Imagine arriving to the shore of a glacial lake, surrounded by yellow poplar trees and snow-capped mountains and saying, “We’re home.” This my friends, is campervanning in New Zealand, where each night you stop at an absurdly gorgeous place, make a gourmet meal, open a bottle of Marlborough wine, and then wake up to a million-dollar view, free of charge. We carried on like this for 10 glorious in our Maui Ultima campervan—our luxury studio apartment on wheels—exploring the South Island’s mountains, glaciers, fjords, colonial towns, beaches, and alpine villages. There are so many exquisite and remote places to experience in New Zealand, that a rental car and a few hotel stays wasn’t going to cut it. With the ability to move at our own pace, go wherever inspired us, and have the amenities of home on hand, we found the keys to total freedom and adventure.
We picked up our two-berth Mercedes Sprinter with its spacious living area, efficient kitchen, full bathroom, ingenious storage, and modern accents and couldn’t believe how posh a campervan could be. Watch this video for the full tour of our faithful steed and mobile palace.
Our 1472-mile route was ambitious but there isn’t a single place on this itinerary we’d cut on this crazy clockwise loop. Starting with Christchurch, Lake Alexandrina, Mount Cook/Tasman Glacier, Oamaru, Moeraki Boulders, Dunedin, Otago Peninsula, Curio Bay, Catlins Conservation Park, Invercargill, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Lake Wanaka, Haast, Franz Josef Glacier, Arthur’s Pass back to Christchurch.
We left Christchurch way later than expected so the new plan was to get as close to the world heritage site of Mount Cook National Park as possible before dark. We zoomed into our trusty Maps With Me app, trying to survey the digital landscape for a pretty place to sleep and found a spot overlooking Lake Alexandrina. In New Zealand it’s legal to “Freedom Camp,” which means if your vehicle has its own bathroom (like our Maui) and the land isn’t signposted, you can overnight park on public land. Freedom camping allowed us to wake up to views like this every day.
After admiring the tallest mountain in Australasia, we headed south on Canterbury’s Highway 8 going from snowy mountains to teal seas to the stunning city of Dunedin. We were dazzled by the Victorian and Edwardian architecture and lively vibe of this university town.
The Otago Pennisula, a 20-km long finger of land jutting off Dunedin has some of the best marine life and bird watching in the world with the albatross colonies, endangered yellow eyed penguins, hooker sea lions, sea elephants and more. We pulled over to watch some seals and made a seafood dinner in our fully equipped kitchen.
Continuing along the southern coastal roads into the Catlins, there were not only gorgeous beaches but Lord-of-the-Ring style podocarp forests. We took a hike to a waterfall and I could have sworn we saw a few hobbits darting between the moss-encrusted trees.
Every visitor that comes to the South Island has Fjordland National Park and its world-famous Milford Sound on his list. There is no freedom camping in the park so we stopped at Deer Flat campground in the shadow of the 5,000-foot mountains and made ourselves a hearty meal before hiking and kayaking the day away.
Milford Sound is said to be an 8th Wonder of the World and after our four-hour kayak expedition between the majestic mountains, hanging glaciers, and gushing waterfalls…we’d have to agree. Fjordland National Park is a wildly popular place, attracting plenty of tour buses, but with our campervan we were able to zip to the lesser known vistas and trails without the crowds.
Our whirlwind road-trip continued to the Adventure Capital of Queenstown and its adrenaline effects immediately took hold. Within an hour of our arrival to this alpine town, we signed up to bungee jump, jet boat the Shotover river, and ride the world’s largest gorge swing. Maybe its the town’s hundreds of adventure activities on offer or the seductive nature of the Remarkable Mountains and Lake Wakatipu, but Queenstown got our heart racing like no other.
We couldn’t leave Queenstown without a stop at the famous Fergburger for a Bambi—venison burger with spicy mango chutney. With full bellies we started our drive to Glenorchy, the hippy town at the head of Lake Wakitipu. It should have taken us 40 minutes but add in 20 photo stops to document the coastal gorgeousness and it took us close to two hours.
Cruising back through Queenstown with our mouths agape, we made our way north to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. These sister lakes aren’t nearly as popular as Wakatipu, but dear lord are they spectacular. Glacier-cut mountains shoot from all sides of the deep waters and no matter how many panoramics you take, you can’t fit all the beauty in.
Over the waterfalls of Haas Pass and out to the West Coast, we made our way towards Franz Josef Glacier. We took a helicopter ride to the top to the pristine white peaks but by just pulling our camper over, we got this view.
A friend recommended a campsite near the glacier but with our gas kitchen, solar panels, kitchen, and bathroom, we had no reason or desire to use these shared facilities. Instead we found a quiet spot in line with Franz Josef, fired up our slide-out BBQ, and enjoyed grilled lamb and red wine at our private table for two.
We made our way back to Christchurch via the stunning Arthur’s Pass and couldn’t stop marveling at how much we saw in ten days. Our campervan saved us from booking hotels, having to pack up each day, and staying on the tourist track. It allowed us to truly explore the pristine South Island and discover a whole new way to travel the world.
Mike and Anne Howard left on their honeymoon in 2012 and have been traveling the world ever since. HoneyTrek.com chronicles their adventures across 7 continents, 44 countries, and counting! Their writing, photography, and the story of the “World’s Longest Honeymoon” can also be found on Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Knot, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and dozens of other international publications. Connect with @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.