Whether you’re sightseeing around the Algarve in Portugal, making your way down the Californian Pacific Coast, or traversing New Zealand’s South Island, the best way to travel is in an RV.
About 20 years ago, actor Will Smith purchased a customised recreational vehicle (RV) from Anderson Mobile Estates for US$2.5 million. Nicknamed “The Heat” and spanning 1,200 square feet, the two-storey marvel features a remote control system that automates doors and creates an additional floor, ultimately transforming the trailer into a lavish, full-sized home away from home.
The world of RVs spans a range from converted camper vans to large coaches and trailers. They’re used for a variety of purposes, from taking a road trip to serving as a truly mobile home. For most people, however, it is the RV vacation adventure that beckons. Anyone who loves being on the road is enthralled by the opportunity to journey deep into the wilderness or on far-flung coastal roads, sleeping at night with the majestic gnaw of nature surrounding them.
While not everyone is able to lug a 16-metre-long trailer like The Heat down the highway, there are plenty of options around the world that offer all the creature comforts for a memorable vacation in the great outdoors. Here are three journeys that are ideal for an RV excursion on your next holiday.
Despite Portugal’s relatively small size, the country is ideal for a family road trip in a motorhome or camper van. In the Algarve region, which has minimal rain from April to October, camping is the perfect way to experience the beautiful coastal south of Portugal. From the hanging cliffs along the coast to the mountains of Monchique, there are numerous campsites to set up. Apart from great weather, the Algarve is renowned for its golden sand beaches along 150 kilometres of pristine coastline, with incredible rock formations chiselled out by millions of years of coastal erosion.
Begin your trip at the major city of Faro and make your way towards the old town of Lagos. Park at Algarve Motorhome Park Falésia, which is a bargain given its proximity to the beach. Surrounded by pine trees, it comes with the usual amenities, has a supermarket, and is a short hop to the nine-hole Pine Cliffs Golf Course.
After resting up, start exploring by heading to Albufeira, a coastal city that was once a fishing village and is now a vibrant tourist destination. While it promises to be entertaining, take a walk beyond its marina to a string of small sandy coves, where you’ll discover remarkable rock formations that have been eroded by the Atlantic swell into a network of stacks, arches, and caves. A little further afield are the hidden beaches of Praia dos Arrifes and Praia São Rafael. Behind the cliff, a sandy cove has been created by the sea breaking through a cave. Spend a day or two here to soak in the holiday vibe on its popular beaches and busy nightlife.
From Albufeira, Carvoeiro is about a half-hour drive and includes historic towns such as Ferragudo and Silves. There are also amazing hiking and climbing routes, including Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos and the beautiful cliffs of Algar Seco. Pitch up at Camperpark Carvoeiro Lagoa for the next few days as you explore the area between here, Portimão, and Lagos
A quick hop over to Portimão is a great start. The port city is known for its old quarter, busy marina, and proximity to many beaches. Visit such landmarks as the Museu de Portimão, a museum housed in a restored 19th-century cannery; the gothic-style church Nossa Senhora da Conceição, with its azulejo tiles; Rocha Beach, backed by ochre cliffs; and the medieval Fort of Santa Catarina de Ribamar.
A journey inland to Silves lets you explore Portugal’s ancient capital and its well-preserved red brick castle, Castelo de Silves, on a hilltop that dates back to the Moorish rule of the 10th century. Uniquely scenic, the old township offers a slice of Portuguese life that differs from the coastal towns. Enjoy a stroll through the local market and have a nibble at a local café or restaurant for a pleasant day trip.
Thereafter, proceed further west to Lagos, a walled town with an antiquated feel that’s perched atop cliffs and facing the Atlantic Ocean. Within is Igreja de Santo António, an ornate baroque-style 18th-century church classified as a national monument. It sits across from the Castelo dos Governadores, a castle with a baroque facade and watchtowers. Many bars and restaurants are open in the narrow, well-kept streets, while just beyond the harbour, at Praia dos Estudantes, an old Roman bridge survives.
From Lagos, the nearby Ponta da Piedade is a popular tourist site that offers sweeping headland views and a lighthouse. Take a boat ride to explore these majestic rock formations that contain unseen caves and grottos, with numerous Instagrammable photo opportunities to be had. Through the centuries, this old rock has seen eight naval battles fought off its stormy shores, including a famous British victory in 1797 in which Admiral Horatio Nelson distinguished himself.
The Algarve is small compared to many places, but there’s so much to see, which makes it an easy destination to camp and explore. East of Faro, there’s even more, such as the town of Tavira with its mixed Arab influences – if you have time, it’s certainly worth the visit.
CALIFORNIA’S NATIONAL PARKS
A congregation of America’s finest national parks can be found in California, where the climate is friendly and, likewise, the travel. In four hours, you can go from lying on a sunny, palm-lined beach to world-class skiing atop a snowy mountain. The state has it all, from San Francisco’s fog to Death Valley, as well as some of the country’s most amazing geologic features – including lava tunnels, bubbling mud pots, and 5,000-year-old trees.
Your RV adventure can start from Los Angeles as you head to Yosemite National Park. Upon arrival at the park, you can chart any number of journeys, from a direct five-hour drive to a beautiful scenic route that takes as long as 10 hours. A good start would be to hunker down at Yosemite Creek Campground, just outside of Yosemite Valley in the northern area of this lush forest land. While the road in is difficult, the campground is quiet and less populated than others. It also offers a great trail to the famed Yosemite Falls. The 739-metre waterfall is a major attraction, but the park’s other geologic wonders to see include the rock formations Half Dome and El Capitan, as well as the giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove. Be sure to take the walks to Vernal Falls, and then drive to Glacier Point, which are all within 16 kilometres of Yosemite Falls.
While there’s much to see in the Yosemite Valley, you could easily spend more time venturing into the other 3,100 square kilometres of the park. Visitors can bike, backpack, fish, and go horseback riding – there’s even a ski resort for the winter months. With plenty to do year-round, Yosemite should be on the must-see list for anyone visiting the state.
Another must-visit itinerary is Death Valley. The best time to come is anytime other than the height (and heat) of summer. The spring brings a beautiful show of wildflowers, and the multicoloured rocks in places like Artist’s Palette can be appreciated any time of year. In fact, much of Death Valley can be explored by car. If you’re looking for longer treks on foot, places like Mosaic Canyon or Ubehebe Crater are fun to explore. Whatever way you choose to explore the park, Death Valley is a wonderful, unique stop on the California RV map.
From there, it’s 725 kilometres to Monterey, the county on California’s rugged coast made famous by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck in his novels East of Eden, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday. Set up camp at the very conveniently located Veteran’s Memorial Park, just uphill from Old Monterey, and enjoy the proximity of the 81-acre Huckleberry Hill Nature Preserve next door.
For golfers, Monterey is a dream come true, as it’s home to the fabled Pebble Beach Golf Course, Cypress Point, Spanish Bay, and Spyglass Hill. The ride up 17-Mile Drive towards these courses opens up landscapes of lush greenery and the Pacific Ocean while offering plenty of opportunities for photos and picnics – just don’t miss your tee time.
As you continue south for another 48 kilometres, you’ll arrive at Big Sur, a wondrous locale with forested coastal drop-offs and no view of urban civilisation in sight. Park your motorhome at one of the many RV campgrounds here and explore the countless treks, such as Salmon Creek Trail, Pacific Valley Bluff Trail and Ragged Point Cliffside Trail, the last of which includes a 91-metre descent for the more adventurous.
Perhaps the most captivating, and underlining what a true road trip means, the drive along the famed Pacific Coast Highway offers some of the most dramatic coastal views in California and stretches from Orange County in the southern part of the state to Mendocino County, north of San Francisco. If you’re going to stop and properly soak in all the sights, the entire drive should take several days. Be sure to visit the Mission San Juan Capistrano, make a stop in Santa Barbara, and take your sweet time as you journey north.
CHRISTCHURCH TO QUEENSTOWN
New Zealand’s South Island is characterised by its dramatic mountains, giant lakes, and never-ending maze of hiking trails and nature walks. You could efficiently drive from Christchurch to Queenstown in six hours, but you’d be missing all the fun of a sprawling road trip. To begin your journey, drive 220 kilometres to Lake Tekapo Holiday Park. Stay overnight and in the morning, you’ll take in some mind-blowing lake views. The best way to enjoy the surrounding nature is on foot, so get your hiking gear on and start exploring. After a long day of walking, soak in the Tekapo Springs as you watch the sun set over Mount John and the lake.
Your first (and only) detour en route to Queenstown will be to Mount Cook, otherwise known as Aoraki. The highest mountain in New Zealand, this giant towers above its sister peaks of Mount D’Archiac, Mount Sibbald, Mount Hutton, The Nun’s Veil, Mount Sealy, and Fettes Peak. The drive northwards takes you along the beautiful Lake Pukaki before you arrive at Aoraki Village. Once there, you’ll discover why this is a hiker’s dream come true, with details of the various hiking routes available at the Mount Cook National Park Visitor Centre. If you’re after an unforgettable experience, you can even tour the mountain range by helicopter or take a heli hike of the Tasman Glacier, which is also fantastic for skiing and other snow sports.
Stay the night in the village and spend the evening stargazing into the clear night sky. There’s a camper van site that lets you park and sleep nearby, but the Glentanner Park Centre is a full-service camping facility with showers, toilets, laundry, and indoor and outdoor barbecue areas.
Leaving the alpine might be difficult, but you’ll soon head south to your next stop – the fishing community of Omarama, located at the southern end of the Mackenzie Basin. Meaning “Place of Light” in the Māori language, in reference to its extraordinarily clear sky, gliding is a dream activity here. For those who love to fish, head over to Ladybird Hill Salmon Farm & Winery, where all the equipment is provided and you pay for what you catch, including having them cooked up. Also distinguished as the winery at the highest elevation in New Zealand, Ladybird’s wines are excellent, especially its pinot noir.
From Omarama, take the final two-hour leg to Arrowtown. This historic mining town is famed for its gold; for a small fee, you can even take a 4WD journey to try your hand at gold-panning down Arrow River. Back in town, wander along the streets that look like something off the set of an old western film, and then complete the day with some retail therapy on Buckingham Street, where local produce is aplenty and nice cafés await.
Queenstown is a mere 20 minutes away – and it’s easily one of the most beautiful resort towns in the southern hemisphere. Surrounded by mountains and nestled alongside a great lake, there are gorgeous gardens, the Kiwi Birdlife Park, the Underwater Observatory, and an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy. It’s a must to take the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak. At the top, you’ll find an observation deck, a bike park, a zip wire assault course, a bungee-jumping ledge, and a choice of walking trails. There’s also a fantastic restaurant, offering panoramic views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu below.
Queenstown combines the intimacy of a small town with the conveniences of a big city, so you’ll be pleased to leave your camper van here and check into one of the many luxurious resorts or hotels. But there’s one great road trip left in the bag – Glenorchy. This remote settlement offers visuals of snow-capped mountains and the northern end of Lake Wakatipu as far as the eye can see. Only 45 minutes by car, the rewards are well worth the short drive.
As spectacular as the Glenorchy views are, don’t be surprised to feel a sense of familiarity when you arrive – for this is where the sets of The Lord of the Rings reside. For fans of the film trilogy, you can take a guided tour of the area to visit the filming locations for Middle Earth, Isengard, Amon Hen, Lothlórien Forest, Ithilien, and the Misty Mountains. The question is – what will you do if you find the ring?