Let a VW Bus redefine your California Road Trip
The best trips surprise you. Stumbling upon sights and experiences that can’t be described in guidebooks is what keeps travel interesting, but discoveries by definition aren’t always easy to find and it can be hard to ‘explore’ with only a few vacation days. A great way to infuse a getaway with wonder is to change something that’s often taken for granted (like the accommodations, transportation, etc). On our last trip to Big Sur, we traded both our accommodations and our transportation for a restored VW Bus from Vintage Surfari Wagons. While I thought we were simply getting a groove-ified ride up the coast, we ended up having a much more unique and exciting trip than we had expected; not only getting to do everything we had set out to do but also seeing everything in a unique, cool way we would have not even known was there.
Meet Bill. Bill loves the VW Camping experience and wants everyone to be able to do it. Opening Vintage Surfari Wagons in 2004, he has now restored and rents nine fully operational VW buses, with a few more in the works. Each one of his camper vans has it’s own personality. We were outfitted with a ’79 Westfalia by the name of Ala Lani, and, from the mirrors to the rims to her perfect aquamarine paint job, she greeted us as if having just rolled off her Seventies production line. Looking at her, even if she turned out to be just a cool automobile, I was excited to take it up Route 1. However, it was the amenities with which Ala Lani was outfitted that would make this trip a totally unique experience. From the gas stove, to running water, to the refrigerator, the run down of accoutrement lived up to my expectations, but the real question I had was ‘what is the pop-top?’
The short answer is that by unlatching the top, the roof of Ala Lani raises up adding several more feet of head room, great when cooking, and also has flaps that can allow extra ventilation. This is not the answer, however, for why the pop top is my favorite part of the VW. I didn’t know that reason til night fall, and we had miles and miles to cover before then.
Driving Ala Lani was just about as easy as driving my car. Being an older car, some people warned me about steering and breaking, but, while they required a bit more force that I’m used to, I never felt I had to adjust to either one. The real differences between Vintage Surfari Wagons and modern cars were speed and refueling.
When thinking of driving style, it’s important to remember that the VWs at Vintage Surfari Wagons are classic cars. At a suggested max cruising speed of 65, the van was totally suitable for interstate driving. However with a lot of people flying by me, I found it much more relaxing to take alternative routes, including Route 1. With lower speed limits on these alternative highways, even when accelerating with the flow of other motorists, I wasn’t exceeding 65 mph. These other routes were great, much more of the road trip experience we were looking for anyway; pasture lands, small towns, and vista points. Being that I was more comfortable diving on secondary roads, it’s almost as if the VW encouraged us to take the road trip we had planned on, instead of zipping from sight to sight; I said it time and time again on the trip, the Ala Lani put me in the cruising mood. One important point though is that when we got into the mountains there were a few times that I had to pull over to let other cars pass.
While it might seem that speed was the biggest adjustment, the thing that took the most getting used to was actually pumping gas, you really have to push the nozzle into the van. As we attempted to fill our tank for the first time, we noticed some gas running back out. A VW enthusiast came over to help and explained that the classic VW fuel chamber is slightly different than modern versions and to just keep pushing the nozzle in until no gas is running back out. From then on we were cautious about how fast we pumped the gas and made sure we had the nozzle fully in, we never had another problem.
We spent three nights cooking and camping with Ala Lani, and much like the steering and breaking, the parts that I thought were going to be difficult just plain weren’t. In fact, when parked and opened up, our VW felt more like a studio apartment than I ever expected, providing a kitchen, privacy, and sleeping room for four. On the bottom level, there was a sofa that folded into a bed, movable table, and the kitchenette. While we tended to cook our larger meats (chicken and carne asada) on a campfire, we cooked both vegetables and quesadillas on the van’s stove. The burners worked just like any other gas stove and the space was comfortably sized to use both eyes at once. (Disclaimer: Jade and I don’t cook, so if we could make a meal here- it has to be simple) There was also enough space in the sink and enough water in the reserve tank to wash our dishes, even without the available city water hook-up.
When bedding down for the night, the VW is equipped with curtains that offer either total seclusion (great if you are camping in the city) or can be selectively open (best for camping in the country); there is even a screen that can be hung in the back to keep out the bugs. There were two beds in our van, both long and wide enough for two adults, and as soft as a sturdy mattress, a sensitive sleeper might want to bring a foam pad. The lower bed is made by unfolding the couch, and, with the back door left open, we were able to roast marshmallows from the comfort of our blankets. The second bed is what makes the pop-top so awesome. The upper bed unfolds slightly longer than the lower bed, and since it is hidden in the roof, there is no need to disturb the table, couch, or packed bags to bed down for the night. My favorite part about this second bed is that, when the flaps are opened, the stars can be the last thing seen as you drift off to sleep.
I could have done all the research in the world about how to camp in Big Sur and what it’s like to live in a vintage bus, but, until I was faced with the situation myself, I really couldn’t have appreciated the van like I do now; there were a myriad of unique moments we would have missed if we approached this trip any other way. Every time I turned off our 101 North heading and squirrelled my way down a back-road, we found great photo opportunities and overlooked vistas. The most definitive of these was seeing a great surf break and pulling over to grill some quesadillas beach side. Another overlooked benefit for Jade was, being very fashion conscience, with our hotel in our backseat she could dress adorably appropriate for every situation, whether it was a hike to a waterfall or sunset drinks at a swanky restaurant. Also, I think the biggest lesson I learned is that with a unique experience like the VW Van, a vacation doesn’t have to be a four day journey up the coast, it can be a weekend trip to nearby campgrounds. The experience is rich enough without having to do too much else.