Key Points:

When we were offered a big Maui motorhome on a family spring break, we decided to head to the central North Island and then go where the wind blew us.

It turned out to be the right strategy - a series of fierce southerly fronts meant the weather was definitely boss.

Instead of heading to the snow at Ruapehu, we were blown back to the sanctuary of the hot pools of Taupo and less hostile territory at Bay of Plenty beaches.

Home for a week for mum, dad, Jed, 11, and Laura, 9, was a six-berth Maui, the biggest in the range and something of a triumph of ingenious interior design.

At the company's Mangere base, we were impressed by the 6.6m-long and 3.2m-high behemoth. A steep climb into the cab of the Mercedes Sprinter confirmed we were taking charge of a serious vehicle, veering more towards truck than van but with spaciousness to match and, as it turned out, excellent handling and performance.

Back in the living quarters, there was a large double bed above the cab, a decent-sized table which converted into a double bed in the dining area and another futon-style double at the rear of the van in a kitchen area.

There was a shower, toilet and wash basin in a compact compartment amidships, and the kitchen had a roomy fridge, a gas hob, a microwave and a sink with water purifier.

For the kids, it was a mobile playground. Laura loved the home comforts; watching DVDs on the road and being able to easily take a nap while belted in.

Jed, with his endless curiosity about how things work, loved the gas, power, water and sewage systems and instantly became our utilities expert.

We opted for campgrounds, but with a commonsense approach to security in secluded areas, just about anyone should be able to tolerate freedom camping, given the creature comforts.

We took a Meet the Fockers approach to the toilet - some things should be left for campgrounds, rest stops or a wooded area - so dealing with the dreaded toilet cassette was relatively painless.

Campground dump stations were clean and efficient - the Taupo Top 10 was the daddy of them all with a flush pressure modelled on the Huka Falls.

The Mercedes Sprinter, with its 3-litre diesel engine, turned out to be a dream to drive - although at 4.5 tonnes you have to pick your line around tight bends early.

It wasn't particularly quick out of the blocks - we got it up to the heavy vehicle limit of 90km/h in 17.09s during a speed trial north of Taupo - but once cruising we never felt as if we were holding up convoys of motorists. The only honk in anger came in Auckland and we even passed a front-end loader near Bennydale.

Leaving from Auckland allowed us to take the van home to pack - a good idea, especially for first-timers. With a few small exceptions, you need only bring food, clothes and entertainment. Otherwise the Maui was set up like an apartment.

We headed for Waitomo on our first day, stopping at Huntly for a cuppa. There was a bit of funky off-road driving to avoid backing on to SH1, confusion over the awning and no matches to light the stove.

Sixteen-year RV veterans Vic and his wife Jonnie easily identified us as newbies and offered us a brew, a tour of their 6m Nissan bus conversion and plenty of sage advice.

The Waitomo Top 10 was our first taste of a campground for years. Powered sites in this chain range from around $50 to $60 for four, but the spend is worth it.

Waitomo, a four-star, offered a swimming pool, spa pool, the cleanest barbecues we'd seen and spotless toilets and showers with endless hot water. And, as with many campgrounds, it had the best spot in town. Importantly, there was a slice of cosmopolitan dining practically on-site in the form of the Huhu Cafe.

A sparkling spring day made for a 2C night, which would have been fine in the well-insulated and heated motorhome - if the driver's window had not been left open. Campground owner Bruce Tobeck says there are a few other traps for novices, mainly parking over banks and driving off with the power cable still plugged in.

After a tour of two caves (investigate package deals and for a quiet, beautiful cave, try the Aranui), we headed for Taupo. The Top 10 there is regarded as one of the country's best, had a huge range of activities for the kids and is certainly large, but lacked some the friendly warmth of other campgrounds we stopped at.

If you feel like a bit of a splurge for the family, do try the Huka Jet - it cost us $270 but the thrill value and Dave the droll driver meant it was worth every cent.

With the chill factor intensifying, we headed across town the next night for De Bretts spa resort and parked in a lovely spot among the cherry blossoms and just up the hill from the related hot pool complex. It cost just $30 to stay in the well-set up campground and discount rates meant we had unlimited use of the pools for just $22.

Blizzards threatened on Ruapehu the next day, so we changed course and headed to Mount Manganui.

This is where a motorhome - in shoulder season especially - really comes into its own. Campgrounds were only lightly booked, but it still pays to call ahead to check using a thick accommodation guide Maui provides.

We had a magic spot at the refurbished Mount Manganui Domain campground, a multi-million dollar view out of the big back window and a golden triangle of hot pools, beach and mountain.

During two nights there, ferocious winds drove a few tenters to break camp, but we were only gently rocked in the van, which was well-insulated against noise from outside.

Our last stop was Waihi. The pretty Top 10 campground across the road from the surf club is sheltered by many mature trees.

The kitchen, laundry and bathroom facilities were once again top-notch - we made use of the communal cooking and cleaning facilities, but you can whip up a simple meal and do the dishes in the van if you want to. Just don't try to fit more than one cook in the kitchen.

Surprisingly generous storage around the van means you can keep your stuff relatively organised. Setting up beds and packing them away is the biggest drama each day, but once you've figured out who sleeps best where, the van is warm and quiet and we enjoyed good sleeps most nights.

A campervan holiday will not be everyone's cup of tea - you're sleeping in close confines with your kids and some may feel a little uncomfortable with driving such a whopper of a vehicle.

We had some niggly doubts beforehand, but ended up having a whale of a time.

Maui gave the Sarney-Bradley family the use of a motorhome for a
week.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

The daily rates for hiring a motorhome from Maui vary according to the time of year. During May to September the company offers a Weekend Short Breaks package deal starting from $199 which includes full insurance and two rental hire days. For details ring 0800 651 080 or visit www.maui.co.nz.