Your best holiday ever? Hire a campervan and drive to the beach.
(9 top tips to living the dream)
Rent camper. Drive to the beach. It’s as simple as that, according to long time campervan owner, writer and beach lover, Martin Dorey. He’s well placed to say so too. Martin has written 3 best-selling books about ‘living the life’ and is about to embark on a year’s worth of trips to find Britain’s best ‘camper van journeys’. He was also the presenter of a BBC2 show called One Man and His Campervan that aired first in 2011 and was a judge on Caravanner of the Year in 2016, another BBC2 show. Here he gives us his top tips for ‘living the dream’, campervan style.
I started sleeping in campers when I was in my twenties. It was a necessity if I wanted to surf, seeing as I didn’t live by the sea, so I stayed in friends’ vans until I could buy one myself. Over three North Wales winters I perfected the art of not forgetting my sleeping bag (surfboard bags are really uncomfortable and not very warm), lighting beach fires, filling long evenings with dark walks to the pub and getting out of a cold, wet wetsuit very quickly.
Over the years the longing to wake up by the sea has never left me and I cherish the moments when I can pull back the curtains to see frosty grass or the sun rising over the dunes. No matter what time of the year, it’s a magical thing to wake to the sound of the waves knowing that there’s a long day ahead filled with nothing much at all except food, fun and freedom.
So if you dream of living that life – where there’s no mobile signal, mortgage or pinstripe suits to bring you down – come with me and find some of the simple things that can really make you smile on a holiday you’ll never forget.
- Hire a campervan and head for the coast.
You can hire campervans from lots of places these days. However, only camperconnect.com can put you in touch with hundreds of campers at the click of a single mouse…You can choose to rent all kinds of really nice conversions, from regular van sized VW California’s and classic split screen 1960s VWs to big modern conversions and motorhomes with all the knobs and whistles (including heating, toilets and even showers). That means you can go as basic as you like if you want to follow your hippie heart (not everyone does) or you can do it in practical luxury (if that’s more your kind of thing). Either way, the camper makes it easy to drift around looking at nice places. And you can put the kettle on at every stop along the way if you need tea, lots of tea.
- Work out what kind of camper is best for you
You might think that you’d be better off in a groovy kind of camper, with a cute little face and quirky ways and a funny little gearbox that has a mind of its own. And they are great, believe me. But they are also not everyone’s cup of tea. So if you like space and heat, for example, you might need something bigger. You might not get the waves and smiles that a classic will bring, but you’ll be cosy at night and will have space for the dog or to swing the cat. You might also need to consider how many there are of you too, as some smaller campers will only sleep 4, 5 at a push, whereas some motorhomes will sleep and seat 6. Don’t forget that you have to have designated travelling seats in motorhomes – it is illegal (and dangerous) to allow people to travel in seats that don’t have seatbelts.
- Live in the moment with those you are with
Turn off the phone! There’s no wifi where you’re going anyway. Once you’ve got over your withdrawal symptoms you’ll find love in the room you are in. Look around at your surroundings. Explore. Talk. Listen to music. Read. Play. You haven’t forgotten how, you just need reminding sometimes. The best fun isn’t being had elsewhere in cyberspace, it’s where you are and who you are with, right here right now. Living in the moment is a quality that a camper van can force upon you sometimes. So, if you can, go with it. You might like it.
- Do some research and planning, but not too much
There’s a knack to good planning. Do too much and you kill the spontaneity stone dead. But don’t do enough and you end up drifting form place to place looking for that perfect spot that, somehow never materialises. Goodness knows I have done it. You drive from place to place only to return to the first place you stopped. The answer is to think about what constitutes a dream location for you. Is it a shower block and electric hook up? Is it a wild spot by the beach? Is it camping in a summer meadow? Is it a mountain retreat? Get a few guide books, read a few articles, search out some of the stuff you like the sound of. Then write a list of possibles, slap in some post-its and hit the road. At least then you’ll have a direction, but not a rigid itinerary. Room for diversions.
- Take a bit of time with your food
Take the function out of fodder and start to make it more of a ritual. By that I mean don’t eat just to fill you up. Eat for the love of food. It might mean going to a farmers’ market or shopping locally, but that’s fine as you’ll have the time and patience (there’s not much else to do anyway). Get a good recipe book with simple recipes and search out good ingredients, the fresher the better. Home Made is best and much more satisfying… check out The Guyrope Gourmet or The Cool Camping Cookbook. Or one of mine.
Oh yes, and take a night off from cooking every few days and hit the local. You earned it. Then again, you could always try a little light foraging. A good guide like Emma Gunn’s Never Mind the Burdocks will show you what to find where and when and how to cook it. Then you’ll feel like a real Ray Mears.
- Choose country that loves a camper van
You might think that this is obvious but it can make the difference between a good and great holiday when you choose your destination. Scotland is great for campervans if you get the weather right or are in something cosy. Wild camping is legal but the weather can be harsh. On the other hand, France is fabulous as it gets the weather but camping can be controlled, meaning going on sites or aires is essential. Wales is great for rural campsites, has some wonderful roads to drive and there is always lots to do – especially in North Wales or Pembrokeshire. Plus it’s just down the M4 (or M56). Ireland, however, can be just as spectacular but has less camping infrastructure so you might need to go off piste a little… it’ll be worth it.
- Find a location that puts you right there
While it’s nice to drive around and cruise the highways and byways in a rental campervan, it’s also nice to make a base for a few days. That’s where finding a great aire, motorhome stopover or camp site comes in. Whatever it is you like doing, finding a pitch that’s right there will mean you don’t have to pack anything up to move anywhere and can make your campervan into a cosy home from home for the time you are there. This is when an awning comes in handy, as can having electric hook up and a decent fridge to keep a few days’ worth of supplies fresh. Stephen Neale wrote a great book a little while ago that lists some of the best waterside campsites in the UK. It’s called Camping by the Waterside.
- Pack light, but well (and you will thank me)
Friends who own rental companies often tell me that their customers turn up with everything and the kitchen sink and then discover they can’t fit it all in, ending up having to leave it all behind. So the secret is to pack light. The rule I follow is to pack once, then unpack it and reduce it by half, then pack it again. I also impose strict limits on my family.
If you are in a van you don’t need all that flim flam and fripperie anyway. It’s not a fashion show. Take your kitchen essentials, clean undies, enough layers for a change in the weather (hot or cold) and be prepared for a downpour. That’s it. There is nothing more annoying than having to move bags and bags of stuff just to get into bed. Keep it tidy and you’ll be able to slip between the sheets or take off for the next location with the minimum of fuss.
- Invest in a really good map
Sat Nav is great for getting you places, if you trust it. But I wouldn’t dream of travelling anywhere without a proper map. Sat Navs can only tell you so much, whereas a decent paper map will show all the twiddly widdly bits that even Google doesn’t know about. Don’t bother with anything less than 1:50000 scale. Ordnance survey maps can show you hidden ruins, triangulation points and every little and nook and cranny that you might want to walk, hike or drive to. All you have to do is learn how to unlock its secrets.
Now turn the key and hit the road!