Public campground, tents, and small children - sounds more like a recipe for disaster than a relaxing family holiday? Danielle Wright takes the family into the great outdoors and discovers comfort camping is not an oxymoron.
From the beginning, our first family camping holiday is different to our usual trips away. For a start, we need to take two cars - husband and the surfboards, duvets, buckets and spades, air beds, tables and chairs, and anything else we can jam inside in one car; the kids and I in another.
It's actually quite a relaxing drive - for my husband in the other car, that is! At each rest stop he is more chatty and bouncing with life. The kids (aged one and four) and I, on the other hand, get rattier the closer we get to the holiday park on the edge of Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty, about a three-hour drive from Auckland.
As total beginners to the wonders of family camping, we've made life easy for ourselves and hired the biggest tent we could find, the Coleman Tasman, from local store Camping and Outdoors. For $45 a night, our new home has two large rooms, is sturdy enough for the high winds, and we don't have to clean it before we return it (a bonus on the last day when it is covered in dirt from the wet ground).
For an extra $45, we pay the helpful Camping and Outdoors man to put the tent up before we arrive. We're glad we did, it would have taken us a long time to figure out how to put it up and keep a one- and four-year-old entertained. Many parental arguments were averted by this comfort camping move!
Beachside Holiday Park is located at the foot of the beautiful Mount Maunganui in between a surf beach and a calmer harbour estuary for the best of both worlds. The campsite is meticulously clean, with endlessly hot showers and a communal cooking area with a TV, magazines and books for the kids. On the weekends, security staff walk around the campsite. It's a safe, family-friendly place.
Loud surf helps small people fall asleep
The first night we're surprised at the loudness of the tiny waves crashing against the shore. It drowns out any campsite noise and is a convenient, constant lullaby for the kids, who fall asleep easily after the fresh sea air and the excitement of the start of their holiday.
The next morning, our one-year-old wakes us before sunrise wanting to ride her dune buggy up and down the boardwalk outside the tent. We drink great takeaway lattes from the local café across the road (I doubt that all campsites have this luxury!) and a few people start walking past our tent on their way up the Mount.
"Morning," they chorus as they pass, smiling at our children having their breakfast. How nice, we think... Until the sun starts to rise and there must be a thousand hellos. This is one busy boardwalk! It's a conveyor belt of poseurs, first-dates, athletic bodies, and tourists.
The poor man's Gold Coast
Mount Maunganui is known as the "poor man's Gold Coast" and the campsite is just a two-minute stroll to nightlife, bars, restaurants, and upmarket resort shopping. If you're looking to get away from it all, this is not the camping holiday for you. The Mount is a busy place. During our holiday week, many major events happen in front of our tent: An air show, paragliders whizzing down the Mount, scaffolding and a temporary house positioned as hundreds of people compete in surf life saving and blow-up flip-flop competitions, and even people walking the stretch of the boardwalk on their hands! For us city-dwellers, it only made our week camping all the more exciting.
We relished living without TV and electricity, but most people had satellite dishes, portable stovetops and all sorts of mod cons in their caravans and tents. A trip to the communal kitchen uncovered people scrambling for sockets to plug in their laptops or mobile phone chargers, true information junkies. One American camper was even Skyping on the beach - showing his son a 360-degree view of his location. For us, having the mobile phones and laptop switched off was a must.
Farmer's markets and cruise ships
A favourite daily event for our four-year-old was a walk to the top of the Mount with his dad. The tracks are slippery in places and it's steep, but the views are spectacular and it takes about two hours with a preschooler for the round trip.
Every Sunday is the farmer's market in the centre of town. From gourmet sausages to Pohutakawa smoked cheese, smoked fish salamis, and the Totally Tamarillo stand, you can pick yourself up an delicious BBQ menu for back at camp.
For a change from the beach, we often headed to the salt water hot pools next to the campsite. For $13.50, the whole family can soak in a variety of hot pools with spectacular views up the mountain. Don't forget to take a bottle of water - the salt water makes you thirsty. Our very large blow-up plane was also a hit with the kids in the paddling pool, and we had many temporary pilots over the course of the week.
The visiting cruise ships cause much excitement. "Another one coming in," says a loud voice outside the tent on the second morning. The imposing figure of a massive cruise ship is on the horizon. Quite a crowd is out with binoculars. "Pacific Jewel. I haven't seen this one before," they exclaim. For the next few hours fresh tourists descend on the Mount. They are chatty and friendly. Then, all at once, they depart for their next port.
Feeding the troops
If you're looking for good food, the Mount has it all - at a price! $40 for two takeaway kebabs on the first night led us further into the Port City of Tauranga nearby, where $10 worth of fish and chips fed our family of four, with plenty left for the hungry seagulls - try Bobby's Fish Market on Trinity Wharf.
Sunrise Café in the centre of Tauranga is also a good place to stop when shopping. Whole-wheat toast and scrambled eggs (full of cream, I should warn you) is $8.50 and the kids enjoy crayons, a drawing table, and a box of toys. The relaxed, homestyle atmosphere is family-friendly.
Rainy day activities
We had beautiful weather but were prepared for rain, with plenty of alternative activities such as the nearby Te Puki kiwifruit farm Kiwi360, an indoor swimming centre, ice rink, the BayFair shopping complex, or a day trip to nearby Rotorua.
We'll be back!
You can rely on every night being different at a campsite. From an 18th birthday party, a hens' weekend, a group who've packed their bongos, guitar, and loud voices for all-night singsongs, or
grandparents hosting their entire families for the night. After a few days, you recognise the tribes: The polite Europeans on bicycle tours, the retirees who come every year for a month to catch up with their old friends, locals who rent a caravan over the summer as a retreat after work, and us - families not quite sure what they're doing here, but who are having fun all the same.
Survival tips for camping with kids
1. Choose a campsite located near shops and restaurants. You don't have to be in complete wilderness to have a fun camping trip. If the weather pours, take the kids to a movie at the local cinema a few minutes' walk away instead of huddling inside a tiny tent.
2. Book at least a year in advance. Some of the prime sites are booked three years in advance, so be early if you're planning a school holiday adventure. Ask to be sent a campsite map and for advice on their prime sites. Ideally, you want one on the end of a row, so you have extra room for the kids, as well as a bit more privacy - rather than sandwiched in between two sites.
3. Call a local camping store and hire their biggest, roomiest tent, then arrange for them to put the tent up just prior to your estimated arrival time - no need to battle with the pegs, your partner, and toddlers!
4. Take two cars, one filled with every gadget and camping contraption you can find, as well as any transportable comforts of home - duvets, tables and chairs, and blow up mattresses. The other filled with one parent and the kids for a roomy trip to your destination. At least one carload will arrive relaxed!
5. Blow-up water toys are good for beach camping trips - a large ride-on aeroplane will help your kids make friends (you'll have many "pilots" over the course of the holiday) and can be packed away when not in use.
6. If you want some couple time, consider staying at a "camping resort", which offers many of the resort options like kids' clubs and water parks.
7. Bring a kids' table and chairs set so the kids can eat properly - it will make you feel better about their less-than-perfect holiday diets if they can eat at their own table.
8. Find the local farmer's market and shop for fresh produce at reasonable prices, as well as local delicacies - gourmet sausages for the BBQ, or specialty breads and cheeses with preserves made from local fruits for a delectable ploughman's lunch back at camp.
9. Don't use the local dairy for your shopping. Prices of milk, bread, washing-up liquid and other basics will be double what you'd pay if you drove to the nearby supermarket - shop where the locals would. Spend your savings on your holiday fun, not your necessities.
10. Above all, leave the TV, video games, laptop, and DVD player at home. The crashing of waves, mixed with a day in the fresh air, is enough of a lullaby.
Danielle Wright (www.wrightathome.co.nz) is a writer, editor, and mum to Henry (5) and Georgie (2). She loves to show the world to her children through travel, seeing each new experience through their eyes for the first time.
PHOTOGRAPHY: DANIELLE WRIGHT, SHUTTERSTOCK