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Bringing the vanlife fantasy to life

With Europe as our oyster, CNET hits the open road in search of Instagrammable perfection.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Is there anything more appealing to a person of nomadic sensibilities than a set of wheels, an open road and no fixed plans?

Intrinsically associated with the hippie movement, the original VW camper van is a countercultural icon in its own right, conjuring images of surfers at sunset or traveling cross-country to Woodstock.

CNET Magazine Winter 2018 David Harbour

See more great stories from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

In 2018, the VW California has grown beyond its roots but remains a powerful symbol of escapism and spontaneous adventure. Search "vanlife" on Instagram and rising to the top are snaps of sunny days by glassy lakes, of feet poking out of duvets against a backdrop of mountain peaks, of sheepskin rugs and retrofitted pine interiors. But do these glossy images capture the reality?

To find out whether vanlife lives up to the hype, we took a 2018 VW camper on an epic two-week, 2,600-mile road trip across Europe, heading first to Slovenia via Austria, before dipping down into Croatia's Istrian peninsula, popping up into the Italian Dolomites and meandering home to the UK via Bavaria and Germany's Moselle Valley. The journey was a steep learning curve, an unforgettable adventure, a never-ending quest to find that perfect Instagrammable light.

Planning an adventure

The camper we drove was the Volkswagen California Ocean -- a compact van with almost everything we'd need for a two-week journey. Inside were a hidden bedroom that folded into the rise-up roof, tons of storage space, a kitchen with a gas cooktop, a sink and a fridge, camping furniture tucked into the doors, sat-nav, power points to keep our phones and cameras charged and, of course, a cracking sound system.

We added some touches to the van: our own fluffy blankets and pillows, some cutlery and plastic crockery and an iPad Pro for all our Netflix needs. But what we learned was a 2018 California doesn't need much in the way of finessing to make it livable for two weeks.

As our wish list of places to see was long, it was important to properly plan a route that would let us tick off all the locations we wanted in the limited time we had of just two weeks. Google Maps was invaluable in showing accurate distances, and driving times, between each location.

We spent multiple evenings ahead of the trip huddled over iPads, guidebooks and a variety of travel blogs looking for inspiration for beautiful places to stop, while websites like 500px.com provided examples of great shots captured in each spot we had in mind. Eventually, we had a rough route planned that snaked its way across the continent, linking together all the different locations we wanted to see.

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Teething problems (London to Austria)

The first leg of driving was a big one: an 800-mile, 15-hour stint from London, boarding the Eurotunnel car train under the English Channel to France, then into Germany and finally to Austria. Getting a huge chunk of miles out of the way at once gave us more time to spend later cruising around the areas we were most keen to see.

Driving the van was a breeze. While it's bigger than the cars we normally drive, it still felt relatively compact on the road. Our elevated driving position also made it easy to see traffic around us, and the automatic gearbox meant we could activate cruise control on the continent's motorways and chew through the miles without much effort.

Our first stopping point was the picturesque Grubhof camping site in northern Austria. After plugging the van into a nearby electrical outlet (so we could power our various devices without draining the van's battery), we set about exploring some of the van's hidden amenities. The front driver and passenger seats swivel round, creating a handy living space to relax in, with a fold-out table in the middle acting as the perfect base for a game of cards.

DRESS FOR THE DESTINATION

Our trip included physically demanding activities in a wide variety of weather conditions, so it was important to take the right clothing. Waterproof Danner hiking boots ($380) kept us sure-footed on the mountain trails, while North Face Apex Flex shell jackets ($249) kept us dry.

A lightweight Cerium down jacket from Arcteryx ($349) packed down easily into a small bag but provided warmth when the sun went down. Lightweight, quick-drying walking trousers were a must, as were plenty of pairs of fresh, dry socks. 

The main bed is housed in the roof. It's accessed by a control panel above the dashboard that raises the roof up by about 3 feet, allowing you to climb up. If you're relaxing in the living area, the bed base itself can be pushed up into the raised roof space, giving enough additional room inside to let even Andy -- 6 feet, 2 inches tall -- fully stand up. You just have to remember to lower the roof before you set off again.

The California has a 30-liter drinking-water tank, which arrived empty (the reduced weight probably saved on fuel on the long drive), and we didn't have a hose to connect to the campsite's taps to fill up. As a result, Andy grabbed an empty two-liter water bottle and trekked back and forth. It wasn't an elegant solution, but after 20 or so bottles' worth there was enough in the tank for us to make coffee in the coming days.

Living the vanlife fantasy

Our second day brought us to our first proper destination: Slovenia. We entered the country from the north and within the space of a couple of hours we'd passed brilliant aquamarine lakes, driven the dramatic Vrsic mountain pass and walked rickety wooden footbridges across the ethereal Soca River.

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The color of the water in Slovenia's Soca Valley was mesmerizing.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That night we pulled up at Kamp Jelinc, a riverside campsite on a working farm eight miles from Bovec, Slovenia's adventure sport capital. Sitting pretty in the shadow of the Julian Alps, Jelinc checked every box on our list of desirable facilities. A bar serving ice-cold beer? Check. A communal fire pit strung with hammocks? Check. A ragtag gang of friendly cats? Check.

We tucked the California into a copse and watched the fireflies flit between the surrounding trees while feasting on veggie pasta under a canopy of fairy lights. It was our first night cooking in the van and other than realizing we'd forgotten one of the two pans we'd intended to bring, the setup was seamless. The fold-out table provided an ample work surface and we opened the window behind the stove, situated just behind the passenger seat, to let the steam dissipate.

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

Finding camps on the coast

Leaving the mountains behind, we took three days to meander our way down through Slovenia, via the capital Ljubljana, into Istria, the northwesterly region of Croatia, to explore the inland hill towns and craggy coastline.

The idyllically situated town of Rovinj, which perches on a circular headland, along with beautiful evening light made for great photography opportunities, not just from the ground, but from the air as well. We'd taken the DJI Mavic Pro drone along (it being small enough to easily fit in the kit bag next to the cameras) and now we sent it up into the air, excited to see what the town looked like from above.

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The beguiling coastal town of Rovinj was the perfect spot for local wine and sunshine.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Sadly, the local seagull mafia had other ideas and almost immediately, enormous 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, but their pursuit continued until we were forced to land it.

Wild camping is illegal in Slovenia and Croatia, so it was imperative we pay to park for the night. Often, though, we were dismayed to find ourselves assigned to pitches in sprawling holiday parks, lost between row upon row of oversize recreational vehicles. Surely our little van, our symbol of freedom and rebellion, didn't belong amid these hulking beasts? It wasn't quite the vanlife fantasy we had in mind.

Perhaps predictably, the more crowded the location, the more organized, formal and sprawling the camping site. On the flip side, these kinds of sites have great facilities, which we might have been a little more grateful for in the moment if we had known what was coming next.

Into the Dolomites

Our journey into the Dolomites in Italy signaled a sharp departure from the landscape we'd traveled through thus far. Jagged peaks dotted with pine forests replaced the soft, undulating hills and endless green fields. The roads became narrower, with an endless string of hairpin bends as we snaked our way higher and higher.

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The winding mountain roads were perfectly manageable in the van.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The other big change was the weather. We'd said goodbye to baking heat and clear blue skies and were welcomed to the mountains by epic storm clouds, driving rain and lightning. It was the first time we'd experienced proper rain on the trip and it introduced a new problem: dragging mud back inside the van every time we got out.

Eventually the winding roads brought us to our destination for our first night in the region: Rifugio Auronzo, a mountain chalet set up for long-distance hikers. But bad news greeted us inside as we talked to other hikers: The weather was only supposed to get worse. We returned to the van to lift our spirits with a pack of biscuits and an episode of Gilmore Girls on our iPad. Even in the mountains, 4G was almost universally available to us.

After a couple of hours the rain finally stopped and, optimistically, we headed out along one of the trails. And, wow, did our gamble pay off. A break in the clouds allowed the setting sun's light to peek through, highlighting the tips of sharp peaks in front of us and, as though rewarding us for our patience, producing a glorious double rainbow that arced over the mountains. We trekked back to the van, happy that we were given this brief window of beauty to capture on camera.

Getting the perfect shot

But our photographic mission was far from over. We wanted to photograph the iconic three giant pillars of rock known as Tre Cime, which was about an hour's tough hike from our van. Our research told us that the best light is at sunrise -- 5 a.m. in early July -- and including the hike and prep time, that meant we had to set our alarm for 3 a.m. Don't say we don't know how to relax on vacation.

PACK FOR THE PERFECT PICTURE

Since getting great photographs was one of our main goals, it was crucial to bring the right photographic gear. Andy packed his Canon 5DMk4 camera with 16-35mm lens for capturing super-wide-angle landscapes, along with the 24-70mm as the go-to lens for most of our shooting needs.

Canon's 70-200mm zoom lens also allowed us to get closer crops on interesting details, particularly some of the rock faces. The Gitzo Mountaineer tripod was crucial for stabilizing the camera on long-exposure shots, and was light enough to carry on long hikes. Along with extra batteries and memory cards, Andy also brought a Peak Design Slide camera strap and a Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD for backing up the photos on the road.

We also packed the latest 10-inch Apple iPad Pro for quick, mobile photo editing. Using Adobe Lightroom CC, Andy could quickly import photos from his camera using a Lightning SD card reader and make edits easily using the Apple Pencil, before sharing them on Instagram. Of course, the iPad doubled handily as a screen for watching numerous episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

Hours later we awoke and plunged into the pitch darkness, the steep trail visible only in the small pool of light from a headlamp. The trek was physically demanding, particularly with photography gear slung on our backs, and by the time we arrived at the peaks the sky was already beginning to brighten.

Unfortunately, those glorious rays of sunrise never materialized. There was no direction to the light, no contrast on the rocks and no beautiful golden hues. Our shots were flat and dull. We retired to the highest refuge in the area, the 2,348-meter Rifugio Locatelli, to rest our weary bones and drain several coffees to energize us for the walk back.

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Even without the perfect sunrise, Tre Cime was a spectacular sight to behold.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

While we waited, though, the clouds shifted and the light took on a different quality, suddenly bringing shadows -- and therefore attractive contrast -- to the rocks. We both grabbed our cameras and headed back out. We fired off countless frames and then shouldered our bags and headed back on the trails toward our van. No, we didn't get a good sunrise, but our achingly early start had one benefit: peace and quiet. The area where we photographed was empty, with nothing but the sounds of nature for company.

Guten tag, Germany

Our night at Rifugio Auronzo was the first time during our trip that we hadn't stayed at an official campsite, a trend that continued for the rest of our stay in the Dolomites. We treasured these nights spent in wilder spots -- a forested corner with easy sunrise access to the Insta-famous Lago di Braies, an inn and car park secreted at the end of a mountain track in the folds of a Tyrolean valley.

A week and a half in, we'd settled into a steady rhythm of getting up with the sun, making coffee and immediately getting on the road so we could park up for a hike. But the lack of facilities for washing ourselves and our pots and pans quickly took its toll during this particular leg.

We were also running seriously low on water and even in the mountains it was hard to find sources that would allow us to top up the tank and refill our water. We hated the number of plastic water bottles that we were being forced to buy as a result.

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Vanlife means freedom and great views, but a lack of facilities.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Fortunately, the scenery made up for it. The Dolomites are known for their pinkish saber-toothed peaks, and even Katie's bout of travel sickness on the winding drive didn't detract from the drama and beauty. Yet in spite of this, we left the region earlier than planned. We'd just finished an early morning stroll in the Alpe di Siusi, Europe's largest Alpine meadow, when the weather turned.

So, we turned our backs on Italy and fled across the border to the German region of Bavaria, where we arrived just in time for a biblically epic sunset that briefly turned the white fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein a glorious golden yellow. That evening, at an immaculately manicured campsite with proper water and electricity hookups, we enjoyed hot showers, and hot pasta out of sparklingly clean dishes.

Homeward bound

With a full two days to make it back to London, we went fully off piste, detouring via the vertiginous vineyards of the riesling-producing Moselle Valley and past another castle worthy of a fable or two, the tall-turreted, charmingly timbered Burg Eltz. We'd become used to a meandering, go-where-we-fancy, stop-where-we-please style of travel.

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Being on the road was a thrill, but so was stopping to take in the scenery.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The VW California had been more than just a bed on wheels for us. It hinted at a state of romantic transience and a rejection of mainstream, conformist values. Sure, we might sometimes have to park surrounded by hundreds of loud families in busy rows of tow-along caravans at night, but during the day? It was just us and the road and our freewheeling whims.

This story appears in the Winter 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

For more photos from the trip, check out #cnetvanlife on Instagram.

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