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Van Go

Travel Feature

Written by Haley Shapley

What happens when you yearn for adventure but also delight in the comforts of home? Harley Sitner has the answer: a fully stocked Volkswagen camper van.

Based in Seattle, Peace Vans began life as a Volkswagen repair shop in the SoDo neighborhood. Sitner discovered it five years ago, just when it was about to close operations. Instead of letting that happen—VW vans can be tricky to maintain, and why mess with a good thing once you’ve found it?—Sitner bought the business.

Although he had no experience as a mechanic or anything related, he decided it was a worthwhile challenge to try to turn the struggling shop around. “I thought it’d be a fun adventure,” he says. “And I thought it’d be an interesting test to apply the skills I’d learned over 20 years [in the tech industry] to more of a blue-collar industry and see if I could be successful in that. Plus, it’s just a plain ol’ awesome product to be around every day.”

After turning Peace Vans into the largest shop of its kind in the country, he decided it was time to take on the next challenge: adding a rental component.

Anything Can Happen

If you haven’t taken a peek at the hashtag #vanlife on Instagram, you might not realize how coveted the idea of traveling by van is these days. In an article last year, The New Yorker explained #vanlife as “a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.”

Of course, with a rental, you only get to escape that world for a week or two at a time, but even just dabbling with van life has struck a chord with the public. In early 2016, Peace Vans Rentals launched with four vehicles. In just over two years, they’re up to 19 vehicles, including Vanagons, Eurovans and two modern Mercedes camper vans. July was already fully booked before January ended.

“These days, most vacations are so preprogrammed and preplanned and preordained; the opportunity for serendipitous experiences is somewhat limited,” Sitner says. “On a road trip, all sorts of things can happen on any given day.”

Something to Rely On

That sense of spontaneity is what attracts people to vacation in a van, but we’re also a culture that likes to have our creature comforts. To that end, Peace Vans Rentals stocks their vehicles with a French press coffeemaker, a 12-part spice kit, a premium sound system, a modern refrigerator, curtains for privacy, all the cookware you could need (such as a cheese grater, a garlic press, whisks, measuring cups, mixing bowls and more), pots and pans, wineglasses and maybe even a few surprises—basically, all the essentials from home in a pretty cool package.

“By definition, you’re introducing a little variability in your vacation [with a road trip], so we like to counter that with comfortable predictability: nice cutlery, dishes, and high-end linens and sleeping bags,” Sitner says.

That predictability extends to the condition of the fleet. To get a van ready for the rental pool, the company invests a minimum of $20,000. “While it retains nostalgia, under the hood it’s basically a new vehicle,” Sitner says. This ensures a smooth ride so that renters can worry about when they’re going to take their next bathroom break or where they’ll stop for the night instead of whether their vehicle’s on the verge of breaking down.

Hit the Road

Once you’ve got your home away from home locked down, deciding where to go is the fun part. The company has developed several detailed itineraries to offer inspiration, from the San Juan Islands to the Oregon high desert to Eastern Washington. The most popular destination, though, is the Olympic Peninsula. “There are snow-capped mountains, a rain forest, coastal beaches, wild rivers—there’s so much you can do on the peninsula,” Sitner says.

If you’re not sure if van life is up your alley (and those Instagram images don’t have you convinced), you’re welcome to drop by the shop and take a closer look. This can also be helpful in deciding which style is best suited to you.

In 2017, more than 700 passengers traveled 154,651 miles, making an estimated 3,195 s’mores and probably a whole lot of new friends, too—these vehicles are attention grabbers.

“They’re amazing smile machines,” Sitner says of the fleet. “Every single renter is smiling when they pick up and smiling even bigger when they drop off.”

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