A weekend in (a) California


A weekend in (a) California

The fair isle we live on may not boast the same kind of climate as the west coast of the United States, nor the terrific surf on offer, nor arguably the breath-taking scenery but that doesn't stop thousands of us packing a tent, heading for a windswept hill and sleeping in a glorified sack for a few nights.

Camping is still big business here, with us Brits taking up to around 16.6 million camping trips a year and spending £2.3 billion on gear in the process, but experiencing the wilderness doesn't have to be painful; you could just buy a Volkswagen California...


The brand new VW California arrived – a big, hulking metallic blue beast that looks less like the 'cute' and 'funky' T1 and T2 generation camper vans that are adored by surfers and hippies alike and more like something out of 'Transformers'.

But upon clambering into the tall driver's seat, it soon becomes apparent that this is a familiar place; think top spec Golf with a bit more room and armrests and you're almost there. The friendly chap who dropped it off then proceeded to explain all of the gadgets and gizmos that adorn the Cali, and there were a lot of them: a fridge, two-burner stove, an electrically operated roof with double bed, running water, electrical hook-up, picnic tables, matching chairs and removable curtains.

A few hours passed and we were left starry eyed at the image of sleeping in luxury on the North Devon coast as we waited for the sun to rise and waves to pick up. There was only one issue: the California hadn't come with a roof rack so we quickly had to work out how to fold down the rear seats, turn them into a double bed and load our boards, a sea kayak and some cameras into the space we had created.

It worked, so we clocked off early (sorry boss) and hit the road.

A weekend in a California part 1

A weekend in a California part 1


The drive from Portsmouth to Ilfracombe was surprisingly smooth. The 2-litre turbo-diesel engine in the Cali is simply genius when mated to the super slick DSG automatic gearbox.

But perhaps most surprising was how well the slab-sided van disguised its size, it really did feel like any other VW product but just a bit taller. Body roll was kept to a minimum and the engine pulled well up until around 40mph where torque and acceleration ebbed away slightly.

The raised driving position offered a commanding view of the road ahead and the comfortable seats with foldable armrests meant motorway miles were devoured... much like a Burger King we scoffed along the way.

Unfortunately, North Devon is a fair distance from our hometown, so we arrived at the humble farmyard campsite well after sunset, making the search for a vacant pitch a little tricky.

To cut a long story short, we were relegated to an area on the edge of a large, windswept hill that no amount of chocking could remedy so both myself and photographer Jon spent the night sliding down the extremely comfortable double mattresses to awaken in a crumpled heap somewhere at the front of the van.

Saying that, the California transformed from capable people carrier to cosseting sleeper in no time at all... and in the pitch black. A simple press of a button raised the roof, revealing a second living quarter (complete with mattress) while a few tugs of levers and folding of seats created the 'downstairs' double bed. It's a phenomenal feat of German engineering that not only ensures everyone gets a good night sleep but also keeps family arguments to an absolute minimum.

A weekend in a California part 2

A weekend in a California part 2


The California happily transported us to the sandy delights of Saunton on Saturday, where a full day of fairly uncontested waves and glorious sunshine awaited us. £7 for a day's parking would feel pretty steep at the best of times but when you rock up in a California, wind down the side awning, pop out the picnic table and chairs and fire up the stove for a morning bacon butty, you feel as if you've short changed the National Trust just a tad.

It wasn't long before fellow board-lugging chums turned up in their modified T4s and restored T1s and it also wasn't long before they were enjoying the mod cons of our California. A fridge that ran off a completely separate leisure battery (so not to deplete the vehicle's power source) kept the beers ice cold and also meant we had chilled milk for tea later in the day.

The ease with which everything slides, slots and clicks into place becomes apparent when it's time to pack up the Cali and move on, it's quick, easy and requires minimal effort. Perhaps the only design oversight is that one has to clamber into the vehicle and shut the electronically closing side door to pop the picnic table back into place - fine when the van is empty but a bit of a pain when it is choc full of gear.

Saturday night's sleep was far more comfortable as we managed to negotiate a pitch with a flat, gravelled surface, electricity and even TV points. We didn't use the latter but plugging into the grid meant we could set up the auxiliary heater to pump out a blast of hot air every few hours without the risk of running down our leisure battery.

Cool beers, jaw-dropping surroundings, a warm sunset and comfortable chairs to sit on are the perfect full stop to a day chasing surf, not to mention a decent night's sleep on large beds. It certainly made our fellow campers extremely jealous.

The Knowledge:

Model: California SE 2.0-litre TDI BlueMotion
Price: £55,800 as tested or £46,440 basic
Engine: 2-litre turbo diesel
Power: 138bhp, 340Nm
Max speed: 104mph
0-62mph: 16.6 seconds
MPG: 36.2 mpg
Emissions: 206 g/km CO2