A Pop-Top in Paradise

A VW Camper Lets You See Hawaii From a Different Angle

Nothing gets a camper van's motor running like heading out on Hawaii's Big Island and Maui.
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.

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