Top summer hot spots

By: Elisabeth Easther


Nothing says “hello summer” quite like a camping holiday. Travel writer Elisabeth Easther whips up and down the country, offering suggestions for the best places to park up.

Because summer is especially delightful in a motorhome or caravan, we’ve put together a range of our favourite destinations, a sampler of sublime coastal spots and heavenly hideaways where you can while away the summer days and nights.

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Maraetai Beach

Maraetai Beach & Omana

Just 42km southeast of Auckland’s doorstep, Omana and Maraetai Beach are Auckland’s easternmost coastal settlements. Found on either side of a headland, these north-facing beaches offer astonishing views across the Hauraki Gulf to Auckland City and the Coromandel.

Pack a picnic and your swimsuit, take your kayak or your bike, or just laze under vast pōhutukawa trees. Maraetai is a joy to explore while the Omana Regional Park is a magnet for campers and families and, since it is a working farm, there are photogenic farm animals to befriend.

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Omana Regional Park

Be active: Head to Omana Beach Road playground. Right by the beach, with fabulous trees, the play equipment is impressive and well thought out, and there are clean conveniences on site. Kayakers love it here, too, whether you’re just paddling gently around the bay or tackling the spectacular Te Ara Moana Kayak Trail.

This multi-day voyage features 50km of paddling between Omana and Waharau Regional Parks. Choose between the five heavenly camping sites along this historic sea route used by Māori for trade and transport.

Walking and riding: Walking and cycling are becoming increasingly popular, and the Beachlands to Maraetai Path is 8km of pastoral pleasure, whether you ride or walk. It features playgrounds, barbecues, a skate park, even a tennis court. Take your time and your togs. Dogs are also welcome.

Feeling peckish: Maraetai Lucky Takeaway offers all the regular takeaway favourites, and there are countless places to stop if you’re dining al fresco. The Maraetai Boat Club offers reasonably priced family meals Thursday to Sundays, with non-members needing to be signed in by a member.

Med Kitchen on Maraetai Drive serves super tasty meals (and super tasty views) from breakfast till dinner while Maraetai Wharf Café will see you right for a cuppa, takeaways, milkshakes and ice creams.

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Maraetai Wharf

Where to stay: Omana Regional Park offers delightful beachside camping with all the basic amenities. It operates on a first-come-first-served basis, with capacity for just 100 people. In the high season, book ahead through the Auckland Council website. If you’re fully self-contained, Te Kaha Recreation Reserve in Maraetai Bay is a beautiful waterfront spot with space for 10 campers per night and a maximum three-night stay.

Kapowairua, Spirits Bay

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Spirits Bay

You’ll find the country’s most-northerly campground at Kapowairua, 107km north of Kaitāia at the end of the Aupouri Peninsula. Aside from being incredibly scenic, this area has deep significance to Māori because it is where the spirits of the dead are believed to gather before moving onto their ancestral home.

With its pristine sandy beaches, walking tracks and fishing spots, the area is also popular for surfing (when the wind is blowing in the right direction). Excursion options include the lighthouse at Cape Reinga as well as the Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway, a magnificent three- to four-day tramp.

The DOC-managed campground is first-come-first-served and, because this is a real back-to-nature location, you’ll want a full tank of gas and all the food and water you require. No dogs, unless with a DOC permit.

Mātauri Bay, The Bay of Islands

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Mātauri Bay and the Cavalli Islands

Some 30km northeast of Kerikeri, Mātauri Bay is a little beauty, an idyllic coastal settlement with safe swimming, spectacularly clear seas for snorkelling and diving and darling walks. Heritage buffs can visit the historic Anglican Church or stop at the mighty Mataatua Puhi, a 21.8m Māori war canoe next to the campground. Best place to park: Enjoy beachfront camping at the Mātauri Bay Holiday Park, where you’ll also find a general store with petrol, dive fills and a takeaway bar.

Short walk: Climb the headland at the northern end of the beach to visit the Rainbow Warrior Memorial. The sign-posted walking track leads to the summit of Pukepika and an impressive Chris Booth sculpture. Hikers will be rewarded with astonishing views of ocean and islands.

Dive in: The Cavalli Islands are a small group of mostly uninhabited islands, 3km northeast of Mātauri Bay. Explore the Rainbow Warrior where it was scuttled in 1987 - 6km north of Mātauri Bay - and discover a bustling marine ecosystem.

Anyone for golf?: Don’t forget to pack the clubs because Kauri Cliffs Golf Resort offers an 18-hole 72-par PGA course.

Waihī Beach, Bay of Plenty

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The start of Christmas beach cricket in Waihī

Some 105km from Hamilton, Waihī Beach is a coastal treasure. The name is Te Reo for ‘rising water’, and here you’ll find 10km of safe, sandy surf beach with plenty of space even in the height of summer.

Pop the awning: The Top 10 Waihī Beach Holiday Resort has play areas, a family room, a beautiful pool and lovely grounds. Or if freedom’s your thing, the self-contained can pull over at Island View Esplanade on Tuna Avenue (the maximum stay is three nights).

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Play time at Waihī

Best walk: Visit Orokawa Bay by setting off from the northern end of Waihī Beach; it’s a 45-minute amble to a perfect picnic cove. It’s not especially suitable for swimming due to a steep seafloor, but it is fun for rock fishing and lolling about.

Learn to surf: Waihī Beach Surf School offers classes for total novices and surfers who want to improve their skills.

On your bike: The Hauraki Rail trail is fantastic, with sections connecting Te Aroha, Paeroa, Waihī and Thames. The Karangahake Gorge leg is especially fabulous. You can also enjoy the Anthenree Estuary Walk and Cycleway, a 3km route from Waihī Beach to Bowentown.

Tokomaru Bay, East Cape

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Tokomaru Bay

You could spend weeks exploring the East Cape, with State Highway 35 - aka the Pacific Coast Highway - stretching for 335km from Ōpōtiki to Gisborne. With so many places to pull over, Tokomaru Bay (91km from Gisborne) provides a perfect base for exploring, whether you’re surfing, swimming, fishing from the wharf or checking out the beach from a saddle.

Rest your weary wheels: In 2014, Lonely Planet described Stranded in Paradise Backpackers as the best place to stay on the East Coast with its views, eco-loos, free Wi-Fi and a small handful of non-powered parking sites.

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Tokomaru Bay wharf

If you want power, Tokomaru Bay Holiday Park has seven powered sites and all the necessary facilities including a dump station, laundry and water fills. You can also freedom camp at the north end of the bay on Beach Road or the south end on Arthur Street. Maximum three-night stay, permits required.

Souvenir hunters: Te Waihi Gallery is full of beautiful jewellery, ceramics and paintings.

Hungry?: Take your appetite to lively Café 35. The food is stunning, whether you’re after great coffee, delicious cakes or hearty meals and the pāua pies are out-of-this-world excellent.

Best walk: DOC’s Anaura Bay Walkway is an easy 4.5km two-hour loop featuring coastal forest, flourishing native bush and birdlife. Or take a tour up Mount Hikurangi with the tour leaders of Maunga Hikurangi and be the first to see the sun.

Beer essentials: Te Puka Tavern looks out over the bay and is heaven for a brew with a view. The coffee is good, too.

Castlepoint, Wairarapa

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Lighthouse on the Wairarapa coast

On the rugged Wairarapa coast, one hour from Masterton and 163km from Wellington, Castlepoint Beach with its towering Castle Rock (162m) and photogenic lighthouse is guaranteed to freshen you up. It’s popular with swimmers, surfers, lagoon paddlers, golfers and fossil fans. And keep a kite handy because when it blows, it blows.

Park up: Castlepoint Holiday Park offers powered sites on the beach, or fully self-contained freedom campers can stay up to four nights at the picturesque Castlepoint Reserve at the base of the lighthouse.

Holy strollers: The Deliverance Cove Track is a brisk walk featuring pine forests, bridges and fabulous views. Suitable for kids and dogs (on leashes), it takes about 45 minutes.

Peckish?: The beachfront Castlepoint Store and Tearooms has most things you could want, including fuel. Historic Whakataki Hotel (est. 1896), with its popular garden bar and playground, is worth stopping for, as is Tinui Café, 20km from Castlepoint.

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Castlepoint Beach

Aspiring David Attenboroughs: Look for dolphins, some smaller whale species and seals but keep your distance as they’re cute but not tame. Seabirds also love it here - you might spy white-fronted terns, red-billed gulls, black shags, reef herons, gannets and oystercatchers.

Motueka

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Pool at Motueka Top 10

On the western shores of Tasman Bay, just 153 scenic kilometres from Picton, the little town of Motueka was built on tobacco, although today it’s more of a fruit bowl than an ashtray. With abundant sunshine hours, unfeasibly pleasant weather and easy access to Abel Tasman National Park, Mount Arthur and the ocean, there’s a lot to do, so prepare to park for a while.

There’s also an abundance of arts and crafts, wine tours, caving and kayaking, and enough cafés to satisfy the most ardent caffeine addicts. In fact, why not just remove your wheels and live here forever?

Pull over: The Top 10 in Motueka is a charmer, with its epic pool, hot tub, rambunctious playground (complete with bouncy pillow) and bike hire. Kids and adults love this place. But if you’re self-contained and after something more serene, spend a night at Port Motueka Beach Reserve, beside the lovingly restored Saltwater Baths.

Pretty park: Decks Reserve has a peaceful Japanese garden, plenty of fruit trees, a history walk and an excellent playground. Overnight camping available, too, but check the restrictions.

Hot to trot: Motueka Sandspit is superb, whether you enjoy a short walk or do the full four hours’ return. The inlet and foreshore trails are also popular, while Abel Tasman National Park is awe-inspiring.

Rumbling tums: Jester House is an eco-friendly café with insanely imaginative grounds, eels you can feed, spectacular food and a fine philosophy.

Lifecycle: The Great Taste Trail connects Nelson to Kaiteriteri and is one of the tastiest cycle trails in the land, with endless eating and drinking opportunities.

Punakāiki, West Coast

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Pancake rocks, forest and beach in Punakāiki

Lonely Planet rated the road that connects Greymouth with Westport as one of the world’s top 10 drives. Punakāiki, somewhere in the middle of the two, is a magical destination. A wild coast, blowholes, pancake rocks, walks and wildlife, stargazing and some of nature’s most impressive artworks make this area one of the country’s most-visited.

Engines off: Punakāiki Beach Camp, between the river and the beach, is close to the ocean and those magnificent limestone cliffs. There are powered and unpowered sites, a shared kitchen and laundry facilities – everything you need.

Peckish?: The Rusty Cup Mobile Café at Fox River is open from Labour Weekend to Anzac Weekend and offers wholesome hearty food, including pancakes. Punakāiki Tavern is another top spot to tip a beverage down your blowhole.

Bright idea: Check your torch’s batteries, then head to Punakāiki Cavern for glow worms and stalactites.

Wander-full: The Punakāiki Pancake Walk Loop Track takes about an hour
and is suitable for sturdy pushchairs. The Truman Track is a short walk to the sea past scalloped cliffs and takes about 30 minutes’ return. The Pororari River Loop Track is one of the finest half-day walks in the country with options of 7km, 11km and 15km.

Active relaxers: Hire a kayak or paddleboard; take a surf lesson or a star-gazing tour.

Riverton

Riverton is a gem just 30km west of Invercargill on SH99 along the Southern Scenic Route. Pay the place a visit and see why people call it the ‘Riviera of the South’. With wildlife, great surf, beautiful beaches, and some of the most epic geological marvels, you’ll find lots to love.

Where to stay: It’s a 15-minute walk along the estuary from Riverton Holiday Park to the township. Beautifully planted, with all the amenities, the park is dog-friendly too. Freedom campers will love Aparima Bridge Reserve in a little place called Thornbury, 10km north of Riverton.

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Colac Bay near Riverton

There’s a maximum stay of 28 days, so you might even think about getting your mail redirected. Colac Bay also has freedom camping for the fully self-contained with a two-night maximum. The wind can whistle through, so batten down the hatches when she’s blowing.

Shell shock: Stop at the mammoth pāua shell on Main Street. Towering nearly three metres above the pavement, it’s a social media magnet. #wishyouwerehere

Culture shock: Visit Te Hikoi Southern Journey, the magical museum, and learn about the region’s history. It has fascinating exhibits on early Māori, Chinese settlers and geology.

Swim o’clock: Go to Howells Point and Riverton Rocks for great beaches and more fantastic geology. Gemstone Beach is an aptly named cove of treasures, while Colac Bay is where you’ll go if it’s surf that you’re after.

Look sharp: Go to More’s Reserve and gaze across Southland and Foveaux Strait to Rakiura/Stewart Island. There are several fab walks here, too.

Shoe thing: Trot up Long Hill for 90 minutes of easy bushwalking and look for the handmade water races made by Chinese miners in the 1880s.

Hungry?: Try the First Inn Café for homemade pies (venison and seafood are highlights). For custard squares, it’s the Postmasters, or if you like fancier food, the Beach House Café wows with its blue cod, Bluff oysters and seafood chowder.

Tumu Toka Curioscape Campground

If you care to camp as far south as the South Island allows, the campground at Curio Bay is for you. Some 80km from Invercargill, this charming site is ruggedly located. Keen naturalists should keep their peepers peeled for yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals, sea lions and Hector’s dolphins.

There’s also a Jurassic Fossil Forest, a café and small store, and pristine cooking, laundry and ablution facilities. With 75 tent sites, 25 powered sites and a dump station, the campground might be at the bottom of the country, but it’s tops when it comes to satisfaction. 

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