A camper van's yer only man

 

GO IRELAND:It may be hard work at times, but as a source of magical holiday memories, it’s hard to beat, writes RÓISÍN INGLE

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE not to turn heads as you tootle along the roads of Northern Ireland in a 1973 VW camper van. Surly youths sitting on walls, pretending they hate everything, forget their disaffection long enough to point and grin. Middle-aged men look wistful and approach for some retro-reminiscing about the time they nearly bought one or the night they spent on a “rock’n’roll” mattress in a van that was a dead ringer for yours. Ah, here, TMI mister. Actually, make that wayyyy too much information.

Camper-vanning doesn’t sound like the ideal family holiday, it sounds like surfer dude territory. Our group consisted of myself, an avid camper, my boyfriend, a very reluctant camper, our twin daughters, Joya and Priya (2), and our niece, Hannah (10).

But this family came away from our first camper-van holiday with some great memories and, it has to be said, a deeper appreciation for home comforts such as being able to shift position in bed without getting an elbow in the jaw. Weeks later, we still missed her. “Look, Ruby’s friend!” one of my daughters exclaimed when back home a battered VW passed us on the road.

When we first met Ruby, Hannah immediately put her finger on the visual appeal of the van. “She looks like a person,” she said, pointing to the distinctive headlights and VW sign. Ruby is one of the vans supplied by Northern Ireland-based Tourtoise Tours, whose campers have been lovingly restored with all modern conveniences including a surprisingly spacious cooking area, fridge and sink.

We loved the diner-style black and white interior, the flowery curtains and thoughtful touches such as the playing cards and Rubik’s cube stored in a secret compartment. Before you could say “Scooby-Doo”, we had crammed our excess luggage and ourselves inside and pointed Ruby in the direction of our first stop, a caravan park in Killyleagh, Co Down, near Strangford Lough.

The first thing we noticed were the funny noises Ruby made when our driver, the reluctant camper, had to change what he described as “sticky” gears. Hannah and I made up a song plagiarised ever-so-slightly from a certain iconic musical called “Ruby Ruby Bang Bang”, renditions of which distracted the younger ones from the jerkier than usual ride. The reluctant camper reported that driving the van took a bit of getting used to, but when you accepted this was all about tootling (it’s a technical term apparently) and not auditioning for Top Gear, it made for a “very relaxing” drive.

OUR CHILDRENare of an age where if the place we are visiting doesn’t have swings and slides they don’t want to know. Luckily, exhaustive research (well, a quick trawl of the camping section of discovernorthern ireland.com) had revealed that Delamont Caravan Park in Co Down was situated beside Delamont Country Park, a place that not only had the biggest, bestest playground any of us had ever seen, but the longest miniature railway in Ireland.

That lot kept everyone busy for a couple of hours before a steak dinner, my first on our cute two-ring kitchen stove, during which we discovered Ruby was equipped with every piece of kit you could need, plus some that during the more tense camper-van moments were vital, eg a corkscrew. This wasn’t camping it was glamping. Hurrah!

To everybody’s relief, the campsite toilets and showers were spotless and I was reliably informed that the dishwashing facilities were also exemplary. That night Hannah took the bed in the “pop up” tier of the van, which made living conditions much roomier than you might expect, while the rest of us snuggled in the larger sleeping area in our Cath Kidston flower-print duvet. Nobody stirred until 6.45am, which in our house constitutes a leisurely lie-in. The reluctant camper was getting more enthusiastic by the day.

Our next stop was Chestnutt Holiday Park in Cranfield West further down the county in the shadow of the Mournes. On arrival, Hannah and I couldn’t help noticing that while we beat other vans hands down in the groovy stakes, we were seriously lagging behind when it came to home comforts. Our neighbours had satellite dishes, vast kitchens andmicrowaves.

Most of them also had gazebos, which in some cases doubled the size of the living space. There was clearly some serious one-upvanship going on, but we doubted any of them had a secret Rubik’s cube stashed away.

Again, we were impressed by the facilities at Chestnutt Park, which had that essential playground, tennis courts, playing fields, a shop and even a restaurant for when the cook wanted a night off. Although we’d come at the busiest time for caravan sites in the North – the week of the July 12th celebrations – we wouldn’t have noticed the event at all except for the Union Jack flying from the roof of the well-stocked shop. And, unexpectedly, the sun shone all week. The children wore shorts and made sandcastles and dug moats on the nearby blue flag beach, all the simple pleasures we’d wanted from the holiday.

RELUCTANTLY, we dropped Hannah off in Newry and headed to Portadown for some quality time with the in-laws. That night, we took Ruby for one last spin around the town. At a roundabout we were stopped by an unimpressed member of the PSNI. “Sightseeing, are you?” he asked. “Well I suggest you go sightsee somewhere else.” There were riots going on nearby and fearing for her excellent two-tone paint job, we pointed Ruby home.

A couple of days later, we drove to Carnlough, Co Antrim, where our second van was getting a clean by David of Wicked Campers. Moondance was like Ruby’s rebellious cousin, all automatic transmission and kerrazy paint job. She was also much more back to basics. I would now be cooking on a portable one-ring stove outside the van. Very Bear Grylls.

Also, the weather had turned. We arrived at Watertop Farm, in Co Antrim, in the lashings of rain, the kind of weather that might send some campers running to a B&B. We weren’t going anywhere though. This sprawling farmland in the stunning Glens of Antrim was child nirvana. Kittens, rabbits, goats, chicks and horses, were all available for cuddles, while respite from the elements could be found in a cottage that had been turned into a farming museum.

It was hard to fault the Watertop Farm breakfast served in the restaurant – one was enough for the four of us – but lamb stew cooked on one gas ring outside Moondance in the lashing rain that night provided the culinary highlight of the trip.

At Watertop Farm, the girls went on their first horse ride, sat on their first motorbike and were so worn out that one morning they slept until 8am. The reluctant camper was now officially a very happy camper.

I cannot lie. There is no getting away from the fact that a camper-van holiday is lots of work. If we weren’t putting up beds we were putting them away or shifting luggage or trekking to toilets, sometimes balancing full potties in our hands.

It was worth it though, for all those magical memories of which all the best family holidays are made; scoring a prime parking spot on the seafront in Newcastle, Co Down, and treating the children to an unscheduled stop of unlimited amusements followed by Italian ice cream in glorious sunshine. Shadows pooling under oak trees at twilight, the tinkle of goat bells and the sight of herds of deer taking shelter in the forest in Gosford Forest Park, Co Armagh.

Splashing in salty puddles on the East Strand at Portrush. Pushing our girls on battered swings with the sea roaring behind us on the astonishingly beautiful north Antrim coast, their laughter flying on the wind. Countless encounters with the friendliest people we’d ever met on holidays whether we were asking for directions in Ballycastle or shooting the breeze with strangers in the picture-postcard village of Ballintoy.

Memories of Watertop Farm, a place that is still being talked about in our house as though it’s a kind of mythical land. And of a shiny red van called Ruby, not to mention Moondance. Before we left Dublin, we had decided that to save on money and hassle we wouldn’t be venturing off this island for the next few years. This holiday set the bar for all future staycations. It will be very hard to beat.

The ins and outs of camper-vanning

What to bring . . .

A small tent for extra storage. We kept all our luggage in a pop-up two-man tent, creating as much living space as possible in the camper van.

Proper waterproofs for the kids. Yes it’s Ireland, but rain shouldn’t stop play. We bought ours – jackets with matching dungarees – from keenly-priced rainbusters.ie, which has a beautifully designed range of top-to-toe all-weather gear.

Bedding. It’s not always supplied, so bring some of your favourite sheets, pillows and duvets. They won’t get ruined as long as you keep them in the camper van storage box and they add a welcome touch of home on colder nights.

Portable DVD player. For emergencies of the tantrum kind.

. . . and leave behind

Your “good” outfits. You will get no excuse to wear them. You will resent the extra space they take up. You will get mud (and worse) on your new maxi.

Glass cafetieres. Yes you want good coffee on tap while you are roughing it, no you don’t want to be sweeping up glass, ahem, twice in one trip especially with little people running around.

Vanity. There are probably people who manage to look groomed 24 hours a day while living in camper van world, but chances are they are not you. They certainly weren’t us.

Van envy. Create your own cosy palace and you won’t care if your neighbour has a satellite dish the size of your kitchen back home.

Deals on wheels other road trips you can take

The UK

O’Connor’s Campers in Devon (oconnorscampers.co.uk) has a fleet of split-screen and bay- window VWs to hire. Vans sleep two, four or six people and come with free-standing awning, outdoor table and chairs plus a cycle rack. The only downside is that you have to be over 27 (and under 70) years of age to rent one, and it requests that you stay in the Devon, Cornwall, Somerset or Dorset area but you can bring your pet with you. Prices from £375 to £850 (€429 to €973) this month.

To tour the Lake District by camper, Carefree Motorhome Hire (carefree-motorhomes.co.uk) is based in the Midlands. It has a range of larger Hymer camper vans for rent, with a six-berth option with overhead double cab, shower and toilet, fridge and oven as well as a bike rack, available for £1,060 (€1,214) from August 20th-27th.

Wicked Campers (wickedcampers.co.uk), which has a branch in Belfast, also has depots across Europe including London, Amsterdam, Malaga, Barcelona and Munich. It offers Toyotas modified to provide for up to five people, and the company has some good value deals, including a one-way journey for seven days in Spain for £199 (€227), a saving of £353 (€404) on the standard price. This is valid for hires between October and March and applies to either two-seater or multi-seater camper vans going only from Barcelona to Malaga or vice versa. The price includes insurance for two drivers over 21 years of age, 24-hour roadside assistance and unlimited mileage.

Even less subtle in the paint stakes is The Tartan Camper (thetartancamper.com), a company which provides tartan-coloured camper-van hire for exploring the Scottish Highlands. If you don’t mind looking like you’re driving a shortbread tin, the vans themselves are VW T25s which have two or four berths as well as gas stove, fridge and drainable sink with water tank. The four-berth model is designed for two adults and two children and a week’s rental in high season costs £450 (€515). For an extra £50 (€57) the firm will pick you up and drop you off at your airport or hotel.

The rest

Check out price comparison websites such as worldwide-motorhome-hire.com, which gives estimated quotes for vehicles across Europe, the US, Australia and Africa. It allows one-way trips across Europe, starting in Paris and ending up in a choice of cities, including Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen or Geneva. The only restrictions that apply to these trips are that you have to book a 14-day minimum trip and you have to pay an extra charge to cover the relocation of your van afterwards. For example, a two-week trip starting September 8th in Paris and arriving in Rome by September 22nd costs €2,878 for a five-berth camper. This includes the one-way charge of €950.

German campervan hire company McRent (mcrent.eu) has a good value alternative. It uses only Dethleffs vehicles and has operations in France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy. It’s offering a motor home for a family of four, available from August 15th to September 2nd, for €1,500.

Italian rental company BluRent (blurent.com) has added vehicles designed for wheelchair users.

Finally, for a camper van with a difference, Clissmann’s Horsedrawn Caravans (clissmann.com) has horse power of the original kind to enjoy. Based in Co Wicklow, its caravans sleep up to two adults and three children with no mod cons to speak of, just gaslight, basic cooking facilities, bedding and loads of lovely scenery. Rentals range from €890 to €1,190 a week.

– SANDRA O'CONNELL


Róisín Ingle’s VW camper van “Ruby” was supplied by Tourtoise Tours (tourtiosetours.com). The lovingly restored vans are equipped with kitchen and fridge, chairs, table, bedding and quirky extras such as a Rubik’s cube. The price is £440 (€504) for a weekend and £740 (€848) for a week.

“Moondance” was supplied by Wicked Campers (wicked campers.com), a fleet of modified Toyotas. They come with a comfortable sleeping area, portable chairs, tables, five-person tent and cooking facilities, and can be rented from around £30 (€35) a day, which includes unlimited roadside assistance.