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Exploring van life in Southern California beach towns, where ‘roughing it’ feels good

Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 camper van at the beach in Carlsbad, Calif.Alex Pulaski

Was a time, back in my father’s day, that the ideal ride for a multiday exploration of Southern California beach towns meant commandeering a bare-bones VW van.

Oh, how camper vans have changed with the times. Today, a host of companies — from RVshare to Outdoorsy to GoCamp — unleash armadas of such shared vehicles onto the country’s highways and backroads.

Relatively small and maneuverable, these Class B motorhomes nevertheless carry a hefty price tag — around $100,000 on average, but $250,000 or more for tricked-out versions. For those still new to van life (that includes me and my wife, Mica) renting makes a lot of sense.

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“Trying out a Class B can be a really fantastic way to dip a toe into the water of owning an RV,” says Colorado-based author Marc Bennett, who along with his wife, Julie, operate the RV Love website. “They drive very much like a regular vehicle, and as you’re exploring, you’ve got everything with you at all times.”

We ended up selecting a 2021 Mercedes Sprinter van through RVshare after sifting through hundreds of listings on multiple sites. I like the RVshare platform’s ease of use, and this van’s high-tech setup (power lift bed, touch-screen controls, galley with fridge and sink, plumbed toilet and shower, and plentiful water and power capacity) fit our needs.

Inside the Sprinter RV.Maher Boulos

The expense of equipping a modern camper van translates to higher rental costs, especially after taxes, website fees, cleaning, and oft-compulsory insurance are added. When campground fees ($50-$120 or so a night) and fuel are factored in, it’s easy to see daily costs run north of $600.

“One of the coolest things about camper vans is they are so self-sustainable, but all that pricey equipment means they tend to be more expensive for renters,” said Maddi Bourgerie, RVshare’s director of communications. “It can be a little shocking.”

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The tradeoff? The freedom to roam in your home, transport bikes and other gear easily, change plans quickly and park without breaking into a cold sweat.

We met Maher Boulos at his home in San Pedro, Calif., where the white Sprinter sat gleaming in the driveway.

“This is your home away from home,” he said. Twenty minutes later, after a quick run-through of the vehicle’s capabilities, I was behind the wheel and headed toward the beaches of northern San Diego County and three endearing cities: Oceanside, Carlsbad, and Encinitas.

They’re the kind of places that after a couple of hours compel you to scan real-estate magazines, then wonder why you didn’t manage your 401(k) plan better.

Fin Hamrick, 6, at the end of a boogie-board ride at D Street Beach in Encinitas.Alex Pulaski

Caught up in the lure of beach towns

The Pacific Coast Highway, US Route 101, roughly traces El Camino Real (“the King’s road”) that Franciscan friars blazed to connect California’s Spanish missions in the late 1700s. It remained a major Southern California thoroughfare until the 1960s, when Interstate 5 went through.

The beachside cities retain architectural vestiges from years past, but have been spruced up with colorful murals, open-air restaurants, and eclectic shops. Surf shops abound, as do hip coffee houses (faves: Vigilante Coffee Company in Oceanside, The Goods in Carlsbad, and Better Buzz in Encinitas) and microbreweries (Pure Project in Carlsbad).

We had originally planned to push from Orange County’s Dana Point (45 minutes from Disneyland) as far south as San Diego. But after a couple of days in and around Oceanside-Carlsbad-Encinitas we felt trapped within some sort of beach-happy tractor beam, and canceled our camping reservations further south.

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Inside the Sprinter RV.Maher Boulos

Our neighbors at the clean, modern, and aptly named Paradise by the Sea Beach RV Resort in Oceanside validated our view.

“We were supposed to be here five days,” one told me. “But we liked it so much we decided to stay another week.”

The three cities share a 15-mile stretch of Highway 101 that parallels the Pacific Ocean. Bike lanes are plentiful and clearly marked, and we cycled from downtown Oceanside to the lovely Mission San Luis Rey one day, and got a gentle electric assist from Pedego e-bikes for the 18-mile round trip between Carlsbad and Encinitas on another.

We checked out the modern and vintage boards at the California Surf Museum, picked (and ate) red-ripe strawberries at Carlsbad Strawberry Company, and watched egrets and pelicans fishing for lunch on a kayak paddle in Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon. We puttered around the Oceanside Harbor in a Duffy electric boat, laughing at how owners had chosen to name their vessels (Endorfin, Liquid Liability, Attitude Adjustment).

Downtown Encinitas offers a blend of shops and open-air restaurants.Alex Pulaski

We browsed bookstores and boutiques, got a lot of sand wedged in our toes, and consumed more than our fair share of ice cream cones and gelato. We made sandwiches for lunch in the van and treated ourselves to dinner out, including the ridiculously tasty calamari and agave bacon tacos at Local Tap House & Kitchen in Oceanside.

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When I was kid, our camping vacations weren’t noted for their culinary daring, constrained by both limited budgets and imaginations. The Coleman camp stove disgorged a steady stream of pancakes and fried trout, with bacon grease as a primary component.

How to make sense then, a half-century later, of the dishes emerging from the Carlsbad kitchen of Campfire, chef Eric Bost’s paean to live-fire cooking? A succession of wagyu skewers, charred broccoli, smoky chicken, and tender brisket left us wanting only …

… s’mores, prepared tableside over hot coals. We made a fantastic, gooey, delicious mess, before retiring to our camper van. Piloting this home away from home on our final night, I could comfortably conclude that roughing it had never felt so good.

Alex Pulaski can be reached at alpulaski@icloud.com.

Eduvina Escalante adds to the rows of s’mores doughnuts at The Goods in Carlsbad.Alex Pulaski