In a year not exactly short of surprises, perhaps the biggest one yet is that caravan holidays are enjoying a comeback. I speak from pretty solid experience: late last summer, as a grounded travel and culture writer, I bought a caravan with two of my best friends, art consultant and interior stylist Emma Jane Palin and interior designer Whinnie Williams. We all live on the same street in Margate, and share a love of midcentury design, and we’ve often daydreamed about opening a fabulous hotel together. This was our pandemic business plan B: a three-bedroom static 2010 Willerby Bluebird in Birchington Vale Holiday Park. All three of us grew up with caravan holidays in our lives, and have nostalgic memories of caravan life by the sea; hanging out in the arcades with boys, spending all our money on Curly Wurlys in the tuckshop, and the excitement of caravan sleeping arrangements, like tucked-away bunkbeds or pull-out sofas.
And so we spent our winter lockdown giving our beloved Creme Brulee (so-named because of her beige and brown interiors) a melodramatic makeover, with a mock-brick desert-modern style fireplace, marmoleum flooring throughout, tongue and groove wooden ceiling, and reupholstered the original sofa in Poodle & Blonde velvet designed by Whinnie. When we set up our company, Club Jupiter we joked that we were creating a “Pontins meets Palm Springs” vibe, so that British travellers could travel across the world… all from a caravan in Birchington. Emma’s Space Disco bedroom is all sequins and mirrors, transporting guests to Studio 54 in 1970s New York. Whinnie’s Lonely Hearts Saloon is a pink cowgirl fantasy, inspired by a ranch holiday we took together in Arizona last February… a few weeks before the Covid crisis hit. My Jungle Room is part-inspired by Elvis Presley’s ridiculous Jungle Room at his home of Graceland in Memphis, all bamboo and rattan and tiki lamps. As a grounded travel writer, I wanted to take people places.
We were inspired by a love of caravan holidays and a love of flamboyant midcentury design, and fabulous themed hotels like California’s Madonna Inn, but deep down, we really want adventure-hungry travellers like ourselves to feel they can have fabulous holidays here in the UK. Staying in a holiday park is also a community-minded decision in areas – like Margate – that experience overtourism in the summer months, sidestepping the thorny issue of communities being affected by houses taken out of the rental market to function as holiday homes.
And as a travel writer who loves caravans, I’ve made it a personal mission to stay at some of the coolest caravan parks in the world – and always found myself wondering why we didn’t have anything similar in the UK. In the US, a gleaming silver Airstream is the most coveted of possessions, and my first taste of a hip, reimagined trailer park was at Hicksville Trailer Palace in Joshua Tree, California, where Airstreams and slickly renovated gypsy wagons surround a swimming pool made for lounging with a Pisco Sour. Then there is El Cosmico in Marfa, West Texas, created by the visionary hotelier Liz Lambert, a bohemian utopia where guests drift around in Missoni kaftans, tasselled suede jackets and Cobra Rock cowboy boots. Years before road-tripping across America seeking out special trailer parks, I’d worked as a ‘tipi caretaker’ at Solscape in the surf town of Raglan in New Zealand, where yurts decked out with Persian rugs and Moroccan textiles cosied up to renovated train carriages and vintage caravans. There’s just something about homes on wheels that evoke a sense of true escape, freedom and simplicity, and for a nomadic hippy like myself, I’ve always preferred a night in an Airstream to a night at a fancy city hotel or spa.
The fact that caravan holidays simply weren’t on the radar of young British travellers is even stranger given our fascinating caravan culture heritage. Caravan holidays were popular in Britain by the 1900s, when so-called “gypsy gentlemen” would have caravans transported by train to their holiday destination of choice. But it was in the 1920s and 1930s that Eccles Caravans marketed the idea of car-pulled caravans and pushed them out on a commercial scale. After the war, the 1960s saw much larger models – with bunks and other innovations – while in the 1970s, static caravans began resembling holiday chalets, with companies like Bluebird and Silverline manufacturing models with pointed roofs, floral interiors and teak panelling. But by the 1980s, when package holidays abroad were affordable to the masses, British caravan holidays were falling out of public favour, no longer viewed as a particularly glamorous or aspirational. Caravan design continued to evolve, but the even though my generation of travellers perhaps grew up on caravan holidays, a British caravan holiday didn’t quite hold the allure of a Spanish music festival, or a week in Tulum, or a city break in Berlin.
But travel tastes change, and today young travellers are much more connected to nature, and more mindful of community impact, and we also have a sense of adventure and curiosity that makes us eager to stay in treehouses, shepherd’s huts and yurts. This year, the mobile caravan market is booming and targeting a younger, more design-oriented market. Barefoot Caravans are hand-built British caravans with a curvy vintage aesthetic, while Dub Box caravans come in retro hues like teal, mustard and chocolate brown. Rocket Caravans are sleek aluminium homages to the America Airstream. So if your mental moodboard for the word ‘caravan’ evokes beige fibreglass and nasty net curtains, this summer is the time to hit refresh.