North Island Family Motorhome Getaway!
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
In late August the whole country went into lockdown, but just before all that happened, we had the family trip of a lifetime...
To celebrate a particularly big birthday (a good excuse!), we rented a 6 berth SAM motorhome from Pacific Horizon for two weeks and took it round the top of the North Island. It's something I had always thought would be awesome to do, but never in my wildest dreams thought it would be possible!
In this post I’ll talk mostly about our trip, but if you’re keen to know more details of what it’s really like in one of these motorhomes, what they’re like to drive, how much storage there is, what they are like to travel in with kids etc, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of it all in following posts.
We are a family of four – Mum, Dad, and two energetic little boys, aged 3 and 4. To be honest we really didn’t know how it was all going to go with all of us living in close quarters for 11 days, and were a little uneasy considering how on earth we were going to get them to sleep in the same area. The funny thing is, before we had kids we distinctly remember seeing overseas families traveling around with very young kids in motorhomes, and we both thought “How on earth do they do it? They must be mad!” A few years later and here we were, about to do the same. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so we jumped in with both feet and hoped for the best! It turned out to be the best thing we ever did.
We booked several months in advance with Pacific Horizon, an awesome family run kiwi company. It was early on a Friday morning in August when we left Blenheim and crossed the Cook Strait with the Bluebridge ferry, where we were picked up and taken to the Pacific Horizon depot in Porirua. After an hour-long walk through of all the onboard systems, we were off up the coast!
It didn’t take Brendon long to get the hang of driving the motorhome – strangely enough it didn’t feel that big sitting in the driver’s seat, like you could have been driving a minivan. We were thankful to have got away well before the Friday afternoon traffic leaving Wellington. It was less than half an hour before we managed to squeeze in our first round of ice blocks for the trip, which quickly became a daily ritual!
Fielding – Turangi – Taupo
We have family in Fielding, so had a wonderful time with the cousins and their kids, parked up in their driveway, and the next day picked up our groceries (I pre-ordered online which saved a lot of time), and headed North up the Desert Road to Turangi where we visited The Tongariro National Trout Centre. This is a really cool place, and definitely worth a visit for kids and adults alike. The Tongariro River is world-renowned for it’s Rainbow Trout and the Trout Centre is part trout fishing museum, part hatchery, and part natural side stream of the Tongariro River, which is absolutely teaming with huge trout and can be viewed from both above and through windows below the water. Our kids enjoyed it and found it interesting, but I’m sure older kids would get even more out of it, especially the museum side of things. It was here that we had our first of many “motorhome picnics” and it really sank in just how awesome it is to be able to pull in somewhere, wander down the back to the kitchen, throw everything on the table, sit down in comfort, with a nice view and have lunch in style.
We were headed to Taupo for the night, and on the way up the side of the lake we stopped to find some floating pumice on the shoreline, which the boys thought was pretty cool (the youngest calls it Hummus!). We parked at the Lake Taupo Holiday Resort for the night – a really cool family holiday park with a thermally heated lagoon-style pool with swim up bar and big-screen, as well and heaps of fun things for the kids, such as a great playground, pump track, trampoline, air pillow, basketball hoops, etc. It was a freezing cold night with a biting wind (we later learned it was snowing on the desert road not that far away), but we decided it would be rude not to try the hot pool, but didn’t last long as one of the boys was shivering like mad, and the other was freaked out by the loud big screen. That run back to the motorhome was done in record time, it was hypothermia country, not our smartest move in hindsight! But as with most things, the episode quickly became family legend.
We visited the Huka Falls the next day on the way out of town, after a breakfast treat at McDonalds (the Taupo McDonalds has a real DC3!) Huka Falls is a pretty impressive gorge with a huge amount of water coming down it, well worth a stop. Next, we visited the Velodrome at Cambridge. Walking into the building the boys had no idea what we were going to see, so it was pretty cool when we emerged at the top of the stairs to see the track below us, just like they had been watching in the Olympics, and boy is that track steep in real life! We made it to Auckland for the night and stayed at Takapuna Beach Holiday Park, right on the waterfront, poised to hit the city centre the next day. The volcanic rock pools and the beach were ideal for inquisitive little boys to explore, and apparently you can also find fossils there.
Auckland city center
The next day was our big city day! It was an exciting day of firsts for the boys – first time on a ferry, wearing masks on public transport (they were happy as they thought they looked like doctors!), first time on a bus and a taxi.
We made it to Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life and were first through the door. We had a fantastic time looking at the penguins in the pool and on the ice, and the huge turtles, sharks and crayfish and myriad of other fish. There really is something for all ages – I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, the kids or us! An hour and half was about enough there for the boys at their ages. Next, we taxied to The Wynyard Quarter and wandered back through the Viaduct looking at all the huge superyachts, and had lunch there before eventually heading back on the ferry, and heading North to Waipu Cove for the night.
Kelly Tarlton's Sea Life
Just a note on getting around on the buses in Auckland – you really do need to get a HOP public transport card right from the outset, as the buses don’t accept Eftpos cards or cash. Even if you do get a bus ticket from the railway station, you can’t get a return ticket, and if there’s no kiosk at the other end you find yourself a bit stuck and have to take a taxi like we did!
Day Parking on the North Shore when visiting downtown
It took a bit of figuring out where we could park the motorhome for the day, but eventually found the perfect solution – if you park at the Bayswater Marina car park for the day and take the ferry across to the city, you can get your ticket validated at a machine at the city terminal and you don’t have to pay a thing when you leave the car park, score!
Waipu Cove – Whangarei – Whangaruru Beach
Waipu Cove is a great family motor camp just over the dunes from an awesome surf beach. Apparently, it’s really popular in summer, and I can see why – really nice facilities, friendly staff and a beach filled with the most amazing shells to fossick through.
We headed to Whanargei for the morning and had a look around the Basin and found a great playground down there and a toyshop to explore. We managed to get a couple of buckets and spades and a big ball to kick around at a local $2 shop – these proved to be winners for the rest of the trip!
Up the road a bit further we visited Tutukaka and checked out the Whangarei Game Fishing Club with its many huge trophy fish on the walls – the boys loved seeing the size of them in real life and the big game fishing boats in the marina (they love watching fishing programs on TV).
We drove around the Tutukaka Peninsula with its idyllic Northland beaches and stopped to hang out at Matapouri Bay, which we had all to ourselves! In summer or pre-COVID times everything would have been packed, but it was really quiet everywhere we went – every cloud has a silver lining. While it worked in our favour, we did feel really sorry for the locals, as tourism is their bread and butter. Rather than free camp some of the time like we had planned, we ended up staying in the motor camps, shopping in the local Four Squares and supporting the local economy where we could. We stayed the night at Whangaruru Beach Holiday Park, a quiet spot at the end of a road, just over the hill from the Bay of Islands. At night we heard kiwi calling very close us!
Bay Of Islands
We spent the next morning in Russel and the boys had a fish off the wharf in this sleepy, historic and picturesque town. If the locals we spoke to are to be believed, you can catch Snapper, John Dory and Parore off there and there’s even a Bronze Whaler that hangs around occasionally, but we only caught the world’s smallest Snapper, a few Spotties and an unfortunate crab that somehow got caught on a hook, but that was enough excitement for our keen little fishermen.
We loved the fruit stalls we found everywhere on the side of the roads up north – the locally grown Mandarins and Avocados were great! We called into Kerikeri, hoping to visit the Parrot Place just out of town, but parking with our 7.5m campervan was pretty impossible, so we had to give it a miss and carried on up the road to Matauri Bay, where we stayed for the night. This is such a great family camp – there’s the beautiful long sandy main beach on one side, and another beach over the back of the camp with cool rockpools to explore, and a hill you can walk up where the Rainbow Warrior Memorial is. Usually this is a busy camp in the summer, but while we were there it was so quiet, we almost had the whole beach to ourselves. This was the case a lot of the places we went, due to winter being the off-season, but also the lack of tourists around at the moment – it’s certainly the time to explore our own backyard!
We drove further around the coastline the next day, but didn’t get far before we came across the beautiful Wainui Bay, and just had to stop. The flat sea glistening in the morning sun and the sandy beach completely deserted, it was calling out to us to get amongst it with our buckets and spades! We had our own “Sand Olympics” (the boys are currently sports mad), involving running races, long jump, high jump, and shotput. Next, we visited the tiny township of Whangaroa, with it’s marina filled with game fishing boats, and once again tried our luck fishing off the wharf, but no luck this time. On to Mangonui and its famous Fish and Chip shop for lunch, which did not disappoint. The fish was melt in your mouth – not cheap, but totally worth it!
As with any trip with limited time, it’s so hard to squeeze everything in. Even with careful planning we just couldn’t get around all things we would have liked to squeeze in up North, we had to leave some things for another trip, another time! At this point we had to make the call to visit Tane Mahuta, at Waipoua Forest, then make a break back down through Auckland to Miranda. It was a huge day, and we rolled in to camp at about 930pm with two sleeping boys in the back.
Just a note on motor camps in the winter months – while there’s plenty of spaces available, it pays to book in early in the day, as the offices often shut early and sometimes don’t even man the phones or take internet bookings after 5pm. We got caught out a couple of times!
Miranda Holiday Park is an amazing camp. It’s a little pricier than usual, but so worth it, with thermal pools, a great playground for kids, a BMX track, flying fox and great amenities. It’s very popular, so it definitely pays to book this one ahead.
After enjoying the hot pools we visited the amazing Driving Creek Railway. The boys really loved the train and there was plenty to keep them interested the whole way up and down, with random pottery and interesting constructions along the way, and a nice view at the top. The track was made by acclaimed potter and conservationist, Barry Brickell, who originally made the short small gauge railway to transport clay from the hill on his property back to his workshop. The track caught people’s attention and grew in popularity and in length, homemade bridges were constructed and eventually it finished many years later a long way up the hill with amazing views out over the harbour – it really is a feat of kiwi ingenuity, backyard construction and more than a little bit of eccentricity! Definitely worth a visit. Also on the same site is a small mine shaft into a bank, (just a 2-minute walk from the office) where you can venture in with a torch provided at the entrance and look up and see the huge cave Wetas just above your head.
Next up was Whitianga, which is a really picturesque town on the harbour with lovely views across the estuary to beautiful cliffs on the Ferry Landing side. It’s got a great playground down by the wharf area where the boys spent ages on the pirate ship and with the water play. There’s also an interesting marina to explore with charter boats, and you can fish off the main wharf where the ferry comes into. We went out for breakfast the next morning at Espys on the main Esplanade. The menu was amazing, we could hardly decide what to have - I definitely recommend a visit!
Cooks Beach - Hot Water Beach
After breakfast we left Whitianga to explore on the other side of the Whitianga Heads. The Ferry Landing on the other side can be easily reached with a quick ferry trip across the estuary (ideal for going for a walk or bike ride), but to get there with a vehicle you have to go right round, which takes about half an hour. First we visited Cooks Beach, which is a long sandy beach facing to the North out into Mercury Bay. We backed up onto the grass verge just meters away from the beach, Dad and the boys went down to the beach to play, while I opened up the big back window overlooking the whole scene, turned on a few cruisy tunes, made some coffee and took the mugs down to the beach to drink – it was just idyllic. This is one of my favourite memories of the whole trip, as it really sums up the essence of what campervan travel is all about.
We drove around to the ferry landing to have a look – the beaches around that way are really cool too, with golden cliffs eaten out by the sea, and a walk you can do at Shakespeare Cliffs. We wanted to get to Hot Water Beach in good time for the low tide at 530pm (you can dig your own hot pools there 2 hours either side of the low tide), so we made the call to miss Hahei and Cathedral Cove this time, as Brendon and I had seen it before, and the walk to Cathedral Cove was probably a little long for little legs just yet. We stayed at the Hot Water Beach Top 10 camp, which we loved. The staff there are so friendly and welcoming, and it’s really well set up for families, with lovely facilities, BBQs and great playgrounds etc., and it’s only a 10 minute walk to the beach. We hired a couple of spades from the office, the kids had both of their spades, and we ventured down to the beach. There were only about 20 people there when we arrived – usually the beach is packed and you’re struggling to find somewhere to dig, but thanks again to the lack of tourists around at the moment we had no trouble finding a steaming piece of sand and getting into it. This has got to be one of the most fun things we did on the whole trip – everyone mucking in to dig the hole together was such great family time and we all had a blast. The patches of hot water are really very localised - within our little pool there were hotter spots that we kept the boys away from, and you can control the heat of the pool a bit by digging these hot spots out more if you want it hotter, or if you want it cooler, you dig away from the hot spots. By the end of it the boys were running and jumping and splashing into the pools, and the sun was going down behind the hill before we bundled them up and got them back to the motorhome.
Rotorua - Wellington
With our nose starting to head for home and time running out fast, we drove to Rotorua the next day and went up the gondola. We weren’t too sure how the boys would go, never having been up one before, it they handled it just fine. One of the unexpected benefits of this trip has been watching the boys learning to embrace new experiences and step outside of their usual comfort zones. Being in new places each day and seeing new things all the time really helped them to gain a bit of confidence. We enjoyed watching the giant swing and the luge and mountain bikes from the top. We wanted to show the boys some geothermal activity, so headed down the road to Orakei Korako, closer to Taupo. The trip started with a short boat ride across the river to the eery steaming valley with white terraces, strangely coloured pools, boiling mud and water, a cave, and several geysers – really spectacular, and certainly unlike anything the boys had ever seen before! We stayed in Turangi for the night, which put us within easy reach of Wellington the next day, where we had to have the motorhome back late in the afternoon.
All in all, it was a wonderful holiday, and to anyone thinking about whether or not they could manage it with young kids, I’d say go ahead and do it! It’s the best family time you can get, and while the logistics of it may seem a little daunting at first, they soon iron themselves out once everyone gets in the swing of it., and the memories made are priceless.
All that remains now is to book the next trip! Beware, it is highly addictive….
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