When the sun started to set over the Pacific Ocean, I sprang into motion. I pulled off Highway 1 and parked alongside bluffs softened by swaying grass. I opened the rear hatch, filled the kettle from the sink faucet and lit the gas stove. While the water boiled, I prepared the penthouse. Ladder down, shelter up.
I climbed into the rooftop tent, tea in hand, and watched the fiery orb drop like the New Year’s Eve ball. After the sun completed its descent, I tapped my legs against the vehicle, transmitting a Morse code of contentment to my buddy on this California road trip.
Meet Jucy, the camper-van rental company that was founded in New Zealand in 2001, expanded to Australia and, four years ago, opened three U.S. locations in the states: Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Bay Area.
The Jucy Champs – custom-designed Dodge Caravans – stand out in traffic. The mini-RVs are painted asparagus green with purple accents and wear a rooftop carrier like a hard hat. Lettering on the exterior hints at the domesticated world within: “This Jucy RV comes with everything including the kitchen sink.”
To be sure, an entire house – minus the bathroom – squeezes into a 17-foot frame. Erect the table in the center space, and the back transforms into a den or dining room. Pop a movie into the DVD player, and bask in your own private theater. Unfold the seats and wrap the cushions in linens, and a bedroom for two materializes. Raise the structure on the roof for additional sleeping quarters. Open the rear door for the much-heralded kitchen.
And when the road beckons, simply revert Jucy to its firstborn role.
Filling a nicheThe minivans occupy a niche bracketed by RV-tripping and car camping. In a Jucymobile, for example, I could maneuver along narrow, curvy roads, such as the Pacific Coast Highway, with temerity and park without fear of toppling trees. I could reserve tent sites, which are often more numerous than RV spots and cook and sleep without having to disturb the ghosts of Girl Scouts. The only skill required: folding furniture.
In mid-November, during the off-season, I booked a car for three nights, at a cost of $55 per night. The winter price included a personal kit with bedding and towels for four people and 100 miles per day. Knowing my penchant for wandering (translation: getting lost), I paid an additional $36 to double my mileage allotment for the entire adventure. I drafted a rough route that started in San Francisco, wriggled south to Big Sur and looped back through Mountain View. I didn’t set a hard plan because I knew that no matter where I was, I would always have room and board for the night.
Learning the ropesThe Jucy outpost sits a few miles from the Oakland airport, buttressed by the usual air transportation businesses. Several campers lined the lot, a cheery bolt of color in the otherwise drab landscape.
I shared my itinerary with the employee. I was concerned about exceeding my mileage limit. Her calculation (about 400 miles) allayed one of my biggest fears: having to pay 25 cents per additional mile.
We stepped outside for a quick tour of the vehicle. She showed me how to set up the bed (remember to push the front seats forward) and free the penthouse from its carapace (release ladder and straps, then press the magic button with the engine on).
She warned me not to store luggage or heavy objects upstairs when on the move. In the kitchen, which comes with a fridge and dishware, she demonstrated the lighting of the single-burner stove, which pulls out like a secret drawer hidden under the sink. She said that one butane canister can last for 90 minutes to three hours of cooking.
An easy driveThe 70-mile route to Santa Cruz is a roller-coaster ride of sharp curves, steep climbs and winding plunges. Behind me, my luggage reeled and the dishes rattled with each elbow poke in the road. However, the Champ stayed in its lane and easily kept up with the SUVs and sports cars, as well as its hippie ancestor, the VW camper.
I had booked a campsite at Sunset State Beach, south of Santa Cruz, but didn’t feel any pressure to arrive before dusk: Jucy comes with interior lights. My trip coincided with the winter migration of the monarch butterflies, which vacation in Natural Bridges State Beach from October through February.
A few hiccupsMoment-of-truth time: How well had I listened to the Jucy instructions?
Verdict: Pretty well, but definitely room for improvement.
At my first campsite, I set up the bed without any serious struggles and used the two bags of bedding to build a sultan’s lair. For a pre-dinner stroll in the moonlight, I decided to make a cup of tea. I dug out the kettle from the cabinet and removed the cutting board covering the sink. I pushed hard on the pump. Air hissed at me. Across the way, a pair of tent campers had laid out a spread of burgers, chips, beer and a jug of water. I enviously eyed their nonalcoholic beverage.
Plan B: Hit up the bathroom sink.
For the stove, I struggled with the butane can, which refused to lock into place. I switched it out with the other can. Come on, Jucy, light my fire. I poured the tea into a thermos (my own) and ventured toward the beach. A few feet away, I saw a sight worthy of a detour. Hint: It was green and purple.
Through the windshield, I spotted a Jucy compatriot sitting in the back seat, flipping through photos on his computer. I knocked on the window and introduced myself. He told me that he had started in Los Angeles and was on his third night in the camper. I asked him whether he had experienced any problems. He mentioned a busted USB port and a fluky fridge. I told him about my sink drought. He advised me to throw some muscle into it and the water would gush forth. And for my parting question: Had he overnighted in the penthouse?
“I spent the first night in the tent, and it was cold,” he said. “I had to warm up with oatmeal and tea, and I bought a blanket.”
Since then, he had slept only in the main cabin.