Camper vanners in Britain tend to fall in to two categories. The first are the vintage-loving VW surfer dude-types, who spend their summers puttering up and down Devon's choked A-roads, boards and cute dogs/kids strapped in the back, waving at similarly smug aficionados of slow-moving but lovely-to-look-at mobile motor homes.
The second category contains the rest of us, the mortals with less cool vans – and probably less cute kids – who don't really care about the chrome-wheel configuration of our four-wheeled tin cans but do very much care about the comfort offered by a car masquerading as a mobile guest house.
Campervanning in Dorset
Taking to the road with Nancy
Eighteen months ago we borrowed a beautiful old purple VW van for a weekend, and though it's hard not to fall under the spell of these painted beauties – ours was called Nancy, for God's sake – the realities of driving at 58mph in the slow lane of the M4 (that's foot all the way down), eyes peering out through condensation-soaked windows, bodies wrapped in sleeping bags to guard against the biting cold, soon puts those romantic road-movie notions in perspective.
Putting in a call to the same van supplier, we discovered he'd invested in a bunch of super-modern VW T5s. We didn't have to think about it, and come a sunny Friday, off we went in a spanking new silver VW California for a long weekend in Dorset.
After a drop-off/pick-up at Mark's rural Hampshire HQ (you can leave your own car in a secure garage), and a swift half-hour tour of the California's German working parts, we pointed ourselves west, heading across the New Forest to the Isle of Purbeck and the jagged Jurassic Coast (opt for the route that takes in the lovely little ferry from Sandbanks on the southern tip of Poole). There were no ego-battering inside-lane shenanigans to deal with this time round. The six-gear California positively purred along the motorway, caressing each long curve – that'd be the power steering and 2.5l turbo diesel engine, then – and the easily inserted extra seat we pre-ordered meant accommodating three kids in the back was a doddle. The stereo, rigged up to an iPod jack fitted in all the vans, passed our 2 Tone test with aplomb, pumping out a perfect early summer head-bobbing ska groove which got us all in the mood fora few days sleeping under the stars.
Top-popping and top-loading
On arrival at Tom's Field, a green-minded, cosy campsite in the village of Langton Matravers, the children and I wasted no time in testing out the van's gizmos. The pop-top was electrically operated, opening out into a generous sleeping space - the little blighters get the most comfortable mattress up there, as well. Throughout the van, we were impressed by the quiet versatility of the design: tables clicked out of hidden panels, heating and cooling were but a whirr away, front-facing seats became table-hugging chairs with a flick of a switch, there was a dinky top-loading fridge. And in place of the vintage VW's classic cheesecloth curtains were light-banishing clippable blinds. Everything had a place. It was nigh-on perfect.
After a good and, more importantly, warm, night's sleep, we breakfasted on bacon butties, coffee and Coco Pops. And then it was off to the glorious beach at Studland, our four-wheeled B&B taking mere minutes to transform itself back into a hungry, Tarmac-eating road warrior.
Exploring the local scene
Stunning geology (Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door are recommended stop-offs), rolling countryside and long sandy stretches had to fight for attention with sensational cider; the incomparable Square and Compass in Worth Matravers demands at least one visit, not to mention a designated driver. Then there was an Anglo-Saxon fort at Corfe Castle, as well as pretty seaside towns (Swanage, Poole et al), combining to make this stretch of south-east Dorset an ideal destination for weekending, with or without kids. We strolled over grassy fields to find remarkable coves and natural swimming pools blasted from the ancient rocks (Dancing Ledge, a gentle one-mile walk from Tom's Field), drove past some of the UK's most bizarre road signs – 'Tanks Crossing: Sudden Gunfire' (signalling the presence of a huge MOD zone, some of it impassable on weekdays) – and generally had a ball, whooshing about in our van, stopping when the mood took us, or else just hanging out at the campsite playing cricket and sipping beer.
Apart from having a brilliant break, we swore never again to fall for cool over comfort. In fact, we discovered that these supercharged behemoths tick both boxes – swoon-worthy and seriously sought after – and that's according to the south coast's VW hipsters.
Rent a campervan
Kamperhire offer vans from £60 a day Nov-Mar, £120 a day June-Aug, including VAT and unlimited mileage in the UK. Discounts are available for longer periods of hire (0845 226 7869/www.kamperhire.co.uk).
Based in the surf mecca of Devon, O'Connors Campers (01837 659599, www.oconnorscampers.co.uk) specialises in renovating authentic VWs, fitting them with new engines and interiors while retaining their classic boho look. There are 12 available for hire, from the 1960s splitscreen to '70s bay window models.
'A VW represents freedom and escape,' says O'Connors' Sam Money. 'They're not very big, so you can get them into a beach car park, but they've got everything you need inside. You can come straight out of the water, lean your surfboard up against the front and have a cup of tea – and if the waves aren't big enough, you just hop in and drive up the coast.
'Up in Oxfordshire, VW Camper Company (01295 812266, www.vwcamperco.com) has an eight-strong fleet of '70s Devon Moonraker conversions for hire - fitted with elevating roofs to accommodate full-size double beds.
Last but not least, Snail Trail in Bedfordshire (01767 600440, www.snailtrail.co.uk) ships in brand-new copies of original models from Brazil – so each of its fleet promises a smooth ride and gleaming good looks. Take your pick from the lovingly named Betty, Pearl, Flo, Elsie, Matilda, Nell, Pru, Dot, Sylvie and Ruby.