The best places to campervan around New Zealand – our top 6

We’re back in the UK again *ugly cry*. The Vanmaison sold via an auction house in Christchurch and the New Zealand #vanlife dream is over. For now.

I’ve been trying to dull the pain by writing and re-living our favourite experiences in our gorgeous van. I’ve made you – and future me – a list of our top 6 locations and a map (see below) of the highlights. Because we’re totally doing this again one day. Because oh yes New Zealand, we’ll be back.

Here goes.

1. Sailing the Bay of Islands

Month: Early March – I think we caught the last of the summer weather
Highlight: Sailing solo around the islands on our last 3 days, anchored for the night at Assassination Cove (much prettier than the name suggests) and Paradise Bay (definitely paradise-y)
Accommodation: ‘Solitaire’ the sailing yacht, chartered from Great Escapes Charters in Opua. 

“YOU’RE LEARNING TO SAIL IN THE BEST WEATHER” shouted Jonny Perkins, our salty sailing instructor. He had to shout. It was as Jonny put it, “blowing like stink”. Learning to sail in 25 knot wind, rain and swell was stressful, frightening and physically draining. Perfect for scaring the sh!t out of sailing students.

Then on day 4, the wind dropped and the sun shone down its perfect perfect golden rays. Bang on time for us to graduate sailing school and explore the islands in our 25ft yacht, totally solo. Daring to trust our new skills. Praying that we’d dropped the anchor for the night properly. There’s something deeply satisfying about pushing yourself hard, then relaxing, reaping the rewards of the lesson. There’s so much gorgeousness in NZ, but this experience just *had* to be number 1. We parked the van at the boat shed, and stayed on ‘Solitaire’ for 6 nights.

Sunset on our stern, Paradise Bay, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

2. Milford Sound

Month: January / March
Highlight: Kayaking with Roscos Milford Kayaks, Morning Glory trip.
Accommodation: Milford Lodge (the only place you can camp, so book early!)

We’ve been lucky enough to visit Milford Sound (which is actually a fiord) twice. Once in January 2015 during our super quick first NZ campervan trip and then again in March 2016.

Our 2015 experience was the most memorable. We arrived at Milford Lodge, mouths still a-gape from the crazy beautiful drive and we were greeted by a massive thunder storm. People camping in tents were washed away that night and we got half a minute of sleep owing the enormous cracks and booms echoing around the sheer rocky cliffs of Milford.

New dolphin friends. Speechless.

A post shared by Amy Wagner (@amyeeew) on

We had booked in for the Morning Glory kayak trip due to start at 6:30 AM the next morning. “Surely it’s cancelled” we thought as we watched the last of the lightening crack over the water. Nope. The pick-up arrived, we donned all the wet weather gear and we hit the water in a double kayak as part of a small guided group.

Fur seals smiling and lazing on the rocks, 3 million waterfalls from the recent down-pours and the highest sea cliffs in the world make this place more beautiful than I can ever attempt to describe.  At one point, a pod of dolphins glided by. It’s remote, ancient (I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a terra dactyl swoop out of the sky) and utterly spellbinding. The further we went out towards the Tasman sea, the rougher it became. We made it almost to the heads when a sea shuttle picked us up and took us back to shore. Alive!

This place gets between 7-9 metres of rain a year, so don’t get depressed if you miss the 1 or 2 sunny days Milford chances per blue moon. Dramatic rain and a million waterfalls is the true Milford Sound – and I wouldn’t have her any other way.

3. Kaikoura

Month: May
Highlight: For me it was being so close to the wild baby seals, for Chris it was the whale watching
Accommodation: Kaikoura Top 10 Holiday Park

Kaikoura is blessed with a deep ocean trench super close to the coast. Ocean nutrients and plankton swooshes down the trench from warmer waters attracting whales, orca, dolphins, seals… if you name a few more oceanimals, I bet they’ve got them too.

Listen now. You must go Whale Watching. There’s an air of excited anticipation when they drop a microphone in the water, announce “we’ve got one” and the chase begins. When the spotter sees the blowhole, everyone falls silent. Then it dives, almost in slo-mo. There’s a collective *ahhhhhhh* from the onlookers while the giant beast poses for that iconic tail shot Instagram.

About 20 minutes drive north of Kaikoura is Ohau Waterfall Walk. The whole coast around here is absolutely brimming with cheeky, lazy, smelly, hilarious fur seals. Visit in late Autumn or early Winter and you’ll get something even better: BABY FUR SEALS. Take a short walk along the nearby track and I guarantee you will not be able to control your squeals and laughter. While mumma is out fishing all day, fearless baby fur seals play-fight and frolick with their friends. UNDER a waterfall. Less than a metre from squealing humans. I died of cute.

4. Franz Josef Village

Month: June – the Winter months are less rainy and the ice is better
Highlight: Heli-hiking the Franz Josef Glacier with Franz Josef Glacier Guides
Accommodation: Rainforest Holiday Park

A fun and lively ski town vibe and a Glacier you can heli over and hike around. IT’S AWESOME. I’ll tell the rest of this story with pictures.

5. Hahei

Month: February
Highlight: Kayaking to Cathedral Cove
Accommodation: Hahei Holiday Park

Hahei is surrounded by big hills and pale golden sand. The single holiday park in town is situated bang on one of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever laid eyes on. The horizon is dappled with islands and blue water and holiday homes for very rich people.

Conditions were better than perfect for kayaking and snorkeling, and the marine reserve means the underwater world is teaming with life.

And then there’s the one pub in town, a craft brewery with excellent grub and the best hot chips I’ve ever tasted. We may have visited this pub one or two times. A day.

We booked the Vanmaison in for a night, then stayed a week. I could have stayed a month. I’ll be back.


6. Abel Tasman National Park

Month: April & May (still awesome, but I’d go again in mid Summer)
Highlight: Sunset walks along the Abel Tasman Track
Accommodation: The Barn, Marahau, Abel Tasman National Park

The Barn is a hostel and holiday park right on the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park. The views are stunning (you can see the hikers walking the track from camp) and the facilities were my favourite in NZ. You simply can’t beat a shower with a ocean view.

It was heading into Winter in the Nelson area when we arrived, and while the open fire in the lounge and kitchen made everything cosy, I could tell the place would have been pumping in the Summertime – their peak season. I’ll be back again then.

In addition to this top 6, I’ve got a list of honourable mentions and a list of ‘also great’ spots, and I hope to publish them over the next few days. Ok so the trip is over, but I am totally going to drag out the NZ writing.

We’re also on hunt for our next van or boat home in the UK. We’re erring towards a boat this week. If it’s a boat, I may have to re-brand this blog. Suggestions welcome. Let’s see how this goes.

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