VW California Beach Review

Our first experiment, of course, had to be the VW California Beach. The dreams I have had over the past years about owning this camper van are so vivid that you could have sworn I had already owned one. I think I have talked the ear off anyone who was willing to listen, and even converted a few friends along the way. So beginning our experiment with the California Beach for a weekend seemed perfect.

I was nervously excited to try it out, and my expectations were high! 

Expectation 1: It would allow us to escape quickly to the mountains the moment the school bell rang at 3pm on a Friday afternoon where sun, adventure, and cool fresh mountain air would await us. 

My first expectation of the VW California Beach was easily met. Hubby picked up the car on his way home from an early knock off on a Friday afternoon and I was eagerly patiently waiting to pack it up (I LOVE packing a car) and ready for a 3pm departure. The 3pm departure quickly moved to 4pm and then to 4.30pm due to urgent work emails needing to be answered beforehand so we could totally shut it all off for the weekend. But it gave the kids and I a chance to check out the car while Hubby worked diligently. And then, once the last of the emails were sorted, we were off.

As it happened, not even more than 15 minutes into our drive we got stuck in a traffic jam. It was a sunny Friday afternoon, and everyone was rushing home from work early to extend their weekend. Normally it would have started our holiday off on the wrong foot, but not even a traffic jam could make a dent in my happy and excited mood. I don’t know if it was the freedom of really having nowhere to be or that I was finally driving an automatic car after years of driving a manual car, or if I was just that excited to be trying out the California Beach. Whatever it was, nothing could shake my awesome mood! 

We arrived to our destination at 6pm, and we were greeted by the friendly staff at Eienwäldli, a hotel and camping ground near Engelberg, Switzerland. Eienwäldi would be our home for the next two nights as we tested out our new set of wheels.  We chose our spot, sent the kids to the playground and got to setting up camp. 

Expectation 2: No reservations required:  Escaping spontaneously due to the simplicity of having your own bed right inside the car

We had borrowed the VW California Beach from our local VW dealer. This model doesn’t have a kitchen but rather a full 3 seater bench and our three kids (12, 10, and 3) could sit across comfortably. They enjoyed the space, and this made me realize that it really could be the perfect car for everyday life with three kids, not just for camping. The bonus of the California over a standard VW family van, is that the bench changes into a bed, and with the mattress topper that was provided, it was quite a comfortable bed (considering only seconds before it was a normal van bench seat).

Once you figure out how to convert the seat into a bed (we used a helpful youtube video), making the bed and putting it back to a seat again literally takes seconds.  Then you just put the mattress topper into place and the bed is ready.  The mattress topper takes up a bit of room in the back on the car, but without it, sleep would have been very uncomfortable.  So a mattress topper is, for us, a non-negotiable option. 

But wait, there’s more!  The roof is also magical, and it pops up to reveal a second bed which was even easier to open. Just unhook the security latches and push up. And presto—a second bed. When the roof bed is not in use, it can be pushed up into the roof space which gives the cabin some extra headroom and a wonderful feeling of spaciousness. 

As we are a family of 5, we knew the van was going to be a tight fit for us when it came to sleeping. That’s why we brought our Outwell awning with us in order to provide us with some extra space. (An awning is a big tent that you attach to the side of the van. The opening is as big as the sliding door and creates an attached living space.)  It was easy to put up - we had only 1 practise run before our trip - and took us about 20 minutes. We also brought two fitted sheets with us for the beds, as well as pillows for the 5 of us, 4 sleeping bags and one duvet.

On our first night our hopes that the kids would sleep in the awning were quickly dashed when they decided it was far too cold for them to sleep in a tent. So we were forced to try out the combination of 3 kids sleeping down and the adults sleeping up - leaving the awning for storing just our belongings. And …. it didn’t go as well as we had hoped. 

The adults didn’t have a comfortable night sleep. The upstairs bed is rather narrow at 1.2m and the standard mattress extremely thin and uncomfortable for 2 adults despite being on a bed frame. Hubby slept much better once I woke up and went outside to read in the morning. In reality, we found that the top bed is better suited for 1 adult or 2 kids.

The other 2 kids slept really well and although they woke up a little earlier than they would have at home, it was not by much. 

For the second night we knew we had to change our sleeping arrangements around, so the older two kids slept up top, which they were very pleased about. But that still left us with the issue of where to put the rest of us. In the end we decided little Z and I would sleep on the lower bed, and hubby took one for the team and slept out in the awning in his sleeping bag.  I love that man.

The only negative of having the bed inside your car is that it isn’t easy to just drive off and explore for the day without turning it back into a proper car if you don’t have a separate space to store your belongings. This problem could be solved by using the awning for storage, as we did.  Doing that allows you to easily flip the bed back into normal seats without too much fuss. Just detach the awning, and off you go. Of course not without work, but it can be done with a bit of planning.

An awning is also helpful in providing extra sleeping space.  If you are willing to put up the awning each time and have proper sleeping mats and warm enough clothes, the awning can provide you with the additional sleeping room you may need. Another option is to purchase a hammock that goes across the front two seats to accommodate your smallest family member. We didn’t try that option because we are unwilling to invest in van accessories without owning a van.  Regardless, for a family with three decent sized kids, the awning is the only option to make it work comfortably for all. 

Prognosis:  For a family of 5 the VW California Beach is a tight fit, but workable with a few hacks.

Expectation 3: A camper van would shuttle us off into a relaxed and laid back atmosphere.

After our first night of interrupted sleep, we awoke in a surprisingly good mood. Waking up to blue skies surrounded by mountains with the peaceful sound of the river rushing by definitely helped. We popped over to the little store at the camping ground to buy supplies for breakfast and lunch, and set up our breakfast table under the blue skies. One table comes with the California Beach and is stored in the sliding door, and the 2 chairs are cleverly stored in the boot door. We needed to bring with us three of our own chairs, as well.

Sitting outside in the morning sun while eating my breakfast was exactly what I had been dreaming of. In that moment as I enjoyed the quiet of the morning hour, I felt the most relaxed that I’ve been in awhile.  Camping meant no sense of urgency and not having to rush off anywhere, so we took out time to eat breakfast and chat.  Then we washed up our dishes and took our time to get ready for the day. 

We packed up our hiking gear and strolled to the nearby gondola station to enjoy a day hiking around the Brunni area. When we returned late in the afternoon the kids happily ran off to the playground to get to know some of the other kids who were also staying at the campground.  

Expectation 4: Freedom to explore on a limited budget

If you can overlook the initial investment of purchasing a camper van - they aren’t cheap - you are able to escape on weekends for very little cost.  This would allow us to really extend our travel budget and see more of Europe. Camping grounds are an inexpensive way to travel and there are some great places all over Switzerland and Europe to discover. 

However, with the initial cost being so great, and because we are really not in need of a new car at this moment, justifying a new car is impossible. We did the math and figured out that for the cost of the new car,  we could go away for 120 weekends with a budget of 500 CHF for each weekend. Thats a lot of weekends away. So whether or not to buy the VW van is a decision we will have to put off until the future. 

The big advantage of owning a VW California (or similar type of camper van) is that unlike a motor home or caravan, you can use it as your every day car. No searching for a place to store it when not in use, and no extra insurance. It’s really a much simpler solution for families who love to camp. 

Expectation 5: It's a huge van that would be hard to drive and park

Both hubby and I were expecting it to be difficult to drive. It is a big car, and I was nervous to drive it. But the drive was amazing. My friend Pamela had raved about the drive of the Mercedes version so I was interested to see if I’d feel the same about the VW.  I did.  Within only a few minutes I felt extremely comfortable driving it. I love being up so high with a great view all around - actually a much better view of all sides of the car than my current car - the SEAT Alhambra. Parking at the campground was also easy— I nailed the reverse park! I enjoyed the drive so much that hubby only drove the car to and from the car dealer — and I drove the entire weekend. 

What I didn’t expect - Fails of the weekend

As is the reality of life, it wasn’t all roses on our weekend away. My first fail was not bringing enough warm clothes. I forgot to check the night time temperatures, and as we were in the mountains, the temperatures dipped to 10C. So with not enough warm clothes packed, the kids were not excited to sleep outside in the awning and I don’t blame them. For future camping trips in this type of van to places where the night time temperature drops, I will pack thermal underwear. Warm and lightweight, thermals take up next to no room and are pretty much always a good idea. 

Fail number two was also cold weather related. I mistakenly brought Hubby’s old sleeping bag with the broken zipper which made it less than comfortable to sleep out in the awning. 

We will also need to research sleeping mats to make sleeping on the ground a little more comfortable next time. 

Extra tips we discovered

The front two chairs become a bit of a climbing frame to get to the top bed, so we draped towels over them to make sure they didn’t get dirty. If we did buy the car, we would probably get my crafty mother in law to create some covers for them.

We had a no shoe policy inside the awning as well as the car which helped keep most of the dirt outside. 

To buy or not to buy?

I fell in LOVE with the VW California. If we didn’t have a family of 5, I would have driven straight back to our local VW dealer to start the buying process. The kids are still talking about it, and scream with delight every time one drives past. 

But we don’t have a family of 4, we have a family of 5, and the camper van just isn’t ideal. An awning would be mandatory every time we went camping and that could start to annoy us after awhile, especially for short weekend trips or when the weather is less than ideal. Both hubby and I said that if we won the lottery tomorrow, buying some sort of pop top camper would be at the top of our list - but our logical brains know it is probably not the smartest decision right now.

I also realized that many of our expectations could be met simply by just going camping and had nothing to do with the actual van itself.

So the experiment continues. We will move on to the caravan category which we will rent in August and we are brain storming up other ideas to create the feeling we want, without blowing our budget. 

Have you ever tried out a VW California or similar camper van? What was your experience?