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Bringing the vanlife fantasy to life

Is there something extra interesting to an individual of nomadic sensibilities than a set of wheels, an open highway and no fastened plans?

Intrinsically related to the hippie motion, the authentic VW camper van is a countercultural icon in its personal proper, conjuring photos of surfers at sundown or touring cross-country to Woodstock.

CNET Magazine Winter 2018 David Harbour

See extra nice tales from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

In 2018, the VW California has grown past its roots however stays a robust image of escapism and spontaneous journey. Search “vanlife” on Instagram and rising to the high are snaps of sunny days by glassy lakes, of ft poking out of duvets towards a backdrop of mountain peaks, of sheepskin rugs and retrofitted pine interiors. But do these shiny photos seize the actuality?

To discover out whether or not vanlife lives up to the hype, we took a 2018 VW camper on an epic two-week, 2,600-mile highway journey throughout Europe, heading first to Slovenia by way of Austria, earlier than dipping down into Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, popping up into the Italian Dolomites and meandering house to the UK by way of Bavaria and Germany’s Moselle Valley. The journey was a steep studying curve, an unforgettable journey, a endless quest to discover that excellent Instagrammable gentle.

Planning an journey

The camper we drove was the Volkswagen California Ocean — a compact van with nearly every little thing we would want for a two-week journey. Inside have been a hidden bed room that folded into the rise-up roof, tons of cupboard space, a kitchen with a gasoline cooktop, a sink and a fridge, tenting furnishings tucked into the doorways, sat-nav, energy factors to preserve our phones and cameras charged and, after all, a cracking sound system.

We added some touches to the van: our personal fluffy blankets and pillows, some cutlery and plastic crockery and an iPad Pro for all our Netflix wants. But what we discovered was a 2018 California would not want a lot in the method of finessing to make it livable for 2 weeks.

As our want listing of locations to see was lengthy, it was necessary to correctly plan a route that might allow us to tick off all the areas we needed in the restricted time we had of simply two weeks. Google Maps was invaluable in displaying correct distances, and driving instances, between every location.

We spent a number of evenings forward of the journey huddled over iPads, guidebooks and quite a lot of travel blogs on the lookout for inspiration for lovely locations to cease, whereas web sites like 500px.com offered examples of nice photographs captured in every spot we had in thoughts. Eventually, we had a tough route deliberate that snaked its method throughout the continent, linking collectively all the completely different areas we needed to see.


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Travelling 2,600 miles throughout Europe in a VW camper


Teething issues (London to Austria)

The first leg of driving was an enormous one: an 800-mile, 15-hour stint from London, boarding the Eurotunnel automotive practice below the English Channel to France, then into Germany and at last to Austria. Getting an enormous chunk of miles out of the method directly gave us extra time to spend later cruising round the areas we have been most eager to see.

Driving the van was a breeze. While it is bodily larger than the vehicles we usually drive, it nonetheless felt comparatively compact on the highway. Our elevated driving place additionally made it straightforward to see site visitors round us and the computerized gearbox meant we might activate cruise management on the continent’s motorways and chew by means of the miles with out a lot effort.

Our first stopping level was the picturesque Grubhof tenting web site in northern Austria. After plugging the van into a close-by electrical outlet (so we might energy our numerous units with out draining the van’s battery), we set about exploring a few of the van’s hidden facilities. The entrance driver and passenger seats swivel spherical, making a helpful residing house to chill out in, with a fold-out desk in the center performing as the excellent base for a recreation of playing cards.


Our journey included bodily demanding actions in all kinds of climate situations, so it was necessary to take the proper clothes. Waterproof Danner climbing boots ($380) stored us sure-footed on the mountain trails, whereas North Face Apex Flex shell jackets ($249) stored us dry.

A light-weight Cerium down jacket from Arcteryx ($349) packed down simply right into a small bag however offered heat when the solar went down. Lightweight, quick-drying strolling trousers have been a should, as have been loads of pairs of contemporary, dry socks. 

The predominant mattress is housed in the roof. It’s accessed by a management panel above the dashboard that raises the roof up by about three ft, permitting you to climb up. If you are stress-free in the residing space, the mattress base itself could be pushed up into the raised roof house, giving sufficient further room inside to let even Andy — 6 ft, 2 inches tall — totally get up. You simply have to keep in mind to decrease the roof earlier than you set off once more.

The California has a 30-liter drinking-water tank, which arrived empty (the decreased weight in all probability saved on gas on the lengthy drive), and we did not have a hose to join to the campsite’s faucets to refill. As a consequence, Andy grabbed an empty two-liter water bottle and trekked forwards and backwards. It wasn’t a chic resolution, however after 20 or so bottles’ value there was sufficient in the tank for us to make espresso in the coming days.

Living the vanlife fantasy

Our second day introduced us to our first correct vacation spot: Slovenia. We entered the nation from the north and inside the house of a few hours we would handed good aquamarine lakes, pushed the dramatic Vrsic mountain move and walked rickety picket footbridges throughout the ethereal Soca River.


The colour of the water in Slovenia’s Soca Valley was mesmerizing.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That night time we pulled up at Kamp Jelinc, a riverside campsite on a working farm eight miles from Bovec, Slovenia’s journey sport capital. Sitting fairly in the shadow of the Julian Alps, Jelinc checked each field on our listing of fascinating amenities. A bar serving ice-cold beer? Check. A communal hearth pit strung with hammocks? Check. A ragtag gang of pleasant cats? Check.

We tucked the California right into a copse and watched the fireflies flit between the surrounding timber whereas feasting on veggie pasta below a cover of fairy lights. It was our first night time cooking in the van and apart from realizing we would forgotten one among the two pans we would meant to carry, the setup was seamless. The fold-out desk offered an ample work floor and we opened the window behind the range, located simply behind the passenger seat, to let the steam dissipate.

In the morning we awoke to the rush of the Soca River, which snaked previous the foot of our campsite like a foam-flecked, luminescent ribbon. If anyone stopping place on the journey fulfilled our Instagram-fueled fantasy of what vanlife may very well be, this was it.

Finding camps on the coast

Leaving the mountains behind, we took three days to meander our method down by means of Slovenia, by way of the capital Ljubljana, into Istria, the northwesterly area of Croatia, to discover the inland hill cities and craggy shoreline.

The idyllically located city of Rovinj, which perches on a round headland, together with lovely night gentle made for excellent pictures alternatives, not simply from the floor, however from the air as nicely. We’d taken the DJI Mavic Pro drone alongside (it being sufficiently small to simply slot in the equipment bag subsequent to the cameras) and now we despatched it up into the air, excited to see what the city regarded like from above.


The beguiling coastal city of Rovinj was the excellent spot for native wine and sunshine.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Sadly, the native seagull mafia had different concepts and nearly instantly, monumental seabirds dive-bombed the little drone. We tried a course change that took the drone out to sea, hoping to shake off the flapping gang, however their pursuit continued till we have been compelled to land it.

Wild tenting is unlawful in Slovenia and Croatia, so it was crucial we pay to park for the night time. Often, although, we have been dismayed to discover ourselves assigned to pitches in sprawling vacation parks, misplaced between row upon row of oversize leisure automobiles. Surely our little van, our image of freedom and riot, did not belong amid these hulking beasts? It wasn’t fairly the vanlife fantasy we had in thoughts.

Perhaps predictably, the extra crowded the location, the extra organized, formal and sprawling the tenting web site. On the flip aspect, these sorts of web sites have nice amenities, which we would have been a bit of extra grateful for in the second if we had recognized what was coming subsequent.

Into the Dolomites

Our journey into the Dolomites in Italy signaled a pointy departure from the panorama we would traveled by means of to this point. Jagged peaks dotted with pine forests changed the mushy, undulating hills and limitless inexperienced fields. The roads turned narrower, with an limitless string of hairpin bends as we snaked our method greater and better.


The winding mountain roads have been completely manageable in the van.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The different massive change was the climate. We’d stated goodbye to baking warmth and clear blue skies and have been welcomed to the mountains by epic storm clouds, driving rain and lightning. It was the first time we would skilled correct rain on the journey and it launched a brand new drawback: dragging mud again inside the van each time we bought out.

Eventually the winding roads introduced us to our vacation spot for our first night time in the area: Rifugio Auronzo, a mountain chalet arrange for long-distance hikers. But dangerous information greeted us inside as we talked to different hikers: The climate was solely supposed to worsen. We returned to the van to raise our spirits with a pack of biscuits and an episode of Gilmore Girls on our iPad. Even in the mountains, 4G was nearly universally obtainable to us.

After a few hours the rain lastly stopped and, optimistically, we headed out alongside one among the trails. And, wow, did our gamble repay. A break in the clouds allowed the setting solar’s gentle to peek by means of, highlighting the ideas of sharp peaks in entrance of us and, as if rewarding us for our persistence, producing an excellent double rainbow that arced over the mountains. We trekked again to the van, glad that we got this temporary window of magnificence to seize on digicam.

Getting the excellent shot

But our photographic mission was removed from over. We needed to the iconic three big pillars of rock generally known as Tre Cime, which was about an hour’s powerful hike from our van. Our analysis informed us that the finest gentle is at dawn — 5 a.m. in early July — and together with the hike and prep time, that meant we had to set our alarm for three a.m. Don’t say we do not understand how to chill out on trip.


Since getting nice images was one among our predominant objectives, it was essential to carry the proper photographic gear. Andy packed his Canon 5DMk4 digicam with 16-35mm lens for capturing super-wide-angle landscapes, together with the 24-70mm as the go-to lens for many of our capturing wants.

Canon’s 70-200mm zoom lens additionally allowed us to get nearer crops on fascinating particulars, notably a few of the rock faces. The Gitzo Mountaineer tripod was essential for stabilizing the digicam on long-exposure photographs, and was gentle sufficient to keep on lengthy hikes. Along with further batteries and reminiscence playing cards, Andy additionally introduced a Peak Design Slide digicam strap and a Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD for backing up the images on the highway.

We additionally packed the newest 10-inch Apple iPad Pro for fast, cellular picture modifying. Using Adobe Lightroom CC, Andy might rapidly import images from his digicam utilizing a Lightning SD card reader and make edits simply utilizing the Apple Pencil, earlier than sharing them on Instagram. Of course, the iPad doubled handily as a display screen for watching quite a few episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

Hours later we awoke and plunged into the pitch darkness, the steep path seen solely in the small pool of sunshine from a headlamp. The trek was bodily demanding, notably with pictures gear slung on our backs, and by the time we arrived at the peaks the sky was already starting to brighten.

Unfortunately, these wonderful rays of dawn by no means materialized. There was no route to the gentle, no distinction on the rocks and no lovely golden hues. Our photographs have been flat and boring. We retired to the highest refuge in the space, the 2,348-meter Rifugio Locatelli, to relaxation our weary bones and drain a number of coffees to energize us for the stroll again.


Even with out the excellent dawn, Tre Cime was a spectacular sight to behold.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

While we waited, although, the clouds shifted and the gentle took on a distinct high quality, abruptly bringing shadows — and subsequently enticing distinction — to the rocks. We each grabbed our cameras and headed again out. We fired off numerous frames after which shouldered our luggage and headed again on the trails towards our van. No, we did not get a very good dawn, however our achingly early begin had one profit: peace and quiet. The space the place we photographed was empty, with nothing however the sounds of nature for firm.

Guten tag, Germany

Our night time at Rifugio Auronzo was the first time throughout our journey that we hadn’t stayed at an official campsite, a development that continued for the remainder of our keep in the Dolomites. We treasured these nights spent in wilder spots — a forested nook with straightforward dawn entry to the Insta-famous Lago di Braies, an inn and automotive park secreted at the finish of a mountain monitor in the folds of a Tyrolean valley.

Per week and a half in, we would settled into a gentle rhythm of getting up with the solar, making espresso and instantly getting on the highway so we might park up for a hike. But the lack of amenities for laundry ourselves and our pots and pans rapidly took its toll throughout this explicit leg.

We have been additionally working significantly low on water and even in the mountains it was arduous to discover sources that might enable us to high up the tank and refill our water. We hated the variety of plastic water bottles that we have been being compelled to purchase in consequence.


Vanlife means freedom and nice views, however an absence of amenities.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Fortunately, the surroundings made up for it. The Dolomites are recognized for his or her pinkish saber-toothed peaks, and even Katie’s bout of journey illness on the winding drive did not detract from the drama and sweetness. Yet regardless of this, we left the area sooner than deliberate. We’d simply completed an early morning stroll in the Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest Alpine meadow, when the climate turned.

So, we turned our backs on Italy and fled throughout the border to the German area of Bavaria, the place we arrived simply in time for a biblically epic sundown that briefly turned the white fairy-tale fortress of Neuschwanstein an excellent golden yellow. That night, at an immaculately manicured campsite with correct water and electrical energy hookups, we loved sizzling showers, and sizzling pasta out of sparklingly clear dishes.

Homeward certain

With a full two days to make it again to London, we went totally off piste, detouring by way of the vertiginous vineyards of the riesling-producing Moselle Valley and previous one other fortress worthy of a fable or two, the tall-turreted, charmingly timbered Burg Eltz. We’d turn into used to a meandering, go-where-we-fancy, stop-where-we-please type of journey.


Being on the highway was a thrill, however so was stopping to soak up the surroundings.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The VW California had been greater than only a mattress on wheels for us. It hinted at a state of romantic transience and a rejection of mainstream, conformist values. Sure, we would generally have to park surrounded by tons of of loud households in busy rows of tow-along caravans at night time, however throughout the day? It was simply us and the highway and our freewheeling whims.

This story seems in the Winter 2018 version of CNET Magazine. For different journal tales, click on here.

For extra images from the journey, take a look at #cnetvanlife on Instagram.

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