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Check in to an Airstream, check out the mystique (w/video)

If you have dreams of traveling to California and staying in a custom-designed Airstream, you'll find yourself in good company. • Take Keith and Nancy Orchard. They are your average suburbanites in their mid 40s, working in the high-tech sector in Palo Alto, with two middle schoolers, Amanda and Charlie. As they head down U.S. 101 in their SUV, Santa Barbara bound, they are off to vacation with two other families, take in the cool ocean breeze, soak up the city's chill vibe and catch the annual wacky and weird Solstice Parade, at which a city councilman dons a jester's hat and the mayor presides atop a Game of Thrones float. • And they will be staying at a trailer park.

• • •

After pulling into the Auto Camp, a tightly packed trailer village off a busy downtown Santa Barbara street, Nancy emerges from the car and starts hefting luggage toward their camper, saying, "Thank God we don't have to hook it up to anything."

Keith seems more amused than bemused by this new experience.

It's one thing to take an RV on the road, but being an Airstream aficionado can be quite another.

This is a distinct subset of the camper crowd. They are equal parts old-timers and hipsters, who like the simplicity of the 1950s or early '60s, appreciate the Airstream's sleek silver aluminum shell, the rounded corners riddled with rivets, the homey interior with lace curtains and brushed steel cabinets. These renters also tend to be romantics when it comes to travel, seeking the adventure of Airstream living without the muss and fuss of dealing with freshwater tank pumps and dumping of the, uh, not-so-fresh-water tanks.

Across California, Airstream parks or traditional RV parks with permanent Airstreams available for nightly rental have popped up with regularity, offering these silver bullets, these toasters on wheels, these airplane fuselages sans wings.

Santa Barbara's Auto Camp, which has five custom-designed Airstreams parked in front of a trailer park with permanent residents, has been featured in Sunset Magazine, Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Traveler. The Auto Camp is so popular, its owners are planning to open similar sites soon in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ventura.

Kate Pierson, the beehive-coiffed singer from the B-52s, has opened Kate's Lazy Desert Airstream Motel near Joshua Tree, with six vintage Airstreams. Flying Flags RV Park and Campground, in Buellton, a sprawling, upscale trailer park, rents 10 Airstreams. The quirky, French-themed Metro Hotel in Petaluma's wine country has parked a couple of 16-footers in its parking lot.

Even a few utilitarian KOA sites, like the campground in Santa Cruz, have hitched on to the Airstream trend.

It would be too easy to dismiss this Airstream revival as a fad, a traveler's version of the oh-so-ironic wearing of trucker hats or horn-rimmed glasses by hipsters. After all, actors Johnny Depp and Matthew McConaughey and rockers Eddie Vedder and Sheryl Crow own tricked-out tins, perhaps to burnish their Everyman street cred. Country crooner Miranda Lambert, owner of a 1954 Airstream she named "Wanda the Wanderer," even wrote a song about her trailer: Sometimes I wish I lived in an Airstream/Homemade curtains, live just like a gypsy/Break her heart and roll out of town/'Cause gypsies never get tied down.

But Airstreams are iconic, not merely a passing fancy on the roadways.

• • •

Inventor, writer and Stanford grad Wally Byam designed the aerodynamic rig in the 1920s, started his company in Los Angeles in 1930, and saw the business go on hiatus during World War II but then come back with a boom in the late 1940s.

The company, now based in Ohio, arguably had its heyday in the 1950s and '60s, when the Eisenhower-inspired interstate highway system encouraged travel. Even amid periodic gas crises and the push for more fuel-efficient means of transportation, Airstream keeps molding aluminum. Its factory still produces 50 trailers a week and, according to Investor's Business Daily, enjoyed a 59 percent increase in revenue in 2013 over the previous fiscal year.

Perhaps more impressive, the company boasts that 60 percent of all the trailers it has produced over the past 80 years are still in use. (Seven and a half of them, of course, remain installed at the Florida roadside attraction known as Airstream Ranch, a nod to Stonehenge, along Interstate 4 in Dover.)

Prices for restored vintage Airstreams vary wildly, depending on the age, the condition of the shell and the extent of the interior design. They easily sell for well into five figures. New Airstream travel trailers range from $40,000 to $95,000, depending on size and amenities.

Based on how expensive it is to own an Airstream, it's no wonder that driving to a park that rents stationary Airstreams is popular. Although that's not cheap, either: Most Airstream units, even the tiny 16-foot Bambi, rent for more than $200 a night.

Really, that much for sleeping in a tin can with varying degrees of water pressure in the snug shower?

"It was more than I thought it was going to be — it's hotel rates," said Colleen Baker of San Diego, who organized the three-family Airstream convocation at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp. "But it's a fun way to travel, and you don't have to tow it, park it and stow it."

Across the gravel walkway, Adam and Rosa Lund, also of San Diego, were impressed with their Airstream 1959 Overlander, redone in midcentury modern style, which manages to squeeze in one full bed, a pullout bed, a full kitchen and a bathroom with glass-tiled shower in 26 feet.

Adam, who calls himself a "hotel guy," acknowledged that Airstream rentals are "a thing now," but he's wondering if it will have staying power. "I'm curious to see, at 200 bucks a night, if they maintain a good occupancy rate and make money. I bet it sure wasn't cheap to retrofit this sucker, make it look as good as it is."

• • •

The Auto Camp owners enlisted local architect Matthew Hofmann to design the interiors. He used "exotic and locally sourced" hardwood and bamboo flooring, "hand-sanded pecan-stained birch interior and repurposed hardwood," and "solid, glacier-white Corian countertops and Cararra marble tile," as well as vintage (but new) metal fixtures. Each of the five Airstreams may be a work of art, but the most important interior element was the air-conditioning unit.

Even in temperate Santa Barbara, the aluminum can get broilerlike in a hurry sans the AC.

At the Flying Flags RV Park, part of Debbie Brannon's job is to go to each of the site's 10 Airstreams and turn on the ceiling AC unit well before guests check in. She knows that newbies to Airstream life won't notice the well-appointed interior if the thing feels like a sweatbox.

The 1968 Ambassador, 28 feet and nicknamed "Dorothy," was ice-bucket cold as Brannon unlocked the door. The interior looked like a '50s sitcom house, miniaturized.

"They did a fabulous job restoring this one," she said. "If you only could have seen them all when they got here. A lot of work. We had artists come in and decorate for us. The trailer next to this is all done in (a) Marilyn Monroe (theme). We've got one with a surfboard and sea shells. Each is different."

Meanwhile at Petaluma's Metro Hotel, the front desk clerk, Omar, said that whenever he tells Airstream guests that the hotel soon will replace its two 16-foot Bambis with three larger, newer models, "They always ask if they can buy the old ones. They ask seriously."

Not everyone has fallen for the Airstream mystique. One longtime RV observer, Paul Lacitinola, publisher of Vintage Camp Trailers website and magazine, seemed unimpressed.

"For me, they are a more generic trailer," he said. "I mean, they all do look the same. But it's got a huge following. There's no denying it. It's just such an iconic symbol, so identifiable.

"When I tell people I restore vintage camper trailers, they'll say, 'Oh, like an Airstream?' I've never owned an Airstream and I've owned hundreds of vintage trailers. But (Airstreams) are shiny, and people like that."

Where to stay

Auto Camp, 2717 De La Vina St., Santa Barbara, Calif.; toll-free 1-888-405-7553, ext. 1; $151-$202

Flying Flags RV Resort & Campground, 180 Avenue of Flags, Buellton, Calif.; toll-free 1-877-783-5247; $89-$99

Metro Hotel, 508 Petaluma Blvd. S, Petaluma, Calif.; (707) 773-4900; $109

Note: Daily cost may depend on type and time of year; these are early October midweek online rates.

Check in to an Airstream, check out the mystique (w/video) 08/21/14 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2014 6:14pm]
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