Hitting the road in a VW camper


Cruising somewhere under the speed limit, we rounded a curve to find nothing but a painted line on the road separating us from the rugged coast and crashing waves below. The Pacific Coast Highway is not a place to drive quickly with its steep turns, hills and sections with no guardrail. That made our vintage blue and white Volkswagen Westfalia, dubbed Ala Lani by the rental company, the perfect choice.

The chance to drive and live in a classic VW camper was the reason my girlfriend and I came to California. For years we’ve admired vintage Westfalias from afar and long fantasized about hitting the open road with the freedom to camp in comfort wherever we parked for the night. In our wildest dreams we own one, in reality we were very happy that we could rent one.

We picked up the VW in Costa Mesa and after a thorough explanation of the camper’s capabilities and many features, we were on our way. At home we have no-frills compacts; so we were a bit nervous about driving something that was considerably larger.

Westfalia was one of several companies outfitting Volkswagen buses with a camping interior in the 1970s. Our Westfalia was a deluxe model and came equipped with an elevating pop-top roof, a stove, sink, icebox, and room enough to sleep four.

The inside had a vintage decor but conveniently featured a modern radio with an auxiliary jack, making it possible to play the California-themed playlist on our iPod through the speakers. The camper is shaped like a loaf of bread with the driver situated at the absolute front. Turning around to check for obstacles reveals that the rear window is some 12 feet away.

Our camper was an automatic so putting it in motion was as easy as shifting into drive and hitting the gas. Pulling into traffic it became apparent that the large steering wheel, which resembles the type you see on a city bus, was not simply an aesthetic choice. The camper does not have power steering, so the robust wheel is a necessity when turning, especially at lower speeds. The VW was built in the 1970s and does not handle like a modern vehicle. Bouncing along in the bucket seats with a commanding view of the road, the thrill of driving was immediate and it did not take long to feel completely comfortable behind the wheel. The plan was to drive north on the PCH through Big Sur to Santa Cruz, staying in the VW at campsites along the way.

On the way back, we wanted to drive inland and visit Pinnacles National Park. Before leaving Costa Mesa, we stopped for tacos and after wrestling with the wheel in the parking lot I managed to pull the camper into a spot. We sat in the back of the VW, eating lunch and soaking in the beauty of the blue and white interior. In possession of the camper for only about 15 minutes, we were already in love. Going north toward the coast and PCH, drivers waved and smiled when they passed and we easily got the VW up to its advised top speed of 65 mph. The engine is in the rear and with the windows and vents closed, it’s surprisingly quiet in the front seats. Approaching Malibu, light seemed to reflect off the Pacific and fill the cabin of the camper with an orange glow. When the sun set, we were still driving and I found myself stealing glimpses over the ocean while keeping one eye on the road. It was after dark when we pulled up to a campsite at El Capitan State Beach. The pop-top, when open, is a triangular shaped tent that houses a bed for two and sits above a large opening in the ceiling of the camper. The deploying mechanism is spring loaded and activated by pushing on an overhead bar; the entire process can be completed in minutes. Accessing the loft involves stepping on part of the front seat, standing on a countertop and pulling yourself up. If you don’t feel like climbing each night, the camper also has a pullout rear bench seat that sleeps two. The rental company supplied pillows, sheets and several blankets.

The original plan was to lie on top of sleeping bags as a way to soften the mattress, but at the last minute we decided we had packed too much into the camper and left them behind. That was a mistake. The bed was too firm and we ended up buying a mattress pad midway through the trip. We woke early to a cold morning, but were able to warm up with coffee thanks to a French press that was stashed in one of the many cabinets. Cooking with the stovetop in the camper is no different than doing so at home. An onboard propane tank feeds two burners and once lit they supply an ample flame.

The VW came stocked with utensils, plates, cups, pans and other kitchen essentials. With the pop-top open I had more than enough room to flip pancakes and freely move about the middle area of the camper. This added airspace is limited to the VW’s midsection only, a concept that was difficult to grasp as evidenced by the staggering number of times we hit our heads while moving around. When the time came to leave camp, we were able to easily collapse the pop-top and quickly get back on the road. Somewhere north of San Simeon, the beautifully scenic coastal highway began to climb recklessly among the cliffs.

As we meandered along, with a line of cars behind us at times, the relaxed tempo of the VW created the perfect opportunity to admire the deep blue of the ocean and the endless rocky shore below. We pulled over whenever possible to let faster traffic pass, often while the driver held up a peace sign. We had been impressed with the sights on PCH thus far, but when we got to Burns State Park in Big Sur we were awestruck. As day began to fade and light poured through the towering redwoods, the coast we had grown so accustomed to seeing was now completely obscured at times.

Driving late one night, the road illuminated only by the lights of the VW, we felt as if a perfect balance had been struck between the challenge of the winding cliff-side road and the capabilities of our vintage camper. As if mesmerized by our slow approach, a great horned owl stared us down from its perch on a bridge before taking flight in the darkness. Throughout the trip, temperatures would often soar during the day and plummet after dark. Cooking in the VW at Pinnacles National Park, heat from the stove fogged the windows and kept some of the chill away as we sat bundled up on the back seat talking about how our time with the camper was coming to an end. We reminisced about the excitement of seeing the VW for the first time at the rental shop and soon found ourselves standing outside the camper admiring the glow of the interior lights under the clear night sky. The next day we drove south toward Refugio State Beach. Arriving after dark and settling in for the last night in the camper, the crackling open fire painted the VW with light. We’ve camped before and enjoyed it, but the experience we had driving and living in the Westfalia felt different.

It really is the ultimate vehicle for living on the road and it’s incredibly fun to drive. When we arrived late to a campsite we didn’t have to set up a tent in the dark, we simply popped the top and climbed up to our loft. While on the road as long as we could find a place to park we could rest in comfort or cook a meal. A modern camper could offer the same conveniences, but the vintage Westfalia provided something more. Symbolizing a spirit of adventure from a foregone era, and lacking any perceivable aerodynamic design, the VW’s lumbering pace was the perfect compliment to California’s natural beauty. Often on vacation we tend to overextend ourselves, racing around in an effort to see as much as we can in the short time we have. The VW demanded a more easygoing approach and we found ourselves happy to oblige