There's no place like (a motor) home
Martin Brennan has been a national motoring journalist for more than 40 years and driven some of the world's most expensive and exotic cars, but he lost his heart to a six-berth camper van
I fell in love in the Pyrenees. Beautiful Andorra stole my heart for a number of reasons, the wooded mountains, fast flowing water through deep ravines, and her crowning glory, low, low taxes.
Apart from the stunning scenery, diesel was just €1.10 a litre, Jameson and J&B Scotch under €9 a litre. Happy Christmas everybody. Even the wine is cheaper than in Spanish supermarkets -- El Coto Rioja for €3.80 compared to €5.50 in Spain and €15 at home if not on special discount.
There is virtually no crime here, banks are well funded and money flows in from all over Europe to this low-tax haven wedged between France and Spain. The success of this tiny country, it has a seat at the UN, is helped by a virtual year-long tourist season as summer mountain treks give way to skiing in the winter.
But there was even more joy. My navigator through the mountains was, meanwhile, having her own love affair with the low-cost shopping outlets. "Look at the money I saved," she declared returning with a smouldering credit card after four hours shopping while I stood guard over the generous collection of bottles.
The nine-week continental trip in a camper van started from Rosslare to Cherbourg; took in the magnificent Mont St Michel; delightful La Rochelle; a neat and tidy Royan rebuilt after World War Two; a Biarritz that looked jaded and past its best; spiritual Lourdes and Foix on the French border where cave drawings go back to 8,000 BC. Disappointing French weather in June then gave way to a sunny Spain once we crossed the border after crossing into Andorra.
France will quickly empty your pockets if you take the toll roads and charges in Spain are just as hefty. The trip through Spain saw more crowded campsites as the Dethleffs motorhome headed south through Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia and on to Tabernas, the only desert in Europe, on the very tip of the Iberian peninsula.
The trip back took in Zaragosa, and across the mountains to Toulouse, Limoges, Piriac Sur Mer, San Malo and on to Cherbourg. A trip of almost 5,000 miles.
The great European adventure all began on a rainy day in Donegal the previous February. It had been a long-held dream to hit the open road when office hours gave way to the freedom of contract and freelance work. For years there was banter at home about such ideas with camping firmly ruled out.
Then, in a moment of weakness, her indoors found herself at Donaghey's huge motorhome and caravan complex in Letterkenny. It was mid-February and the weather almost put a damper on the project. But the range of options was amazing and salesman Gerry, and later owner Michael, were on hand to give useful advice.
Space and comfort were her priorities, driveabiliity and durability were high on my list. Dethleffs, part of the Hymer group, was highly recommended in early research so a six-berth Advantage model with a Ducato multi-jet 130-bhp diesel engine under the bonnet was eventually singled out. High scores were for the ample power, cruise control, captain seats, air-con upfront, big garage, twin gas cylinders and a spare wheel and jack, supplied on request. For her, points went to the full-size three-way fridge with separate icebox, the spacious interior with lots of storage, a good size oven, a three-ring hob, a decent wardrobe and a shower unit you could actually have a shower in.
The first outing was Wexford on a bleak weekend before St Patrick's day. Too cold, I was warned but with assurances that this model was popular in Norway and could handle minus 20 degrees we headed for St Margaret's beach campsite at Lady's Island. "Not open until March 17," we were told "but come along anyway, there is power and water and I won't charge as you are first-timers." What a welcome and the site was well maintained and very hygienic. A return trip is on the agenda before the end of the season to explore more of the lovely scenery around Carne.
Lessons learned on the first outing: Never forget to lock the fridge when on the move. Six smashed eggs swimming around the lounge is not a pretty sight as a furious debate flares about who forgot to do what. Also don't use a 2000- watt kettle and a toaster at the same time as you are likely to trip the mains supply. "You should have known about that," is how I remember this discussion, and the eggs incident, starting.
On a much more serious note, be careful with gas appliances. Have the correct wrenches to change cylinders and tighten connections well. The man who told me that 'finger tight' screwing the hose to the Catac barbecue was sufficient should have seen the confusion when flames started under the grill as well as over it. "You should have known about that," was the high-pitched response from inside while I dealt with scorched barbie and scorched food.
The next outing was a trip to Dublin city to experience driving in urban traffic. A costly experience, not using the four mirrors and not used to having such a long rear overhang on the 24-foot body, a lamppost 'got in the way'. Off to Donaghys for a new fender, luckily only one of the three parts was cracked so replacement was about €170.
A second outing to Lough Arrow touring caravan park on the Sligo/Roscommon border was less stressful and there was a good 'bring your own booze' party night on site, a real hearty welcome with lots of campers from north of the Border. Facilities were excellent.
Of course there was a "you should have known about that" incident when a high wind rocked the camper during the night and yours truly had forgotten to lower the stabilisers.
Since owning the Dethleffs, fuel prices have continued to soar so driving strategy is important. As it is a right-hand drive, for the British market, the trip calculations are in mph and mpg. The sixth-gear and cruise control are a big help on journeys. For best results keep to 50mph (80kph), 24-27 miles per gallon. Anything over 100kpm and the needle dips dramatically. It is also the safest speed unless on a good motorway. Beware of crosswinds and being sideswept by trucks.
Because our camper is less than 3.5t weight, an ordinary driving licence is sufficient to drive.
Flushed with our successful outings to date, the Tuscany region of Italy is on the cards for next year.
Some of this article first appeared in 'Caravan Cruise Ireland'
Sunday Independent Supplement