On previous visits to Hawaii, I stayed at traditional resorts and took day excursions by car. Standard vacation. But for a recent trip to...

Share story

On previous visits to Hawaii, I stayed at traditional resorts and took day excursions by car. Standard vacation. But for a recent trip to the Big Island and Maui, I wanted a change.

The alternative: a Volkswagen camper.

With mobile accommodations, I would no longer have to shuttle between the resort and the island’s constellation of attractions.

In my Volkswagen Westfalia camper, I would, in hippie parlance, have a more free-spirited, chase-the-tail-of-the-whale experience. I could be spontaneous with my schedule, because I knew that most of my needs (food, water, full-stretch sleep) lay just behind the driver’s seat.

And finally, in my drive-up hotel, I could snag $500-a-night ocean views without sacrificing my wallet.

“This is for the adventurer who wants to see Hawaii for what it really is,” said Teri Fritz, who runs Happy Campers Hawaii on the Big Island with her boyfriend, Bud Turpin. “You can drive up to the water’s edge, open up the back, and the beach is right there.”

In the entire state, only two companies rent campers: Happy Campers Hawaii (formerly GB Adventures) and Aloha Campers on Maui.

Both operations own a fleet of Westfalias, a camper van that appeared on the market in the 1950s and is the ride of choice for European road-trippers and American bohemians who consider a home address too bourgeois.

The vehicles come equipped with almost all the requisites for comfortable travel, including a propane tank for the stove, lights that run off the car’s battery, 15 gallons of running water and a pop-top roof.

The one thing missing is a bathroom, but you can always park near the washroom facilities or a porta-potty.

Fritz and Turpin anticipate every need: extra blankets, towels from bath to beach, sun umbrella, phone book, French coffee press, lug wrench. (Aloha Campers is less comprehensive but provides the basics.)

The Big Island is the youngest and largest landmass in the chain; Maui ranks second in size, at 729 square miles.

Both destinations have an abundance of campgrounds in parks (national, state, county) and on private land. The sites are perched on volcanic slopes and oceanside cliffs and salted along untouched shoreline.

Nightly fees are nominal, most under $10 and none topping $20. Some require reservations and permits; others are first-come, first-served.

Big Island camping

At the Hilo airport, on the east coast of the Big Island, I was greeted with a giant smile, a bear hug and a flower lei from Fritz, a jaunty blonde.

We drove to an adjoining lot to meet Turpin, a 25-year resident of Hawaii and former VW mechanic, and “Sedona,” my home and companion for the first part of the week.

The vehicle was painted the blue of a dawning sky and was as clean as a new car, showing little evidence of her 22 years. Turpin gave me the rundown, explaining with the care, concern and slight fright of a parent about to hand over the car keys to his teenager.

And with that, Mom and Dad let their untested kid drive off in their precious wheels. “Call if you need anything,” hollered Fritz.

At 4,028 square miles, the Big Island is more than twice the combined size of the other Hawaiian islands.

To save time, I planned my route: south to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, then west to Ho’okena Beach Park in South Kona, then back to the east coast to Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park, about 45 minutes north of Hilo.

The Namakanipaio campground in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sits up high, at 4,000 feet, and when the sun defers to the moon, the temperature drops. A chill nipped at my nose, and a gray fog drifted overhead, curling around volcanic rock formations. It was beautiful yet forlorn.

I started craving the comfort of my camper, whose interior lights glowed invitingly in the darkness.

Come morning, I was nudged awake by a sunbeam that shot through the back window and flickered across my face. My Hawaiian alarm clock.

I returned the bed to its day use (cushy couch), collapsed the pop-top and headed to the park entrance for a morning hike.

I completely misjudged the drive time from the park to the next campsite, though I could also blame my habit of stopping at every overlook to view the alien landscape of sculpted lava rock.

But, for once, I had a date to make: sunset on the beach of Ho’okena campground.

Ho’okena was much more social than the national park campground. Parents grilled, kids dug to China and a small band of guitar and ukulele players strummed free-form.

On to Maui

It was hard to leave my camper and the Big Island. But I knew that another Westfalia — and another island, Maui — was expecting me.

The burnished red vehicle from Aloha Campers also dated to the Reagan years. And although it wasn’t as immaculate as Sedona, I was now familiar enough with the camper’s layout and mechanics that I could overlook a few imperfections — until I got stuck in the supermarket parking lot, incapable of doing much more than stalling.

During my quick tutorial, Ariel Ferrer, the Argentine native who runs the business for the Romanian owner, explained how the stick shift was squirrelly and I had to go into second to reach first.

Sounded simple in theory, but in practice — well, let’s just say I almost needed a tow from Safeway.

Knowing that I was going to be driving Hana Road, the 52-mile dare whose beauty belies its peril (52 bridges, many one-lane, and 600 curves squished between sheer rock and ocean drops), I wanted a sturdy, smooth-shifting car. So, I drove back to the shop and traded it for an automatic model.

Halfway to Hana, I found my place at a YMCA camp.

“This is the best deal on the island,” said Kala “Charles” Kahiwahiwaokalani, who with his wife, Linda Harrison, helps maintain the YMCA Camp Keanae. It offers dorm rooms and cottages, but all I needed was a parking spot.

Kahiwahiwaokalani led me to some of the best footage on the property: a manicured plot fronted by a cliff that plunged toward the tidy taro fields and crashing waves of Keanae Peninsula.

As I sat behind the wheel adjusting my position, it was as if I were in a drive-in nature movie, admission $17 (for a night’s camping).

Next day, the couple invited me to see their taro patch; they harvest it twice a week in exchange for rent. Demand for the tropical vegetable is high — it is used to make poi, a mainstay of the Hawaiian diet.

Kahiwahiwaokalani handed me a small plastic cup of poi. In the hot field, the cold and slippery mash was refreshing.

“We want to start tours so people understand what we farmers do and how we take care of the aina,” said Harrison, using the Hawaiian word for land. It was an honor to be part of their pilot program.