New Zealand's campgrounds will have an extra special vibe this summer, as we load up the chilly bins, bikes and kayaks, head to the beach or bush, and settle in for some R 'n' R after the challenging year we've all had. The fact that we can camp up as usual with our fellow Kiwis is bordering on a miracle, of course.
As a dedicated fan of camping, I'll be thrilled to see our holiday parks and campgrounds cranking this summer. Over the past 20 years I've heard all sorts of myths – campgrounds closing in droves, holiday parks being over-priced and over-developed. The reality is far from it.
Our holiday parks and camping reserves remain in fine fettle despite recent headwinds, not least of all the proliferation of freedom camping car parks that have threatened not only livelihoods, but also our unique camping culture. Never has manaakitanga mattered more. Properly hosted and managed campgrounds are places where we can connect.
Choosing 20 of my favourite campsites is like choosing a favourite child, but here goes. For hundreds more, look up the Holiday Parks Association, DoC and regional council websites.
Kauri Coast Top 10, Northland/Te Tai Tokerau
A great place to get the back-to-nature buzz, this holiday park covers 2ha of lovingly landscaped parkland encircled by bush with the Kaihū River running alongside. The outdoor kitchen is a winner, too. Close to Dargaville, it's also within a stone's throw of Waipoua Forest, the Kauri Museum and Kai Iwi Lakes. The park also runs night-time walks through nearby Trounson Kauri Park to hear or maybe even see our national icon.
Stony Bay, Coromandel
Situated at the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula, this DoC campsite lies at one end of the glorious Coastal Walkway (mountain bikes permitted). Remote, peaceful and free of cellphone signal, it's perfect for an off-the-grid break with walking and swimming on the side. Basic camping is spread through meadows with pōhutukawa for shade, and facilities limited to little more than showers, toilets and water. At the other end of the walkway, DoC's Fletcher Bay campsite offers an alternative view.
East Cape Campground, Tairāwhiti
Aotearoa's most easterly campsite harks back to simple times when camping was pared back and premised on the honesty box. Pretty much just an epic paddock on the edge of an empty, white-sand beach, this family-farm campsite is sunrise central and just 5km from East Coast lighthouse. Te Araroa is the nearest settlement, 14km to the north. Limited facilities are reflected in the fee of $10 per adult per night.
Raglan Holiday Park, Waikato
Arty Raglan's camp is stupendously situated on a wee harbour peninsula with water on almost all sides. There's particularly pleasant swimming to be had under the bridge that leads to town just a couple of minutes' walk away. It has all sorts of sites as well as backpacker accommodation, self-contained cabins and motel units, along with a big barbecue area that encourages mingling.
Blue Lake Top 10, Rotorua
Fifteen minutes' drive from Rotorua on the road to Tarawera, Blue Lake/Tikitapu is beautiful to behold, fringed with forest and fronted by a grassy public reserve. Behind it is a 6ha holiday park set in mature, park-like grounds with shade, shelterbelts and all sorts of family-friendly facilities including a good games room. Water sports are all go, with kayaks available for hire. Staff can help book awesome local activities and direct you the glow-worm grotto and bush walks.
DeBretts Spa Resort, Taupō
Spread over a terrace in a quiet corner of town, historic DeBretts combines heaps of accommodation options with first-class facilities, pleasant grounds and an onsite hot pool complex with water slides and private pools. Our modus operandi is to hit Taupō's bike trails – Huka Falls Track, Great Lake Trail, Craters MTB park – then head back to camp to straighten ourselves out with a soak. To amp up the pamper-factor, consider staying in a lakeview cabin or chalet.
Oakura Beach Holiday Park, Taranaki
Just 15 minutes' drive from New Plymouth on one of the best beaches along this stretch of west coast, Ōakura's holiday park is a salty, laid-back base to explore Taranaki's top sights or just hang with the fam. It's at the south end of the beach, with primo beachfront sites and others out the back with more shelter and P&Q. The beautiful black-sand beach is a hotspot for surfing and swimming and is lifeguard-patrolled in summer.
Kennedy Park Resort, Napier
This super-sized, superbly run resort caters to all-comers with all sorts of accommodation, A-grade facilities, and beautiful green grounds. Pick a villa, motel, cabin or campsite, then chuck the kids on the jumping pillow, playground or pool, and treat them to kai at Storkey's restaurant. Kennedy Park is a great base for a biking holiday, connecting via urban cycleways into the leisurely Hawke's Bay Trails stretching around the coast and inland across the plains.
Waikaremoana Holiday Park, Te Urewera
Immerse yourself in wild Tūhoe country at this peaceful and somewhat old-school holiday park on the edge of Lake Waikaremoana offering campsites and chalets. Various tramping tracks lead through the most magnificent native forest in the North Island/Te Ika a Māui, with the iwi-owned water taxi offering manuhiri not only a connection to the trails but also their stories. Boating, fishing, swimming and kayaking are popular pastimes; kayaks available for hire.
Mangawhero Campsite, Tongariro National Park
Two kilometres from Ohakune, this DoC campsite nestles deep into mature native forest at the foot of Mt Ruapehu. A bush trail offers a delightful walk to town, and therefore coffee, food and shopping. This campsite is also within cooee of the Old Coach Road and several top walks on this side of Tongariro National Park. (Check out Lake Surprise if you like, um, surprises.)
Himatangi Beach Holiday Park, Manawatu
The holiday hamlet of Himatangi lies in the centre of New Zealand's largest coastal dune system, so here's a chance to get some serious sand between your toes. A top contender for the country's best-kept campground, this place has sharp, sparkling facilities while retaining a classic Kiwi camping feel. We love the cute cabins, but there are some gorgeous grassy sites spread through, too. The epic beach is popular for swimming and fishing, but we're personally quite partial to cycling the hard sand down to Foxton and back at sundown.
Castlepoint Holiday Park, Wairarapa
About as windswept and interesting as the east coast gets, Castlepoint boasts a formidable lighthouse (spectacularly illuminated at night), wild beach, limestone reef, dunes and a peculiar lagoon overlooked by the striking Castle Rock. The beachfront campground punches above its weight with million-dollar views from its waterfront and terrace sites, while a series down the back allows tenters to escape the nor-wester. Recent years have seen some excellent upgrades.
Cable Bay Holiday Park, Nelson
Cable Bay is so-named for New Zealand's first overseas cable link, laid to Australia. This simple campground lies within a family-owned farm spread over steep hill-country, which can be explored on the (DoC) Cable Bay/Rotokura Walkway. It offers epic coastal views across Tasman Bay and beyond to Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks. Beyond that, your recreation options run from sitting on your butt reading a book, to kayaking (tour operator nearby), or horse trekking, quad biking and more at Cable Bay Adventure Park.
Mistletoe Bay Eco Village, Queen Charlotte Sound
This campsite occupies a bushy wee valley just an hour's drive from Picton or 20 minutes' by boat. A pretty simple affair, it has the atmosphere of a DoC camp but with a few more facilities including stylish cabins. Spend your days swimming, jetty jumping, or sitting around in the sun, or hit the Queen Charlotte Track for walking or mountain biking. It's right on the scheduled boat service route, and also close to Portage where the restaurant and bar are on song.
Gore Bay Camping Ground, Hurunui
Turn off at Cheviot to reach Gore Bay, a remote and sleepy hamlet where this campsite is split over two beachfront reserves. This is for lovers of the simple life: powered and non-powered sites with few other amenities beyond a playground and community tennis court. The bay is a popular surfing spot (local intel essential), while mere mortals can sift around the beach or take Tweedies Gully Walk to see rare coastal forest and glorious views over Pegasus Bay and the big blue beyond.
Ōkārito Campground, Westland
Just north of Franz Josef, a quiet side-road leads to often overlooked Ōkārito. As wild and wonderful as the West Coast gets, it's home to Aotearoa's largest unmodified coastal wetland, fantastic kayaking, walking tracks through glorious bush, rugged beach (fires often permitted) and a sleepy village with some sweet old buildings. The delightful little campground demonstrates the tight-knit community's desire to host visitors on their own terms, being welcoming, well-tended, natural and uncomplicated.
Naseby Holiday Park, Central Otago
This charming little town is surrounded by Naseby Forest, making this the leafiest of Central Otago's holiday spots. In the woods you'll find bike trails, a swimming dam, sundry historic relics and this shady, peaceful campground with lots of little nooks and crannies. It feels like one big adventure playground. A couple of minutes' walk away, town highlights include an idyllic domain and the Southern Hemisphere's only indoor curling rink – a must-do if ever there were one.
Purakaunui Bay Campsite, Catlins
One of several notable Catlins campgrounds, Purakaunui Bay boasts a delightful white sandy beach flanked by 200m high cliffs as featured in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (with a CGI castle perched on top). Did someone say dramatic? At ground level are grassy camping flats surrounded by lush, sheepy pasture and pockets of native bush. There's blissfully little to do here, although you can swim and surf in favourable conditions – it's a pretty wild ocean around here.
Creeksyde Holiday Park, Queenstown
This isn't just a campground, it's a labour of love for owners Erna and Tonnie who've spent more than three decades developing one of New Zealand's most genuinely environmentally sustainable campgrounds. Small but perfectly formed and just five minutes' walk to town, it features salvaged heritage materials and other upcycled stuff crafted into buildings, garden sculpture and other curiosities within thoughtfully landscaped grounds. And there's a bed for every budget including cabins and lodge rooms.
Mavora Lakes, Fiordland
With the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail now passing right by, more folk are discovering remote Mavora Lakes bordering Fiordland National Park – around 90 minutes' drive from Te Anau. The twin lakes are the centrepiece of a narrow, glacial valley cloaked in beech and towered over by rocky peaks. The gently undulating, golden meadows are paradise for back-to-nature camping, while the surrounds serve up all sort of simple pleasures such as kayaking, fishing, tramping and mountain biking.
How to be a happy camper
· Make sure you have some shade, either near trees or by orientating your set-up accordingly. Sun-burn and heat-stroke are so last century.
· In potentially windy spots, check your shelter situation. Hedgerows and shrubbery are good, but a strategically parked car can make a good windbreak. Always peg out with gusto.
· Don't be fooled into thinking great weather will prevail. This is the New Zealand summer, after all.
· An umbrella is helpful for quick dashes hither and thither, including the midnight dash to the loo block.
· Sandflies and mosquitoes can be a pain in the neck, arm, leg and bum (if left exposed). The best way to avoid sandfly bites is to cover up at dawn and dusk. For mosquitoes, break out a citronella candle or natural citronella repellent.
· Respect all fire regulations to the letter of the law.
· Also respect all rules around facilities and hygiene: use what's there and be considerate of others who follow you. Don't use soap and detergents in waterways.
· Check out the new generation solar lights. Best thing since sliced bread.
· Many campgrounds allow dogs, but more likely out of peak season. (The Holiday Parks website allows you to search by "pets welcome".)
· Take your bicycles if humanly possible – camping and biking go hand in glove.
· And take duct tape. Just because.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 27 October