Smiles and smiles to go in a vintage VW bus

Looking shiny and new, this ’79 VW bus was a hit on the road.
(Alison Howard / For The Times)

The first smile came from the mechanic at the Jiffy Lube at the bottom of the hill. You know you’re on to something good when you can make a tired guy light up, even if it’s just for a second, at the end of a long workweek.

By the time the weekend was over, we’d amassed way too many smiles to count and moved on to peace signs. (My favorites: from the surfer who looked like a bleached-blond Jesus and the panhandler who carried a sign saying, “I won’t lie. I need beer.”)

I’d like to think it was because we gals were so fetching, but I must admit it was probably — OK, certainly — the thing we were riding in: a spring-pea-green vintage VW camper with a paint job so shiny you could imagine that it was 1979 and that we’d just driven it off the showroom floor.

It was my birthday, and I wanted to do something different this year. VW buses have always been a personal good-luck charm; I make a wish whenever I see one. So when I found an outfit in Orange County called Vintage Surfari Wagons that restores and rents them, I knew it was time for a vintage VW road trip up the Southern California coast.

My friends Maria and Star were game, and my sister, Alison, made it really special by flying down from Seattle and joining us. (Odd travel fact: Alaska has nonstop flights from Seattle to Santa Barbara.)

Party time!

So we could get an early start, Maria picked up the VW and learned all the quirky ins and outs of the 33-year-old bus. First thing: It’s a bus. The steering wheel has a very Ralph Kramden vibe, horizontal instead of vertical, and it has this slightly unnerving combination of having lots of give and needing some muscle to steer (More on that later.)

As Surfari’s Bill Staggs told Maria, you must remember that you have nothing in front of you and miles of bus behind you. I was glad it was a stick shift, and I wouldn’t have to be tested driving Honu Liu, as our sweet bus was called. (Maria earned major respect from her passengers when she backed into a cramped spot on Goleta’s main drag.)

The Friday rush-hour drive to Santa Barbara wasn’t too nightmarish, although I had visions of a sudden traffic jam and being buried by the gigantic pile of firewood that we had stacked on the floor. But we didn’t get to El Capitán State Beach campground until well after dark, and we were surprised to find it crowded even though it was a cool winter weekend.

I asked the ranger about it the next day. Turns out all the high-surf advisories for Santa Barbara had been catnip to Southern California surfers. That’s when I started noticing that there were lots of vans in the campground, and they were carrying boards.

But lucky for us, the waves already had peaked, because on Saturday the camp emptied out, and we snagged a dream campsite two spots down. Ocean view, sheltering trees, that great smell of eucalyptus, lots of privacy. Bliss! (Yes, I’ll give you the number: 42.)

I wish I’d videotaped our scramble to claim the new site, especially the decamping of the tent. Three of us were bunking in the bus, which popped out to sleep four, two up and two down. (More on that later too.) But Maria was tenting it, and we looked like some kind of outdoorsy Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as we held it aloft, still assembled, to the dream spot.

Then it was time to really set up our nest. When we go camping, there’s none of that minimalist backpacking stuff. And when we have a roomy van with lots of ingenious German cubbyholes, watch out.

Surfari had kitted out the bus with all the essentials for cooking and eating. But this trip wasn’t just about essentials. Let’s see: Vintage picnic gear, check. Midcentury cherry-red cooler, check. Japanese and Chinese lanterns for a party-in-the-pines atmosphere, check. Brightly colored granny blankets tossed just so over the upper bunk, check.

Speaking of the bunk, we made a slightly panicky late-evening phone call to Bill the first night when we couldn’t get the top to pop. Just as he returned the call (sounding not unused to such interruptions, and very sweet about it), we heard the satisfying clunk of the top releasing. Maria had figured it out: Pull out the knob while you pull down the handle. Voilà!

I tried both bunks, and I liked the top better for its pup-tent feel and the little screened windows that let you see the early-morning glow over the ocean. The beds, by the way, were about the size of a double, so there’s room to share, but you’ll want to make sure it’s someone you’re close to (like, say, your sister).

Oh, and the first time someone in the other bunk moves in the night? It’s not a small earthquake.

Another note to Southern Californians: The combination of Santa Ana winds and what the traffic reports call a high-profile vehicle can be a bit nerve-racking.

I was sitting in the back (which in a VW bus is way back) on one jaunt, so I didn’t feel the gust that Maria and Star said later they thought was going to send us tumbling to the ocean. But I did hear the gasp upfront as Maria struggled with that loose-tight steering.

The wind was a bit spooky when we took a midday trip through the San Marcos Pass for lunch at Cold Spring Tavern, a magical place that feels like another century (and I don’t mean the 20th). It didn’t take long for cars to pile up behind us — another parade — but I don’t think the other drivers got too tense. We were polite and used the pullouts, and besides, Honu Liu was just so cute.

When the wind died down, we had gorgeous weather. Beautiful blue skies, shimmering ocean and lots of sun-basking spots. A bit chilly at night, but that’s what the fire pit is for, right?

I ask you, is there anything better than sitting around a bonfire, drinking wine with good friends, and even better, sisters, and talking about life and love?

Unless it’s falling asleep to the sound of pounding surf and far-off bongos (kind of a hippie lullaby) in our vintage VW bus.