I’ve been seduced by #vanlife before.
My first love affair was a six-month journey of highest highs and lowest lows in a used minivan I converted myself. It began brilliantly, hopping between national parks in the Southwest, sleeping under the stars, but as the months passed, our relationship wore thin. Alone and lonely, I obsessed over the basic things I’d taken for granted in real life: a private toilet, running water, refrigeration.
For a few years after, I wanted nothing to do with van life. "Would you ever do it again?" people would ask when they heard about my adventure. "Maybe someday," I’d say.
But I couldn’t quite quit van life. Eventually, the itch came back. I wasn’t ready to take on a multi-month trip yet, but like running into a college sweetheart in later life, I now knew enough about myself to know what I need in a camper van. Cabana, SF’s luxe new camper van rental, has it all.
A kitchen with a two-burner stove and sink pulls out the back of the van from where it's stored under the queen-size bed.(Courtesy of @cabanavans)
When I pick up my Cabana chariot from its stable in a parking lot across from Stonestown Galleria, the first thing I do is confirm its amenities. Private bath with a flushing toilet and hot shower? Check. A sink with running water? Check. A generously sized refrigerated drawer? Check, check, check.
There’s a queen-sized bed made up in clean white linens, an LED TV and WiFi, a clever pull-out seating area with a table, a storage closet and bins, an electric kettle and coffee, towels and Ursa Major toiletries. From the back of the van slides a kitchen with a two-burner camp stove (and propane to run it), another sink, and a bin filled with cooking essentials like pans, cutlery, and a sponge. Now this, this is the kind of #vanlife I can get on board with—literally.
Originally, we’d intended to head out to Hope Valley in the Sierra. I contacted the experts at Cabana’s free trip planning service for some recommendations on where to stay and what to do while there. They sent me back a nicely organized five-page plan with two campsite options, a few hiking trails, and a couple of beaches and hot springs. Unfortunately, their—or, more accurately, my—timing was a little off: In early May, neither campground was open yet and with the winter snowpack still high, some of the trails would be impassable with boots alone.
So we pivoted to the Russian River, booking a Hipcamp site in a small fruit orchard in Occidental last minute. On a Friday afternoon, it’ll take about two-and-a-half hours to get there and, while I’m mildly terrified to drive this behemoth, it isn’t quite as massive as I expected it to be. Once we’re out of the city and headed north through Marin, my white knuckles fade and I relax into the drive.
The interior pull-out seating area in a Cabana camper van.(Courtesy of @cabanavans)
It rains the whole way up and, in the hope that it’ll taper off in the evening, we make a pit stop at Occidental’s historic Union Hotel Saloon (3731 Main St.) to wait with drinks in hand. But the drizzle keeps on. Eventually, losing the light, we head to the campsite anyway, braving the rain long enough to make a couple of quesadillas, then putting together the interior seating area so we can sit with the door open and watch it fall.
It’s still wet the next morning and we lie warm and cozy in bed, listening to its patter on the rooftop solar panels. By the time we’re caffeinated and dressed, the sun is shining. We head to our favorite local bakery, Wild Flour Bread (140 Bohemian Hwy, Freestone) for scones and cheesy fougasse and pick up a few goodies for later from the Duncans Mills General Store (25200 CA-116). The rest of the day is spent hiking around the beautifully secluded Islands in the Sky. Afterwards, we drive the last couple miles out to the coast for our own personal happy hour.
At the mouth of the Russian River in Jenner, I pull the van into a turnout above a harbor seal nursery where baby pinnipeds test out the waters around the protected beach. From the van we pull out camp chairs, cold local beer and cheese, and what’s left from our morning bakery run. For an hour we watch the newborns scoot and flop and occasionally wander off, chased by their exhausted caregivers. It’s absolutely perfect.
On the way home the next morning, my partner and I have the conversation we’ve been having more and more lately: Would we be happy living the van life on a semi-permanent basis? If we’re serious about it, we could even buy this exact design; Cabana sells their already tricked out campers used (from $85,000) and new (from $140,000). It’s sure a hell of a lot cheaper than buying a cabin.
We’re no closer to answering the question when we pull into the van’s parking spot and tap the Cabana app to officially return it. They’ll take care of all the cleaning and trash removal, and will refill the water and propane (the only thing we’re responsible for is refilling the gas tank before drop off). That, I remind my partner, is one of the biggest perks of renting versus owning.
So, maybe I’m not quite ready to live the van life again but I’m not ruling it out down the line. In the meantime, the next time I get a craving, there’s always Cabana.
// Cabana offers van pickup in San Francisco at 511 Buckingham Way, Lot J (Lake Merced) and in the East Bay at 3524 Breakwater Ave. (Hayward); cabana.life.