Our holiday cottage looked idyllic in the photograph. It was perched atop a dune on the narrow strip of sand known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and to reach it we would need a serious off-roader capable of driving the last 10 miles down a soft, sandy beach. It would be wild, rugged and peaceful; our only neighbours would be wild horses, descendants of those brought over by the Spanish 400 years ago.
We chose a Toyota FJ Cruiser for the trip, reckoning that nothing would be more apt than taking the giant Tonka toy for a blast in a giant sandbox. The FJ is the latest Japanese product putting the willies up the US Big Three manufacturers. Everyone knows Toyota makes reliable, functional, boring products - moms like them. But this? When the 2003 concept appeared, everyone went mad for it, and by February 2005 it was on the streets in bright Early Learning Centre colours.
The FJ echoes the look of the cult FJ40 off-roader, which finally left the building in 1983, and it's funky both inside and out. The cabin is brightened by lots of colourful metal and chrome. The cliff-like console is topped with a solid bar shape, and industrial-looking mouldings are revealed in the doorshuts. I particularly like the optional monster of a subwoofer disguised as a ghetto blaster.
I'd tried out the FJ on a course designed to show its mountain-goat skills, even with a couple of wheels off the ground, and was mightily impressed. So I had no worries about the beach, so long as we got there when the sun was up and the tide was out.
We hit a hitch as we loaded up. Toyota quotes a load area of 27.9 cubic feet of luggage space behind the rear seat, and 66.8 cubic feet when the rear seat is folded, but we couldn't fit our large Samsonites in without folding the seats. Our friends were setting off in their Chevy Tahoe, a vast, ugly machine, as common on American roads as a Ford Ka in the UK, and frequently seen with eight of its nine seats full of children in football pads, plus a mom at the wheel. Today, the family was rattling around in it, but they would have been hard-pushed to fit their cargo of two adults, one 12-year-old son, luggage for three, a large Chesapeake hound, and an elderly, deaf poodle into the Toyota.
It soon became clear, too, that the FJ is not a bundle of laughs to drive. The body-on-frame structure that provides such excellent off-road ability makes it feel truck-like to drive, and the 3,956cc, six-cylinder engine, delivering 239bhp at 5,200rpm and 278lb ft of torque, provides steady, if not lively performance. The smooth six-speed auto makes the most of the available power, though, and the FJ was commendably quiet. This, combined with supportive seats and a well-controlled ride, made it a comfortable place to while away the hours. We plugged in the iPod and tried to relax as we watched the painfully slow arrow inching across the satnav screen.
Having no children on board, we were spared the chorus of "Are we there yet? He hit me! I feel sick!", but the FJ frequently demanded a stop and a drink. Its 17mpg city/21mpg highway fuel consumption is pretty standard in the US, but I yearned for a frugal diesel model. A punchy turbodiesel would be more fun on and off the road, but strict emissions regulations have all but cleared US roads of diesel cars and SUVs, and Toyota has no plans to introduce one.
Having only lived in the US for two years, Richard and I still make the mistake of looking at a map and saying, "We can do that in a couple of hours...." On this trip, we underestimated by about six hours. As we crawled up Highway 12 to Corolla behind a vast motorhome, the sun was heading for the horizon. That it was sinking behind a huge Kmart was disturbing, but we were more concerned that the tide table indicated that the ocean would be heading in fast.
We had instructions to let our tyres down to 20psi to provide as large a footprint as possible on the silk-soft sand. We'd wondered all the way whether we should bother. But as the road ran out, making a dead heat with the light, we joined the queue of other people doing just that.
We filtered out on to a sandy freeway, following a line of red tail lamps as far as we could see, matched by another line of glaring oncoming headlamps.
As the waves foamed to our right, a wall of sand dunes rose on our left. But at every milepost, a road had been gouged through, and we could see the lights blazing from estates of holiday cottages behind.
At least the Toyota drove as if it were on firm ground. During the weekend, we saw a few vehicles stuck, wheels spinning helplessly. But when the time came to clamber out of our rut and up the shifting beach, the FJ didn't hesitate.
On our first morning, we spotted some miserable-looking horses wandering around. They would move without haste to the side every time an SUV passed, but plenty are hit by traffic. In 1926, between 5,000 and 6,000 roamed these banks; now there are fewer than 300 left.
We walked out to the beach with our towels, but soon found ourselves tripping and stumbling across the huge ruts left by constant traffic.
I don't know why it didn't occur to me before. If an SUV allows me to drive into the wilderness, then, of course, they allow everyone else to do the same, and that, unfortunately, just ruins the place for everybody.
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