A close-quarters holiday can work, writes our family travel columnist Alexia Santamaria.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't slightly nervous at the prospect of spending three days in a box on wheels with my husband and kids. Everyone knows no matter how much you love your family, confined spaces can bring out ugly traits in people. But, putting caution to the wind, we set off for a long weekend motorhome holiday. Here's what I learnt.

Pre-trip advice
It was definitely a relief to talk to the lovely Deb at TrailLite, who said she'd survived eight days in exactly the same campervan (with her husband and two kids) and relationships were still intact. Maybe we'd be okay after all.

As we were doing the handover, I figured I'd drill these folks for any last-minute advice; the company has been importing and building motorhomes in New Zealand for more than 60 years so I figure they'd heard a few tales of what not to do. It was my luck that Shaun, the general manager, travels regularly with his kids in their own motorhome and had some sound counsel for a newbie.

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"Try to have a place for everything in the camper. Take the time to do that to avoid frustration later, it will make a world of difference. Use the USB in the cab to charge devices while on the move — means you can get the best use out of power sources. Take plenty of board games and wet-weather activities.

Understand that it can take a few rough days for everyone to get into the groove of living together in a small space. It can be tight, but everyone gets used to it after the initial settling-in period."

All duly noted, especially the last point. Interestingly Deb said they have seen a definite increase in sales to families in recent years — and lots of families with young kids going halves with retired parents. Oh well, if more and more people are doing it, it has to be fun. Right?

On the Road
Fridge loaded, clothes bags away, everything secured, all windows closed, pantry clicked in, we were off to Lake Tikitapu, Rotorua's Blue Lake. We thought we'd ease ourselves in with a powered site in the Top Ten Holiday Park which sits right on the lake shore. The reassuring backup of clean hot showers, toilet blocks and lots of activities sounded ideal before going fully self-contained. It was a good call and one I'd recommend to any other campervan rookies. It gave us the time to work out how to hang out harmoniously together before adding extra complications such as length of showers, who left the light on, and the ultimate motorhome question: do you really need to do number twos in that tiny toilet we're all sharing?

Alexia Santamaria's sons with the family's TrailLite motorhome. Photo / Alexia Santamaria
Alexia Santamaria's sons with the family's TrailLite motorhome. Photo / Alexia Santamaria

It all went surprisingly well, definitely helped by the stunning setting we had chosen — who could be grumpy with that beautiful lake right on our doorstep? We quickly fell into an easy routine of excellent coffee from the Airstream caravan by the lake in the morning, followed by a mix of walking, swimming, kayaking, jumping on the giant inflatable pillow, naps, dinner and card games before bed. Good weather definitely helped as it minimised times we were all trying to exist together inside.

Shaun's advice proved solid and we soon made sure everything had a place to eliminate further cries of "Where are the snacks/towels/my undies/my Harry Potter book" or anything else small boys can easily misplace.

We became used to cooking with limited space and learned to plan meals around one pot wonders and microwaveable feasts. Cereal and milk was easier than toast, raw veges easier than cooked — Shaun wasn't kidding when he said it took a couple of days to find our groove, but it was fine once we got over ourselves. The battery received a boost while we were plugged in at the Top Ten and between that, the solar panel energy and what we got from driving, we were more than fully charged so we could cut the umbilical cord and go freedom camping. Deb told us she and her family did two to three days at a time "off grid" and then checked into Holiday Parks so they could use camp toilets and showers, refill and recharge.

Going off grid
Once we went freedom camping we really discovered the magic of this kind of holiday. Parked up in pretty parks or by a shoreline looking straight out the window at the sea, with waves lulling us to sleep was truly wonderful. By this time we were into a routine of the kids doing all their night-time stuff before we lowered the drop down bed and climbed up ourselves (the lounge area is rendered useless once the bed is down). Terse frustrated comments decreased, a kind of flow evolved around not getting in each other's way and we felt truly on holiday.

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As I went to sleep on the last night and gazed at the Milky Way through the skylight (a lack of streetlights and a cloudless inky sky create a special kind of magic) I realised why families find this a liberating way to see the country.

Do you have a family travel question for Alexia? Email sundaytravel@heraldonsunday.co.nz with Family in the subject line.