My husband Lee and I have just passed a major milestone: 500 nights in the "Hiace Hilton", the little campervan we kitted out in 2011. Before that, we tented out of the back of a Nissan Bluebird. The last two decades have left us hopelessly addicted to camping the Kiwi way. I certainly never envisaged this during my childhood holidays relegated to a sandfly-infested awning at Nelson Lakes.
Here we bring you 12 of our favourite campervanning spots either remote, under-rated or under the radar, and mostly along the road less travelled. We list them north to south, starting with sub-tropical paradise and ending with sea lions.
Maitai Bay, Northland
Reached via a rural road on the Karikari Peninsula, Maitai Bay is a gorgeous golden arc of sand lining warm, glistening waters. The gently sloping beach is particularly friendly, perfect for the young, unconfident and infirm. The craggy headlands at either end are fun to explore, while the half-day walk to Whangatupere Bay offers a longer leg-stretch.
The DOC camp here is generously spread over lush grass just beyond the dunes, with bushy nooks and hedge-rowed alcoves providing privacy and shade. Simple amenities are flush toilets, cold showers and water spigots. Maitai Bay is a busy place in summer but, like most of the campsites listed here, it's a pretty quiet spot the rest of the year.
Ōhiwa Beach Holiday Park, Eastern Bay of Plenty
On the beautiful Pacific Coast, 35km east of Whakatāne, this family-friendly park nestles around a sandspit on the edge of Ōhiwa Harbour. It offers a blend of beach, bush and harbour activities including walking, kayaking, fishing and bird-watching. Pack the boogie board and binoculars, but with the Motu Trails nearby, you might like to bring your bikes. Kenny at KG Kayaks offers great kayak tours, too.
The holiday park is beautifully landscaped with pōhutukawa and palms, prickle-free lawns, and many terraced sites with fabulous views. Bonus facilities such as kayak hire, rope swings and a toddlers' playground make this the sort of place you could settle into for a week or even two.
Waikawau Bay, Coromandel Peninsula
The northern end of the Coromandel does a great line in remote campsites. The easiest to drive to is Waikawau Bay, 25km beyond Colville. A classic Coromandel beach, it's all white sand and shapely dunes, backed by grassy fields on which the DOC campground sprawls. Pick your spot across the many acres, and enjoy the simple life provided by basic amenities including new ablution blocks. It also has a dozen powered sites.
Satisfaction is guaranteed for water babies thanks to great swimming, diving, fishing and kayaking. Bird-spotters will find plenty to keep them busy, particularly amid the wetlands and bushy Matamataharakeke Track. The spectacular Coromandel Walkway can also be reached around 40 minutes' drive further north, although check the road conditions and your confidence before setting out.
Kaupokonui Beach Motor Camp, Taranaki
Just off Taranaki's Surf Highway 45, near Manaia, this neat little coastal camp offers a slice of simple beach life. It's quite the wow moment as you drive down to it, with the Kaupokonui River winding through low, green hills to reach the black-sand beach and mammoth dunes.
Tucked around the corner from the beach, the peaceful Kaupokonui campground occupies a groomed terrace with powered sites. Just below is the picturesque riverside reserve with picnic tables shaded by Norfolk pines. A footbridge crosses the river to the rugged beach, a drawcard for swimming (in favourable conditions), fishing, and or heading into the dune maze to get lost for a while.
Whakapapa Holiday Park, Ruapehu
How many times have you driven the Desert Road and wished you were heading into the maunga of Tongariro National Park? Don't just dream it, do it! Just 40 minutes' drive from Tūrangi, Whakapapa Holiday Park is supremely positioned for exploration. Nestled on Mt Ruapehu's lower slopes, Whakapapa is the starting point for many of the national park's best tramping tracks taking in an incredible array of its famous volcanic features.
The DOC campground looks and smells like the wilderness, its powered sites tucked into nooks of fragrant mountain beech. Mt Ruapehu can be glimpsed here and there between the trees, while the Whakapapanui Stream gushes down a gorge alongside. The Grand Chateau Hotel provides dining options, two minutes' walk away.
Holdsworth, Tararua Forest Park
If the mighty Tararua Ranges remain a mystery to you, you're not the only one. To get among them, pack your tramping boots and head to this big, beautiful recreation area just 20 minutes' drive from Masterton. Park up out in the open or in bushy alcoves alongside Atiwhakatu Stream where you'll find swimming holes galore. There's no powered sites or showers, but there are shelters, picnic tables and water.
There's history here at Holdsworth, as you can see from the well-formed walkways and interpretive displays. Tramping options include the two-hour Gentle Annie Track to Rocky Lookout, or the six-hour return tramp to Powell Hut which rewards with top-of-the-world views.
Tōtaranui, Abel Tasman National Park
Yes, it may be the biggest DOC camp in the country and so popular there's a ballot for summer holiday bookings, but when it comes to the best off-the-beaten-track camp, Tōtaranui is pretty hard to beat. Situated at northern end of the Abel Tasman coast among native bush and golden sands, it's a paradise for swimming, boating, walking and biking, or just kicking back for the full R 'n' R.
Camping ranges across an old farm, its paddocks now repurposed into various zones lined with shelterbelts and dotted with fire pits where folks gather come sundown. Extensive facilities are expertly run, but note there are no powered sites. Even when it's busy this still feels like back-to-nature camping. Out of peak season, it's tranquil bliss.
Kōhaihai, Kahurangi National Park
Staying at this conservation campsite allows you to soak up the rainforest splendour at the end of the Heaphy Track, while also giving you a reason to drive the one hundred super-scenic kilometres north of Westport taking in Denniston, Granity, Karamea, Oparara and more.
At the end of the line is Kōhaihai, a grassy reserve wrapped around a dramatic river mouth, with stunted pines providing some shelter from the onshore breeze. Swimming in the river is all good, but the beach is definitely not. It is utterly spectacular, though, all driftwood and crashing breakers and killer sunsets. The picturesque footbridge signals the start of the Heaphy Track; you can walk to Scotts Beach or hit the trail on your mountain bike during open season (May through November).
Ōkārito Campground, Westland
Just north of Franz Josef, an unassuming side-road leads to Ōkārito, a sleepy beachside settlement set in incredible natural surrounds. At its heart is Aotearoa's largest unmodified coastal wetland, a bird-filled, rainforest delight; the awesome Ōkārito Kayaks people offer hire and tours. The walk to Three Mile Lagoon is also a must-do, as is a sunset bonfire on the wild and woolly beach when fire bans allow.
If you're looking for classic Kiwi camping, this is it. Run by Ōkārito's tight-knit community, the delightful campground demonstrates their desire to host visitors on their own terms, being welcoming, well-tended, natural and uncomplicated. There is a kitchen, loos, laundry and hot showers, but no powered sites.
Peel Forest, South Canterbury
A short detour off the Inland Scenic Route, just shy of Geraldine, leads to Peel Forest, a precious remnant of Canterbury foothills forest. Nestled in it is a lush, green DOC campsite, complete with a mod-cons facilities block with a proper kitchen and hot showers, all wheelchair accessible.
The big drawcard here is the forest, which can be explored on short bush walks or the hike to Little Mount Peel summit, an achievable adventure for those of moderate fitness. Peel Forest Horse Treks also run here. Beyond the campsite, Rangitata Gorge Road leads to Mesopotamia Station – an historic sheep station in the Southern Alps high country. It's a terrific scenic drive.
Mavora Lakes, Fiordland
Around 90 minutes' drive from Te Anau on the border of Fiordland National Park, the magnificent Mavora Lakes are the centrepiece of a narrow, glacial valley cloaked in beech and tussock and towered over by rocky peaks. The conservation park is part of Te Wāhipounamu/South-West New Zealand Heritage Area. Expect to be floored.
Along the twin lakes, undulating golden meadows offer back-to-nature camping in the open or shade. Kayaking, fishing and tramping are all popular, but with the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail passing right by, more and more visitors are bringing their bikes, too.
Pounawea Motor Camp, The Catlins
Winding around the South Island's southeastern extremities, the quiet Catlins highway takes in a series of striking natural wonders including Nugget Point, Cathedral Caves, Jack's Blowhole, and more waterfalls than you can poke a selfie stick at. But this is also a place where wildlife thrives, and Pounawea is a great place to encounter it.
On the edge of an estuary and surrounded by bush reserve, this is a bird-spotters paradise, with kukupa, kea, spoonbill, grey heron and sandpiper among the many species you may see. Nearby is Surat Bay, a spectacularly wild and beautiful beach home to the world's rarest sea lion, Hooker's/Whakahao. If the chance to see these incredible creatures isn't a reason to head off the beaten track, I don't know what is.