Retro Holidays

camping1The great summer camping holiday. It’s as quintessentially Kiwi as jandals, barbecues and Buzzy Bees. And according to travel writer Sarah Bennett, we’re packing up the tent and kids and heading to the outdoors in greater numbers than we have in years.

Last summer Sarah and her husband Lee Slater took a 20,000 kilometre road trip around New Zealand while researching their new book, Let’s Go Camping a guide to some of the best campgrounds in the country. On their journey they discovered a renaissance in the simple, bucket and spade holidays of the past.

“As kids we’d spend our summer days in bare feet, with little more than a drink of water and a run-around for entertainment. It was heart-warming to see so many Kiwi families enjoying this type of holiday at the campgrounds we visited – doing the old-school splash in the stream or playing on the beach instead of going to a mall or café.”

Sarah believes that the current economic climate is just one reason for the revival in camping and caravanning. “I think our desire to go back to a more natural, basic existence is in line with the current retro trend. We’re baking, jam-making and growing more vegetables than we have in years and camping fits right into that movement. We want to recreate those childhood experiences for our own children.”

Downsizing to a camping holiday doesn’t have to mean going without. Sarah says that there is no need to shiver in a damp sleeping bag beneath a ratty tent. “In terms of personal comfort there has never been a better time to camp. For a modest investment you can get a reasonable, watertight tent and all the gear that goes with it. Campervans have also become popular as they are easier to manoeuvre and cheaper to run than a caravan. And most of the larger campervans are fully self-contained which gives travellers a lot more freedom.”

Tourism NZ statistics support the trend towards lower-cost holiday alternatives. In April 2009 there was a 28 percent increase in guest nights at caravan parks and camping grounds when compared with figures from April 2008. This was the largest increase of all the tourist accommodation types by far. And with international visitor numbers on the decline and domestic tourism increasing nine percent during this period there are strong indications that more Kiwis are giving up the Pacific Island or Gold Coast holiday in favour of a camping trip to the bush or the beach.

There are around 400 commercial Holiday Parks in New Zealand, a figure that has been stable for the past ten years according to the Holiday Parks Association of New Zealand website. “It is true that some great campgrounds have closed but there are still plenty of terrific ones left and new ones popping up,” Sarah says.

One of the newest is the Hot Water Beach Holiday Park that opened a year ago near the stunning Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel Peninsula – voted one of the Top 10 Beaches in the World by Lonely Planet Travel Guide. Visitors have raved about the modern features at the park that include a SKY TV room, internet access kiosk, photo and fax services, and pristine service facilities.

Grant Webster, who owns and operates the park with his wife Sherrie says that the summer holiday period has been booked out for three months, and they could have filled the park another two or three times over. “I’m still getting 10 to 12 phone calls a day from people trying to book in.”

He believes that nostalgia is playing a big part in the camping resurgence and that the recession is also having an impact. “More people are holidaying at home and trying to replicate the childhood camping trips they remember so fondly.”

Judi and Reese Havill are looking forward to a busy summer at Onaero Bay Holiday Park which they manage for the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association. Many of their visitors are “locals” from New Plymouth, just a 30 minute drive away.

“We’ve got the beach and river on our doorstep and are surrounded by natural bush so people can get out of town without having to travel too far or spend a lot,” Judi says.

She is often amazed at the degree of home comforts that are brought into the holiday park. “Some campers still like to rough it but most want the powered sites so they can plug in their fridges and other appliances. A few even bring fancy double beds. They are really quite comfortable although they can’t go up the road to get a latte – they still have to boil the billy.”

(Have changed the order of these paras around – above and below so that the following par segways into the campervanning stuff ……)

The Havills have noticed some changes in the way we are camping. “People are staying longer and we are seeing more young Kiwi families travelling in campervans. Some even choose camping as a permanent lifestyle choice. Running the campground has opened our eyes to just how many people are living in buses and home-schooling their children.”

Motor-home holidays have traditionally been the domain of tourists and the older demographic of New Zealanders, but Gray Borrell of Roadcraft, a motorhome manufacturer says that it has now become “a cool option” for younger Kiwi families. “People want to camp but still enjoy some home comforts. In a campervan they can take whatever they like and also have a few luxuries such as SKY TV, a wraparound couch and a portable kitchen and bathroom.”

He says the company’s new Base Jumper L4 Overland Camping Vehicle (OCV) has been specifically designed for the “active and adventurous Kiwi family” which is “definitely a new niche in the market.”

Gray believes that camping is part of our Kiwi identity and that we may be flocking to the great outdoors due to the fear that we are losing some of our best coastal camping spots. “A lot of campgrounds have been sold up so perhaps the average New Zealander is worried that they may eventually lose their ability to go and holiday next to the beach? Parents want to ensure that their children still experience that classic Kiwi camping holiday.”

At the Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park on Banks Peninsula east of Christchurch there has been a significant upswing in domestic visitors, many of whom have ventured down from the North Island in campervans, says manager Richard Sansbury. “We’ve also seen a resurgence in caravans over the last couple of years which I think is partly due to the recession but also the trend to get back to basics with gardening and cooking. I believe it is something that will continue.”

For those who want to take their camping experience to even more luxurious heights there is always “glamping”, or glamorous camping, an opulent camping alternative inspired by wealthy concert-goers at European outdoor music festivals. The glamping option is being offered at Splore 2010, a three day outdoor music and arts festival being held at Tapapakanga Regional Park in February.

Festival director and founder Amanda Wright says that concert-goers can choose from a range of luxurious tents from small igloo-shaped “love shacks” through to big Moroccan style tents that sleep up to 12 people. “Glamping caters for people who want to experience an outdoor event but still enjoy a certain level of comfort. When they turn up at the festival their space will be dressed and ready with everything from beds and furniture to lighting. It will be very plush and comfortable.”

Sarah Bennett says that for people who prefer a more back-to-basics and “au naturale” approach to camping (without electricity and hot water) she recommends Department of Conservation campgrounds. “These are located in some of the most remote and beautiful corners of New Zealand. DOC has been investing heavily in its facilities so campers have never had it better. A whole family could stay at one of these sites for as little as $20 a night.” Visiting New Zealand’s top campsites outside the hectic Christmas summer holidays in January is another of Sarah’s tips for making the most of a camping holiday.

Environmental sustainability and guilt over our carbon footprint could be another factor in our yearning for the natural life, she adds. “There is a growing wave of appreciation for the precious places we have in New Zealand. It’s obvious that we’ve woken up, but only time will tell whether we can make the changes we need to quickly enough to maintain these resources for future generations.”

Sarah says that she is impressed by the quality of our campgrounds overall, particularly in comparison to those in the UK and USA where she has camped extensively. “The standard is very high in New Zealand. We know how to camp well.”

Many of the commercial holiday park operators do us a “huge favour” in terms of preserving our natural environment, she adds. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a campground without full recycling and many have solar power and undertake environmental projects on the side such as dune and stream restoration.”

Sarah believes that the current resurgence in camping is more than just a flash in the pan. “As the environment deteriorates I think we will treasure our natural places more and more and see those that we’ve taken for granted in a new light. Camping helps us to reconnect with the planet and appreciate the splendours that remain.”

By Jo Bailey