A Pop-Top in Paradise
A VW Camper Lets You See Hawaii From a Different Angle

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wipe off your flip-flops and c'mon inside. Let me show you my digs here in Hawaii.

This is my living area, a cozy space with velvety seating that fits two or three, depending on the number of luaus they've attended. Across the room are additional chairs that swivel, so I can converse with my guests or ignore them to watch the waves slap the shore. Over there is the kitchen and curtained windows that inhale the ocean breeze and exhale the scent of burnt toast. The dining table is adjacent, allowing me to socialize and cook simultaneously. If you'll stand up, I'll take you around the bedroom. Here's the full-size berth, which has bay windows by my head and my feet for a surround-sky effect, and up there is the loft, for visitors who aggressively overstay their welcome.

Now, not to be rude, but please leave. I must drive off, and my accommodations are coming with me: Hotel VW is going back on the road.

Hawaiian Hotel on Wheels

On previous visits to Hawaii, I stayed at traditional resorts and took day excursions by car. Standard vacation. But for this trip to the Big Island and Maui, I wanted a change.

The alternative: a Volkswagen camper.

With mobile accommodations, I would no longer have to shuttle between the resort and the island's constellation of attractions. In my Volkswagen Westfalia camper, I would, in hippie parlance, have a more organic, free-spirited, chase-the-tail-of-the-whale experience. I could be spontaneous with my schedule, because I knew that most of my substantive needs (food, water, full-stretch sleep) lay just behind the driver's seat. In addition, by removing myself from the tourist setting, I could be part of a scene true to the Hawaiian lifestyle and environment. And finally, in my drive-up hotel, I could snag $500-a-night ocean views without sacrificing my wallet.

"This is for the adventurer who wants to see Hawaii for what it really is," said Teri Fritz, who runs Happy Campers Hawaii on the Big Island with her boyfriend, Bud Turpin. "You can drive up to the water's edge, open up the back, and the beach is right there. You can wake up to a sea turtle in the water or the volcanoes at the national park. You're not going to get that sitting at a hotel."

In the entire state, only two companies currently rent campers: Happy Campers Hawaii (formerly GB Adventures) and Aloha Campers on Maui. Both operations own a fleet of Westfalias, a domesticated van that appeared on the market in the 1950s and is the ride of choice for European road-trippers and American bohemians who consider a home address too bourgeois.

The vehicles come equipped with almost all the requisites for comfortable travel, including a propane tank for the stove, lights that run off the car's battery, 15 gallons of running water and a pop-top roof so you can walk around inside like a Homo sapiens. The one thing missing is a bathroom, but you can always park near the washroom facilities or a porta-potty.

Fritz and Turpin anticipate every need: extra blankets, towels from bath to beach, sun umbrella, phone book, French coffee press, lug wrench. (Aloha Campers is less comprehensive but provides the basics.) "We want you to look like a local," said Fritz, a veteran VW camper, "like you just drove across from the other side of the island to get out of the rain."

The Big Island is the youngest and largest landmass in the chain; Maui ranks second in size, at 729 square miles. Both destinations have an abundance of campgrounds in parks (national, state, county) and on private land. The sites are perched on volcanic slopes and ocean-side cliffs and salted along untouched shoreline. Nightly fees are nominal, most under $10 and none topping $20. Some require reservations and permits; others are first-come, first-served. As for the facilities: Toilets are a given and showers are a godsend. Meanwhile, those willing to eschew the porcelain bowl for more primitive surroundings should note that overnighting in undesignated areas is not advisable. It's better to sleep on the right side of the law.

Volcanic Digs and Kona Talk

At the Hilo airport, on the east coast of the Big Island, I was greeted with a giant smile, a bear hug and a flower lei from Fritz, a jaunty blonde. We drove to an adjoining lot to meet Turpin, a 25-year resident of Hawaii and former VW mechanic, and "Sedona," my home and companion for the first part of the week. The vehicle was painted the blue of a dawning sky and was as clean as a new car, showing little evidence of her 22 years. Turpin gave me the rundown, explaining with the care, concern and slight fright of a parent about to hand over the car keys to his teenager.

On driving with the back hatch open: "You don't want to drive it like that or you'll get carbon monoxide poisoning."

On dropping the pop-top: "Don't let any of the fabric stick out of the edges, or it will get wet. You want to roll it and tuck." (Origami-esque demonstration included.)

On those !@#&*$ moments: "If any red light comes on, stop driving! We will come save you."

And with that, Mom and Dad let their untested kid drive off in their precious wheels. "Call if you need anything," hollered Fritz, her figure diminishing in the distance.

The camper, surprisingly, was easy to drive, though I did sense a large space looming behind me, as if I were being stalked by a cargo container. I wanted to fill the emptiness with hula dancers or exotic flowers. Instead, I stocked it with food from a Hilo market, spending $50 for three days' worth of meals that did not require elaborate preparation or extreme cold. (I was using a cooler as my fridge.)

At 4,028 square miles, the Big Island is more than twice the combined size of the other Hawaiian islands. To save time, I planned my route: south to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, then west to Ho'okena Beach Park in South Kona, then back to the east coast to Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park, about 45 minutes north of Hilo. Yet, despite my diligent preparation, I still got lost in the volcanoes park, getting spooked by signs warning of noxious gases and dangerous sulfur emissions before eventually finding my overnight spot.

The Namakanipaio campground sits up high, at 4,000 feet, and when the sun defers to the moon, the temperature drops. A chill nipped at my nose, and a gray fog (or Pele's exhaust?) drifted overhead, curling around volcanic rock formations. It was beautiful yet forlorn. I started craving the comfort of my camper, whose interior lights glowed invitingly in the darkness.

Come morning, I was nudged awake by a sunbeam that shot through the back window and flickered across my face. My Hawaiian alarm clock. I returned the bed to its day use (cushy couch), collapsed the pop-top and headed to the park entrance for a morning hike. "How's the camping going?" asked the ranger as I paid the $10 admission. It's hard to stay inconspicuous when you're carting around a small cottage.

The Kilauea Iki Trail descends 400 feet through dense rain forest loud with birdsong, then flattens out along a crater floor where steam vents spew hot air and the earth feels warm to the touch.

On the way to the trail head, I met a couple from Detroit. They were staying in the ultra-touristy Kailua-Kona area. It was a 40th anniversary trip, care of their son, and though enjoying their resort's bounty, the wife expressed a twinge of ennui. "It's a lot of shopping and restaurants," she explained as we tiptoed around a mud puddle. I told her about my camper and she looked at me as if, maybe in 1969, she and her husband would've hopped on that adventure. But for now, they just wanted to see the lava tubes, get back in the car and go for a swim in the hotel pool.

I completely misjudged the drive time from the park to the next campsite, though I could also blame my habit of stopping at every overlook to view the alien landscape of sculpted lava rock. I also had to drive slowly: The two-lane road was narrow and curvy, and fierce squalls would frequently blow through, causing my camper to sway. For long stretches, I kept a crab's-claw grip on the steering wheel. I was tempted to jump over the console and lie down. But, for once, I had a date to make: sunset on the beach of Ho'okena, the campground that follows the arc of the shoreline and faces the dropping sun.

Ho'okena was much more social than the national park campground. Parents grilled, kids dug to China and a small band of guitar and ukulele players strummed free-form. I stumbled over a foot in the sand, which belonged to Daniel, a musician who, after a mix-up involving a friend's house and no key, was overnighting here. "Five bucks to sleep on the beach -- that's a deal," said the native Californian. "There's no cellphone service down here, just the dolphins, whales and sea turtles."

A smaller figure beside Daniel answered to the name of John, a tween who recently moved from the mainland to the island with his father and was spending his spring break doing some father-son camping at Ho'okena. The three of us talked easily about music, spinner dolphins (no false advertising: They really do spin) and our favorite "Family Guy" episodes.

John didn't seem to have a curfew, and Daniel's bedding was the beach, so when the flashlights started to snap off, I called it a night. I closed the side door but kept the back open so I could still hear the soft murmurings of sea and scene.

The next day, the campground was bursting with the bonhomie of a block party. Moms were changing kids into bathing suits as dads flipped pancakes. Campers visited one another's sites to swap morning salutations and share a cup of coffee.

Gregory S. Nottingham, a thin man in a straw hat, was warming tortillas in a pan, percolating coffee in a tin pot and arranging pork on his African-drum-cum-prep-table. He offered me a cup of Kona coffee, the beans picked only a few miles north. An unapologetic chatterbox, he filled the downtime between French pressing and pouring with an abbreviated version of his memoir: divorce, jail time, massive weight loss, redemption. "I camped for two years, and that lifestyle let me cleanse," he said, sipping from a steaming mug. "Something happens to you when you camp. You experience the essence of Hawaii."

I didn't know what Nottingham was putting in his coffee, but it was transcendental stuff.

Oh, Poi

It was hard to give up Sedona. I had grown attached to her, as a young adult does with her first car. But I knew that another Westfalia -- and another island, Maui -- was expecting me.

The burnished red vehicle from Aloha Campers also dated to the Reagan years, and although it wasn't as immaculate as Sedona, I was now familiar enough with the camper's layout and mechanics that I could overlook a few imperfections -- until I got stuck in the supermarket parking lot, incapable of doing much more than stalling.

During my quick tutorial, Ariel Ferrer, the Argentine native who runs the business for the Romanian owner, explained how the stick shift was squirrelly and I had to go into second to reach first. Sounded simple in theory, but in practice -- well, let's just say I almost needed a tow from Safeway. Knowing that I was going to be driving Hana Road, the 52-mile dare whose beauty belies its peril (52 bridges, many one-lane, and 600 curves squished between sheer rock and ocean drops), I wanted a sturdy, smooth-shifting car. So, I drove back to the shop and traded it for a white automatic model.

A section of Hana Road follows the Old King's Trail, built 500 years ago to link Maui's small east coast communities and allow the royal leader (and tax collectors) access to the villagers. The highway as we know it was constructed by prisoners in 1927, and despite its many hazards, hundreds of drivers travel it daily to view the waterfalls, flora-dotted valleys and well-earned rewards at the bottom, including the winsome town the road was named after.

There are very few businesses along the way (a couple of fruit stands, mainly), and I was 75 percent prepared for the drive: I had a full tank of gas and enough food and water to cover a stranding of many days. However, the one piece I was missing was a campsite. Sleeping along the road was asking for an obituary, and though Ferrer had mentioned a pull-off between a white-sand beach and a black-sand beach, it was on the final stretch, and questionably legal. As the sky turned inky and rain started to pour, I needed a manger as quickly as possible. Then, halfway to Hana, I spotted a long driveway and a lone figure. The man looked up, I looked back, and I drove through the gates.

"This is the best deal on the island," said Kala "Charles" Kahiwahiwaokalani, who with his wife, Linda Harrison, helps maintain the YMCA Camp Keanae. "You are also standing on the most beautiful spot on the island."

The YMCA rents dorm rooms, cabins and cottages, but all I needed was a parking spot. Kahiwahiwaokalani led me to some of the best footage on the property: a manicured plot fronted by a cliff that plunged toward the tidy taro fields and crashing waves of Keanae Peninsula. As I sat behind the wheel adjusting my position, I felt as if I were in a drive-in nature movie, admission $17.

Next day, the couple invited me to see their taro patch; they harvest it twice a week in exchange for rent. Demand for the tropical vegetable is high: It is used to make poi, a mainstay of the Hawaiian diet that appears on the plates of local families as well as resort guests. Taking a break from plucking fiddlehead ferns, Harrison introduced me to a farmer who was squatting in a watery square of land reminiscent of a rice paddy. He was yanking out the taro plants quickly and methodically, cutting off the toxic leaves and blemishes. "He has to fill an order from a hotel for 150 pounds of poi," said Harrison, "and it takes four hours to make poi."

Before escorting me back to my vehicle, Kahiwahiwaokalani handed me a small plastic cup of poi. In the hot field, the cold and slippery mash was refreshing, like a shot of Jell-O that had lost its wiggle. "We want to start tours so people understand what we farmers do and how we take care of the aina," said Harrison, using the Hawaiian word for land. It was an honor to be part of their pilot program.

I Brake for Hawaii

I knew it was going to happen -- not a question of if, but when. For nearly a week, I had not suffered any vehicular calamities. No paralyzed pop-tops or carbon dioxide poisoning or fender benders. Just me and my camper happily rolling along Hawaii's roads. Until the camper couldn't stop rolling.

I was only a few miles out of Hana, en route to my campground in Haleakala National Park, when the camper started to accelerate and would not respond to the brakes. After cresting a hill, I cut the engine and leapt out. The final scene of "Thelma and Louise" played across the sky -- at least in my mind.

A cop eventually arrived and told me to move the car off the spindly road. Excuse me, sir, but if your job is to serve and protect, then you do it. Fortunately, he dropped the topic and called his chief instead, to discuss the recent Journey concert. As we waited for a tow truck, we bided our time talking about hair metal bands and scouting the sea for humpback whales.

Tim the tow man had orders to drop me off at Sean's house, where the towed camper and I could spend the night on his lawn until the replacement showed up. Yeah, no idea who Sean was, but Tim knew him, so what the hey. It was not my place to question the Maui fraternity. However, at Sean's, a dog was not fond of that idea and chased us away. New plan: Sleep in Tim's yard. In any other time and place, I would have found this scenario disturbing. Yet I was oddly calm and content because I still possessed what mattered most: warm, well-stocked shelter.

Ferrer showed up early with a new (old) vehicle -- the red model, now with a working shift -- and inspected the broken camper as I practiced first gear around Tim's property. He presented me with the culprit, a pebble wedged in the accelerator. Tim also handed me a souvenir, a flashlight keychain imprinted with his towing company's contact information. How thoughtful.

Because of the setback, I had lost one night of my planned itinerary. But I was not going to miss the morning. I drove straight to the national park and down to the campground.

At a site fringed with long sea grass that tumbled toward the breaking surf, I laid out breakfast, savoring the final moments in my special camper. Soon, I would arrive at my final parking spot in Hawaii, where I would turn in the key that had started the car and opened my "hotel" door.

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