Say "RV" and images pop up of white-haired retirees tooling along in the slow lane. Say good-bye to those preconceived notions before setting foot in New Zealand. Camping and RVing are hugely popular with tourists and locals, young and old alike, in this awe-inspiring country, which by now everyone knows served as the beautiful backdrop for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. RVing is simply the easiest, most affordable and free-flowing way to experience New Zealand. Airfare costs and figuring out a new vehicle's gadgets can scare off some people, but neither is as bad as you think. Best of all, there's no need for hotel reservations!
Where's the Steering Wheel? For most of us who didn't learn to drive Brit style, getting used to cars on the left and steering wheels on the right is the biggest challenge. A decent driver will get the hang of it after a few nervous hours. One tip is to look where you want to go, not at where you don't, and let your hands and feet take care of the rest. The task is made easier because RVs in this part of the world are not the behemoths you've seen clogging up campgrounds at Yellowstone. RVs are called campervans here-fitting, because most are about the size of American minivans. Add in easy-to-follow road signs and byways that are rarely crowded, and the learning curve is a quick one. Don't be surprised if locals blow by you in a blur, though. Kiwis are among the nicest people in the world, but they can seem rude and reckless on the road.
Support systems You seldom drive an hour in New Zealand without spotting an RV park (known locally as campervan, caravan, or holiday parks). Nearly all have bathrooms and hot showers, and many have pools, hot tubs, and private cabins. Scout out campervan sites with sources such as Top 10 Holiday Parks (www.topparks.co.nz) and Holiday Accommodation Parks of New Zealand (www.holidayparks.co.nz). A two-person site with electric hookup-so you can cook and stay warm on chilly nights-should cost about $16. RV manuals cover the basics like how to use the kitchen and hook up your vehicle at a camper site. Neighbors or managers at RV parks are usually more than happy to help out novices, too. Reservations are rarely necessary, but it can't hurt to call or e-mail ahead, especially during certain peak vacation periods (from Christmas to February, in particular). No matter when you go, don't get stressed. New Zealand is safe and super laid-back. Chances are nobody will hassle you for pulling over and spending the night in a parking lot or on the side of the road.
Go your own way Without the worries or costs of putting a roof over your head each night, you can go wherever the road takes you, at whatever pace you please. So what'll it be? The South Island, with glaciers, fjords, and scenery so pumped up it seems to be on steroids? Beaches and plush rolling hills on the North Island? Fun cities like Wellington or Queenstown? You're only limited by how much time you have and how much you're willing to spend on gas (it's over $2 a gallon there).
Too Much of a Good Thing Several days and nights in a row inside the same vehicle makes for one cramped camper-the darn walls seem to close inward by the hour. And after a few days without your own shower, your crew may be ripe for a comfy night's lodging. It's easy to find a motel under $50 throughout most of New Zealand, and a night here and there with clean sheets and your own bathroom will do wonders for your sanity, as well as your hygiene.
How Much? Outfits such as Britz or Maui Rentals lease out campers with a kitchen, hot and cold running water, and sleeping space for two adults for around $300 a week in winter (May through September) and for up to $800 per week in summer (December through February). But booking a package like those regularly featured in BT's 40 Best Bargain Vacations-with a single bill that covers airfare and your RV-usually results in the best value. Tahiti Vacations, SunSpots International, and Newmans Vacations all have decent air/RV prices.
RVING New Zealand: