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There is a car museum in Los Angeles to which I sometimes take my children on quiet weekends. It has hundreds of classic cars: a Model T Ford; a Bugatti; wide, sweeping Cadillacs – even a genuine Batmobile – and a diner that serves terrific milkshakes.
Next to the museum entrance is an aluminium trailer, curved like a rocket and still shiny, despite being decades old. It is an original Airstream Clipper and when I was asked if I wanted to take my family on an Airstream holiday, it was the first thing that came to mind.
The company that launched the first “recreational vehicle” in 1932 has updated its trailers over the years. Today’s Airstreams are like miniature luxury apartments and are priced accordingly: top-of-the-range models can cost more than $100,000, which is beyond the reach of casual travellers who want to experience a road trip in their own piece of Americana.
Enter Airstream 2 Go, a new business started by Dicky Riegel, a former Airstream chief executive, with the aim of allowing everyone from curious tourists to diehard Airstream fans to rent one. Riegel was with Airstream for 16 years – “cut me and I bleed silver” he says – and realised there was an untapped market. “Anytime anybody discovered I had anything to do with Airstream, they would ask me, ‘How do I rent one?’ ”
Airstream 2 Go is owned by Riegel and has an exclusive licence from the manufacturer to rent the trailers. Wally Byam, who founded Airstream – he made his first trailer in 1929, building a platform on the chassis of a Model T Ford – placed as much importance on design as on functionality, and the aluminium panelled trailer that he eventually constructed became an American design classic. Over the years, Airstreams have been beloved of Hollywood stars as much as adventurous road warriors who embraced Byam’s creed of travel with “all the comforts of home”.
We have three children – two aged four and a seven-year-old – and have not pursued many adventurous trips in recent years (I still bear emotional scars of long-haul flights from Los Angeles to London with baby twins). But we thought a road trip was worth a try. So early one winter morning we awoke in the dark, packed our car and drove to San Gabriel, a suburb east of Los Angeles and one of two Airstream 2 Go pick-up locations (the other is in Las Vegas). When we arrived, my eldest son looked at the contoured, gleaming trailer admiringly. “It looks,” he said, pausing for a moment, “like a giant silver cucumber.”
The 28ft-long trailer was more than our Honda minivan could tow. Fortunately, Airstream 2 Go provides its customers with a GMC Yukon Denali, a beast of a sport utility vehicle that can easily tow such a long, heavy load. An orientation is essential before driving off so Cliff Uyeda and Mona Heath, two extremely patient managers, showed my wife and I how to reverse and park the trailer, detach it from the car and connect it to electricity and water outlets at campgrounds.
The Airstream can sleep up to six, with a double bedroom and two fold-out beds in the living area. The interior of the current generation of trailers has been redesigned by Christopher Deam, a San Francisco-based architect, who has packed it with space-saving storage compartments and high-tech wizardry, giving it a polished, mid-century modern feel. Its multitude of home comforts include up-to-date equipment: a flatscreen television, DVD player, iPod dock, coffee maker, fridge-freezer, hobs, oven and microwave – even cables to be connected to campsite cable television systems. A storage space contains a gas-fired barbecue, chairs, tables and solar-powered lights that can be hung from a retractable awning. There is even an external shower for washing sandy feet after a day at the beach.
It was a lot to take in so, in case we forgot how anything worked, we were given an iPad preloaded with information about the trailer. Three hours after arriving, we slowly – and slightly apprehensively – hit the road.
We had planned a four-night, five-day itinerary with Off the Beaten Path, Airstream 2 Go’s tour operator partner. Renters can opt just to take the hardware or to include this assistance, and it is useful – particularly for holidaymakers flying in from other countries, unsure of which areas to explore. We were heading up the California coast and our first destination was Ocean Mesa, a campground 20 miles north of Santa Barbara.
It took a while to get used to towing the trailer – particularly driving down hills, when it is best to switch from automatic to manual transmission – but within a couple of hours I stopped fretting. Pretty soon we had cleared the Los Angeles suburbs and San Fernando Valley, the Pacific swung into view and before long we had driven through Santa Barbara and were pulling into our campsite.
Ocean Mesa, a short walk from a lovely beach, is so fancy that “glamping” doesn’t do it justice. Other patrons were making themselves at home when we pulled up: we saw one family unloading a huge, widescreen TV that they set up under the awning of their gigantic, double-decker trailer. We were eager to explore but first had to park the trailer and unhook the car, so while my wife took the kids for a walk I wrestled with the hitching mechanism. There was no shortage of passers-by willing to help the flailing Brit. After much grappling, I had detached the trailer and connected it to electricity and water. We were set for the night and with the sun coming down we drove into Santa Barbara for dinner.
We got up early the next day and headed to the beach, taking care to avoid the holidaying Los Angeles hipsters ordering skinny soya lattes at the camp store. It was a sunny day so the kids splashed about while we drank our coffee. We didn’t want to leave without trying the pool and hot tub, which were so pleasant that we seriously considered postponing the rest of the trip and staying put. But like the best frontier explorers – albeit ones towing a luxurious trailer with a flatscreen TV – we kept going.
Our next stop was San Simeon campground, not far from William Randolph Hearst’s Xanadu-esque Hearst Castle. The going was slow but the scenery was wonderful, the coastline increasingly rugged the further north we went. It was twilight when we reached the campground, which was much more basic than Ocean Mesa.
We found a quiet spot on a hill next to some other RVs and I tried valiantly to reverse the trailer into place. I couldn’t do it. After several failed attempts, one of the other campers took pity and helped me guide it in.
The trailer really came into its own in San Simeon. We set up the solar lights on the awning and fired up the barbecue, cooking steaks and hot dogs. I made a campfire and spent the rest of the night trying to stop the kids from putting their hands in it. We even had enough water in the trailer’s tank to wash the dishes.
Our longest drive was on Highway 1 the next day, and it was the most spectacular of the journey. The road hugs the coast and tightly winds around the cliffs. With the trailer, the corners were a little dicey – I rarely got out of second gear. We stopped for lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant on Big Sur, built high on the rock. The views are stunning and we spotted a pod of whales on their way south, so close to the shore that we could see them blowing clouds of spray.
Two hours later we pulled up to our final stop in an RV park in Monterey, close to a windswept beach and vast dunes. A fishing town with barking sea lions that serenade diners in harbourside restaurants, Monterey was the setting for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and has an aquarium that is worth visiting. After two nights in Monterey, we headed back to Los Angeles on the very flat Interstate 5, a big contrast with our journey north because it is possibly the most boring stretch of road in the US.
The more we drove, the more it became clear how much affection there is on the road for the trailer. Passing motorists would slow down to look at it and fellow Airstream drivers would give a thumbs-up as they passed. On our last petrol stop, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, a woman pulled up alongside us and got out of her car. She stood in front of the Airstream for a moment before taking a picture of it, turning to me and grinning. “Beautiful!” she said.
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s media editor
Matthew Garrahan was a guest of Airstream 2 Go (airstream2go.com). A three-day trip in a 28ft Airstream costs from $1,950, rising to $2,400 for a fully planned itinerary including pre-paid bookings at campgrounds