Vintage Volkswagen bus rentals give road trippers a flashback
PINELLAS PARK — Getting behind the wheel of a vintage 1978 Volkswagen bus for a long jaunt along Florida’s coastal highways can put even the most stressed-out tourist in a different frame of mind.
At 60 mph, a constant breeze flows from the driver’s seat all the way to the back, where passengers are cooled by the same kind of jalousie windows found on many classic beach cottages.
After a wall of hotel towers, maybe there’s a patch of vacant sand that would make for a perfect spot to spend the afternoon.
The bus can stop right there with a view of the water, while the driver fires up a two-burner stove inside to cook lunch.
If it’s not too hot, it also might be a good time to pull down the VW’s two beds and sneak in a nap before heading on to that night’s campground.
Whether they’re from Germany, Canada or Georgia, visitors are different when they return from a road trip in one of the fully restored Volkswagens at Florida Oldscool Campers in Pinellas Park.
“They’re almost hippie-fied. They come back and they’re smiling and relaxed,” said Dixie Phillips, the business’ co-owner.
Even if they started off their trip to the Sunshine State in a rush to get going on their vacation, all that changes once they get out on the open road.
“They can’t go fast wherever they’re going, so it really forces people to slow down, enjoy their trip,” co-owner Michael Ponnath said.
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Lovingly refurbished from the motor to the onboard kitchen sink, each of the vintage 1970s-era buses the pair rents comes with a lot of personality.
There’s Jasmine, a sage green 1978 VW Westfalia Deluxe, with green plaid seats and green curtains to match; or Autumn, a year older and painted in a vibrant bright orange hue.
Each member of the small but growing fleet was saved and continually must be spared from the ravages of time and rust.
Much of Phillips and Ponnath’s time is spent beneath the hood, keeping the engine tuned up after a road trip to the Florida Keys, or scouring for a replacement wood-panel cabinet door to make sure the kitchen retains its authentic look.
Whenever they get ready to add a new bus to their numbers, they typically have a lengthy, reassuring talk with the vehicle’s seller.
“There’s a relationship with these people and their buses,” Ponnath said.
“They don’t just sell them to anybody. The people who have had them for a lot of years, they actually try to find homes for them like they’re giving their dog away.”
People feel deep nostalgia for these old buses and the era of laid-back road-tripping they evoke.
Neither Phillips nor Ponnath grew up camping in a VW, but they developed a big affection for them a few years ago during one of their own Florida ramblings.
Ponnath had fixed up a 1970s-era bus, spray-painted camouflage, and the two set out on a trip to the rustic Gulf coastal city of Cedar Key. They also took a venture to the pristine sand dunes of Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area where campers can set up right in front of the crashing Atlantic Ocean surf at Flagler Beach.
“We’re sitting in the bus with the moon shining on the water,” Phillips said.
“It’s just such a beautiful experience.”
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About five years ago they figured they could market that beautiful experience, and they’ve been overwhelmed with how many visitors want to share it.
Some of their early customers were Volkswagen enthusiasts like Sarah Havel, who rented Jasmine for a weekend campout in the Tampa Bay area with a group of other VW fans.
She spent her last night sitting in the bus looking out over the estuary surrounding Fort De Soto Park’s campground.
“It’s the simplicity of it; the buses are just so simple to use, especially for somebody who has never used a camper before,” said Havel, a nurse from Jupiter who is restoring her own 1974 VW Thing.
“You can park it anywhere. Just stop and have lunch somewhere and you’ve got your own little restaurant.”
The buses come equipped with everything short of food and beverages.
“We send them out all the way down to the salt and pepper: plates, bowls, camping chairs, sheets towels — everything,” Ponnath said.
The top pops up with mesh windows to catch a cool sea breeze, but a portable air-conditioner makes camping comfortable even in Florida’s hot and humid months.
Of course the buses don’t really appeal to tourists with an appetite for complete comfort and luxury.
About half of VW renters are Europeans — French, German and Dutch — while others are from near and far and appreciate a more down-to-earth style of travel, Ponnath said.
The idea of the classic Florida road trip was a big hit among tour operators at the annual ITB travel trade show in Berlin earlier this year, said David Downing, director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
“You show that to a European tour operator, that’s right down their alley. That’s a great American experience,” Downing told members of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council at a recent meeting.
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The cost of this great American adventure ranges from $450 for a four-day journey during the low season from June to December 19 up to $875 for a six-day trip in high season from the Christmas season through April.
Drivers are encouraged to take it easy on the mileage; perhaps start their trip nearby at Fort De Soto Park rather than making a mad dash for South Beach, or even venture away from the crowded beaches to Florida’s crystal clear springs or tree-shaded inland state parks.
Wherever they venture in the state, the old VW buses always seem to engender good feelings for both the drivers and anyone they happen to pass by on the road.
“It makes people smile, kids, adults; people come up and talk to you about how they used to have a bus,” Phillips said.
“If you ever get behind the wheel of a bus and start to drive, it’s just a different feeling,” Ponnath added.
For more information, visit www.floridavwrentals.com.