other than a Hawaiian pizza, Charlotte's offers a few good opportunities to challenge their tastebuds a little - pork and prawn sui mai and crispy fried calamari did the trick for us, followed by an eye-wateringly huge icecream sundae. You'd be hard pressed not to find a meal to please everyone here.
Across the island to Rāwene
The long and winding road to Rāwene is a beautiful drive, with some great pit-stops. Seeing a rugby game in action, we pulled over at Ōhaeawai to support the locals. Ngāwhā Springs is closed for renovation works, but once they reopen in December, a dip at these geothermals pools is a must-do.
At Rāwene, we pulled into Rāwene Holiday Park, a quirky little campground overlooking Hokianga Harbour. The parks sprawls down the hillside and sleeping options are eclectic - a range of cabins, brightly painted chalets and powered sites with views over the water.
Moments down the road, Rāwene is a quaint and quirky town - art galleries and antiques line the main street, alongside cafes, boutique accommodation, and a lovely little board-games shop that is packed to the rafters. It is a perfect spot to find breakfast before hitting the road once again.
Before taking off for the day, we loaded up with what had become currency to get our son into his seatbelt and back on the road - hot chocolates. We chose the Boatshed Cafe, another charming eatery which juts right out over the water. The cafe serves delicious plates of food - fresh soups and baking, plenty of vegetarian options, surrounded by local artwork and local produce such as bush honey to take away.
Tāne Mahuta: The Lord of the Forest
The walk to Tāne Mahuta is the perfect leg stretcher for anyone passing along the green length of highway that runs down the west coast from Opononi to Dargaville. In the cool rainforest of Waipoua, we breathed in the forest. We struggled to take photos that captured his majesty (guides were on hand to make sure we scrubbed and disinfected our shoes at the kauri dieback station, answer our questions, and kindly teach us a little trick on our phones to take a perfect family photo), and then hit the road once again, refreshed and ready for the long winding road home.
How to make the most of a campervan holiday
As it turns out, you don't need much. As campervan newbies, we over-prepared - bringing board games and blankets and one-pot dinner plans. Our camper was well kitted out with everything we needed, and with so many irresistible lunch and dinner spots along the way, we carried much of our carefully planned meals all the way back to Auckland.
Get your clothes where you want them, your groceries in the cupboards, and anything else you'll need where you can reach them. Campervans get messy quickly so make sure there's a place for everything from the get-go. Unpacking comes with the bonus of making you feel settled and making the camper really feel like home.
Plan lots of stops
Living in a campervan is more fun than driving one for hours on end. Don't worry about getting the drive out of the way - turn the journey into the adventure.
Don't worry - they've thought of everything
Before we left, I spent too much time worrying about my son rolling out of the top bed. As it turns out, there's a safety net that is pulled across the top bed to create a soft wall. There's also grippy lining in the drawers so the plates don't slide around and a little table in front of the passenger seat so the kids can play while you drive. They thought this all through before you, so just don't worry.
Duke of Marlborough
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Russell Top 10
Rawene Holiday Park
Mighway campervan hire
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew