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Rolling and roaming in New Zealand by camper van

On the Pacific nation's South Island, every day is an adventure. Travel by camper van can make the experience still more up-close and personal.

July 19, 2009|Mary Engel

On the evening of our 10th day, just as we'd circled back to Christchurch, shifting the gears produced an ever louder screech. Our eyes met: It was time. As most members of the club know, it's a rare VW van excursion that doesn't involve making the acquaintance of a mechanic along the route.

Heads turned as we clattered into a park on the edge of town. But we were lucky to be back in the city where we'd picked up our van. It took just a phone call to Beattie the next morning to arrange a swap. By noon we were in a new ride, which also was orange.

The year? 1975.

Smaller and rounder, van No. 2 had a horizontal truck-driver steering wheel but no power steering. Its tiny glove box had no door, reflecting its deliberately Spartan style and storage. It was a real bach.

We were thrilled.

This van took us along the Marlborough Sounds, across the strait to Wellington (with the help of a ferry, of course) and eventually all the way north to Auckland without a hitch. If the first camper van was a conversation starter, the second was cute enough to pet. And Kiwis did.

A woman stopped Nolan at a gas station to ask how it handled, saying her son wanted to get one when he was old enough to drive.

"Like a kayak," Nolan told her, which was probably not reassuring. (It took Volkswagen a few more years to get sway control down.)

"Your Kombi -- what year is it?" called out a man as we chugged through another small town.

"A '75," we replied.

"I've got one just like it!"

Even the Kiwi who stopped, with his Scottish-born wife, to help pull us out of a ditch in the Marlborough region was happy to do so. We'd been exploring a narrow gravel road that had grown a little steeper -- and narrower -- than we'd expected. Chastened but unharmed, we bumped back down, then stopped to chat with a group of cyclers we'd passed on our way up.

"Ticking along nicely, isn't it?" said one.

Indeed.

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travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO NEW ZEALAND

From LAX, nonstop service to Auckland is available on Air New Zealand and Qantas, direct service (stop, no change of plane) on Air Tahiti Nui and connecting service (change of plane) on Air Pacific and Air Tahiti Nui. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $898.

To Christchurch, connecting service is offered on Air New Zealand and Qantas. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $938.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers listed below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 64 (the country code for New Zealand) and the number.

WHERE TO RENT A CAMPER VAN

Classic Campers, North Shore, Auckland; 9-426-9869, 29-256-6247, www.classic-campers.com.

Bevan and Andrea Beattie rent eight VW camper vans ranging in age from 1966 to 1982, as well as a high-top 2004 VW camper, a 1966 VW Beetle and three non-VW vans. Rates vary; an older VW van is about $60 a day.

Kiwi Kombis Classic Campervan Hire, 96 Uxbridge Road, Howick, Auckland; 9-533-9335, 21-674-159, www.kiwikombis.com. Another husband-and-wife team with nine vans -- including five Splitties! -- ranging in age from 1958 to 1974. Rates for a 15- to 27-day hire are $99 a day, with discounts for the May-September winter season.

WHERE TO EAT

Cinema Paradiso cafe and bar, 1 Ardmore St., Wanaka, 3-443-1505. Besides freshly baked cookies at intermission, you can get curries, pizza, vegetarian lasagna, homemade ice cream, local wines and microbrews at this charming movie theater/cafe. Place an order before the movie starts, and your meal will be ready for intermission. About $16 a person.

Joe's Garage, Searle Lane, Queenstown, 3-442-5282. This hard-to-find diner (in an alley across from the post office) is where the locals gather. Order a "flat white," or espresso with a shot of warm milk, and a breakfast of eggs with spinach, mushrooms and a side of hollandaise. About $14.

Cork & Keg, 33 Inkerman St., Renwick, 3-572-9328. It's an odd choice for an eating spot in the heart of the Marlborough wine region, but this English country pub just outside Blenheim is a neighborhood gem, with friendly service and generous portions of fish and chips, meat pies and other comfort food. About $20 a person.

TO LEARN MORE

New Zealand government tourism site, www.newzealand.com /travel/USA/

Department of Conservation, www.doc.govt.nz

Automobile Assn., New Zealand, www.aatravel.co.nz.

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