Sean O'Grady: Camper vans - All the home comforts, not too bad to drive

I never knew you could plug a camper van into the mains. Did you? The revelation came to me in the Carlyon Bay Caravan and Camping Park, Cornwall. All I had done on taking delivery of our test vehicle, a new Volkswagen California camper van, was hop in it and drive down there, slightly dreading the idea of living in the thing.

One assumption was that the only way to keep warm when resting in a vehicle is to leave the engine running and turn the heater on. Given the unacceptable cost and waste of fuel involved, as well as due deference to the planet, I was prepared for a chilly few nights as I enjoyed the fag end of "summer". But no such privations were endured.

Campsites these days – apologies to those of you who are weatherbeaten regulars – have these little posts in the ground and you plug your camper into one. Then, using a continental to UK mains adaptor, I found I could plug in a portable DVD player, and watch the original Saw movie in the middle of a field. Not good for the nerves.

The second revelation was that this beautifully crafted VW has an auxiliary heater system that just uses a little diesel to keep the van warm – and leaves the engine off. It is effective. While it is keeping the van warm, a similar secondary motor is keeping the mini-fridge cool. The kitchen, such as it is, consists of the fridge lid (worktop), a twin gas hob plus a little sink, with the water pumped up from an on-board tank.

Your California also has two double beds, one constructed from the rear bench seat plus a sort of ledge in the boot and the other in the pop-up tent in the roof. This, I hasten to add, is electrically driven, so no mucking about with spanners in the middle of the night.

The third revelation was less of a shock. The VW California isn't too bad to drive. An awful lot better than Jamie Oliver's classic 1961 VW "Samba" camper I had a go in a few months back, at any rate. I kind of suspected it because I knew the California was based on the VW Transporter, which, like most vans, is designed to help its driver to spend lots of time in its cabin. Thus, the seats were excellent.

However, it is still a van. That means that you will not get, even for your £38,000 outlay, steering wheel controls for the stereo, or decent handling, and it is a bit too big to park easily. Obviously, it's able to keep up, but unless you use the slightly incongruous "S" setting on the auto gearbox, you are going to be holding up the rest of the traffic, in true Emmet style.

Emmet, in case you didn't know, is the derogatory Cornish term for an idiot tourist – like me. Maybe, but at least I didn't fall for that bogus website promoting Porthemmet, "a palm-fringed Cornish beach where topless sunbathing is encouraged". Carlyon Bay and St Ives were scarcely less lovely than that elegiac-sounding hoax. Dha weles!

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