When we circled through our campground, a California state beach camping area with 88 RV pads, we saw that we were different. It wasn't that our tow vehicle, a 2011 diesel Ford Super Duty, was especially unusual. Out of all the tow rigs there, at least a third were Super Duty Ford trucks. We were different because we were towing an Airstream.

Prior to this review, we knew Airstream trailers were upscale RVs that stood out in a crowd, and we knew Airstream owners tended to keep them for a long time. But, it was only after spending time in one that we learned why.

For starters, the Airstream is not a white box on wheels. The construction and styling is unique and distinctive. People keep them for the same reasons, we'll wager, that people keep wooden sailboats and classic cars. There's something about the way they look and the way they are built that people appreciate.

When it comes to trailers, you might suspect that they don't build 'em like they used to, but in fact they do. Only better. The current-generation Airstream camping trailer may look like a classic, but they offer all the modern qualities and amenities you would expect in an upscale RV.

Our home for the weekend was a 23-foot International, built with an aluminum skin and framework, furnished with high-quality interior materials. We found a relaxed, modernistic sense of luxury about the Airstream that provides a unique sense of well-being.

The International line, one of five different Airstream models, is available in lengths between 16 feet and 28 feet and GVWRs between 4,300 and 7,300 pounds. At 23 feet, our test unit had a 6,000-pound GVWR and was designed to sleep two to five people comfortably, so the three of us had plenty of room. Nominal payload is 1,299 pounds, but weights may vary from vehicle to vehicle depending on options, so we checked the door sticker for information. It told us our test unit's actual payload was 1,257 pounds, less 298 pounds with a full load of water.

Construction involves riveted aluminum skin stretched over extruded aluminum frames. It's a lightweight, durable design with a low center of gravity, helping to keep the trailer stable and easy to tow. It's also a long-lasting design, ecological in the sense that the trailer won't end up in a landfill after a few years. We're told there are about 100,000 Airstream owners worldwide.

The interior furnishings are consistent with the idea of a more permanent living space that needs to remain functional on a decades-long time frame. What you see are precisely laminated surfaces and bright stainless steel fixtures. What you don't see are plastic and particleboard. The interior reminded us of a corporate jet or modern sailboat. Outside, storage areas have doors that latch precisely, with quality hinges and quality locks.

Hooking up to our tow vehicle was made easier by the electric hitch jack, which has up/down toggles located in a lighted cove. No cranking is necessary, but should the need to crank manually ever occur, there is a manual jack provision. We noticed there was a crank handle located in the rear bumper storage area. Fuses for the jack are in the battery box. The battery box holds two Interstate green-top deep-cycle batteries.

The Tow Rig
Our Ford Super Duty was equipped with Ford's latest towing features, which means it had electric towing mirrors plus a built-in factory hitch with seven-pin and flat-four connectors. There was also a factory trailer brake controller and electronic antisway control. With a 10,000-pound GVWR, this truck was more than capable of handling the Airstream, which, fully loaded with fluids, food, and gear, probably weighed just under 6,000 pounds. A 200-amp alternator adds extra juice to the system.

Not surprisingly, we found the Airstream easy to tow. We used a weight-distributing hitch, which makes a big difference, but with the Super Duty weight was not an issue. We set the brake controller gain at 6, which let the Airstream roll quietly without a lot of bumping or hopping.

The Airstream's rounded design is supposed to be more aerodynamic than standard box trailers, providing up to 20-percent better towing efficiency. That's not something we can test precisely, but we can say that driving at posted limits in breezy, but not truly windy conditions we averaged 14.9 mpg towing, which included 237 miles of mostly highway driving.

The Super Duty has dual trip meters, so we were able to monitor mileage with and without the trailer. Empty, driven in a mix of highway and around-town conditions, the big Ford averaged 18.1 mpg-pretty good for a 6.7-liter diesel V-8 that was not even broken in.

When we arrived at our RV camp, we connected the 30-amp plug to the provided 120-volt source, and voila, we were plugged in. We also connected the supplied hose to the water supply, and we had all the power and water we needed without drawing down on the internal supplies. The batteries alone seem to be capable of maintaining the RV for a day or a weekend, depending on how you use or conserve electricity, but power-hungry appliances like the microwave and AC will not run on battery power alone. In case of a need to remove batteries for any reason, for storage or replacement, there is a battery disconnect switch forward of the entry.

Camping at the Beach
Our campground was a delightful spring destination. Known as the San Onofre-San Mateo Campground, the shady natural area lies a mile inland from the San Onofre State Beach in California.

A 1.5-mile nature trail connects the campground to Trestles Beach, a world-class surfing site, where we were able to throw down a blanket, have a picnic, and watch surfers shred the waves. The nature trail runs along San Mateo Creek where thick natural greenery creates habitat for some rare and even endangered species. All campsites included a fire pit and picnic table.

Our site had available electricity and water. This campground also has a dump-station, hot indoor showers, and flush toilets. It's a year-round facility, but winters at the beach, even in the sunny San Diego area, can involve some rain. During our time there, in early May, the weather was cool in the mornings, warm in the afternoons, with cool breezy evenings.

The International has panoramic windows that open to allow light and breezes to flow through. At night, we pulled down the drapes to create a private interior. Versatile aircraft-style interior lighting can be bright for games and activities or darkened to a nightclub level for watching movies.

The campground is natural and relaxed, more of a place to enjoy the beach and nature than pass through for a single night. We noticed the Airstream has a connector for cable TV and telephone lines located on the side of the trailer behind a gray cover, but the San Mateo Campground does not offer that type of hookup. At night, we played DVDs on the flat-screen TV, using the entertainment unit located to the right of the door.

The Galley and Appliances
Mealtimes offered us a chance to work in the galley located amidships. It's close enough to the dinette table to create a two-station kitchen, with one person standing and another sitting at the table, using a small cutting board to prep vegetables. The kitchen sink has a large and deep stainless bowl with a cutting-board top.

We cooked several meals on the stove, finding it practical in design, well made, and easy to clean. We usually bring our own propane stove as a backup and for outdoor cooking, but the Airstream stove had three fairly large burners and worked well with our own pots and pans. There is no pilot light; the igniter is used to light each burner separately.

The highlight of the galley area is the pull-out multilevel drawer system that houses silverware, kitchen implements, and spices and condiments and has storage space for things like dishrags and paper towels. The pull-out drawer glides in and out on a ball-bearing system, perfectly balanced, and snaps into position when closed. We wish we had something this nice in our house. Over the stove and sink is another handy storage area, fairly large but a little harder to reach, for things like paper plates and dry goods.

The refrigerator on our 23-foot test unit was not huge but turned out to be another quality appliance that works right and makes the most of the available space. It works by absorbing warm air from the icebox and venting it to the outside, where a steady stream of warm air is pushed away by a fan. As warm air is evacuated, the refrigerator interior becomes colder and colder. It may take a few hours for the refrigerator to cool off when you first switch it on, but once it's cold, it stayed that way.

We stuck a bag of ice cubes in the freezer when we left in the morning, and by that evening, they had melted slightly and then re-frozen in a block. They stayed frozen throughout the weekend. The refrigerator can be operated off LP gas or 120-volt AC power. We left it set on Auto, so the refrigerator would have automatically switched over to LP gas if electricity were to be cut. The Airstream carries 60 pounds of LP gas.

We found the Airstream easy to keep ventilated. The windows unlock and slide open easily on their aluminum frames. There is also an overhead ventilation hatch with an automatic fan system. We found it pleasant to leave it open at night, especially knowing that if it should rain, the overhead vent will close automatically. We never needed to run the air conditioning, rated at 13,500 BTU. The furnace is rated at 25,000 BTU and has electronic ignition.

Storage and Plumbing
Along with overhead storage at the front and overhead in the galley and lavatory, there are two tall wardrobe-style closets. These would be ideal for hanging garments, dresses, shoe bags, and the like. Outside storage includes a fairly large compartment accessed through a locking door at the rear of the trailer, and a storage bumper. The locks and fasteners on these outside storage areas are, like the rest of the trailer, sturdy and work smoothly. The same key locks the door, which is best to keep dead-bolted when towing the vehicle.

A small monitor panel keeps tabs on the status of the fresh-, gray-, and black-water tanks. Pressing the status button one time gave us an exact reading, telling us we were in green territory when we arrived for the weekend. The display turns to yellow when any given tank nears capacity, then red when it is full.

The toilet is compact but serviceable, with a two-position foot pedal. Depress the pedal half way to add water to the basin; and all the way to flush. There is a shut-off valve located on the back of the toilet. The shower, likewise, is an appropriate size for the 23-foot trailer. It's fine for 50th-percentile adults, probably a bit cramped for really tall people, but the showerhead can be detached and held overhead for rinsing. The hot water heater holds 6 gallons, plenty enough for a decent shave and shower.

The water heater operates strictly off LP gas. There is an on/off switch aft in the cabin that gets the heater working, with a red warning light in case the heater does not ignite first try. The hot water provided was hot enough for us to need to mix in a little cold water to wash up.

In case of electrical overload, there is a breaker box that houses circuit breakers for the power converter, AC, microwave, refrigerator, TV, and all 110 outlets. There are a total of 8 circuits, each with separate 15-amp circuit breakers.

Maintenance
Cleaning an Airstream is about the same as cleaning any other RV, except the surface is part of the appeal of the vehicle, and the surface is polished and reflective unlike fiberglass RVs.

Recommended are cleaners that don't mar or scuff the surface. To protect against acid rain, bird droppings and tree sap, a good wash and wax job is best, using a soft rag instead of a brush. Use a mild soap and water solution, staying away from bleach or chemicals like thinner or acetone. If tree-sap is hard to dissolve, a little denatured alcohol may help. The manufacturer tells us it's best to wash and wax an Airstream on a cool day in the shade, just as you would your car.

The same precautions apply for interior surfaces and fabrics. Use soap and water, a soft rag, and avoid harsh cleansers. Fabrics can be cleaned with a mild fabric cleaner, and curtains can be machine-washed in cold water on the delicate cycle then air-dried.

Price vs. Value
Our test unit, as equipped, was priced at $59,207. That's not cheap for a 23-foot trailer, but honestly, for all of the above reasons, we thought it would be more. The International line is not Airstream's most affordable, so the price reflects the company's intention to provide quality.

Ours was certainly well equipped, but comparable amenities are available on other ultra-light trailers for less cost, so you'll see fewer in the average campground. It's always possible to build something cheaper, so if out-of-pocket costs are your chief concern, then you may well shop for something more affordable. Or, if you like to get a new trailer every few years, then perhaps owning an Airstream is not an investment you care to make. On the other hand, if long-term value is your primary concern, an Airstream-with planned obsolescence not part of the equation-may be the better choice. The decision should be based on your preferences and your outlook.

Price aside, after just one weekend in an Airstream, we realized why people appreciate the brand. They are in no way generic but distinctive and built for the long run. They have a unique design that has functional benefits. It may cost more to own an Airstream in the short run, but the quality is there, so if you plan on enjoying your trailer for a decade or more, the International 23 would be worth considering.

SOURCE
Airstream Inc.
877-596-6111
www.airstream.com
San Onofre State Beach
949-361-2531
www.parks.ca.gov
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