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November 8, 2021

Meet The Tour Company That Uses Volkswagen "Hippy Vans"

Josh Armel and Virgine De Paepe, a married couple is behind San Francisco’s Painted Ladies Tour Company. A fully licensed charter and sightseeing business in the Bay Area, they’ve made a name for themselves by using brightly-hued Volkswagen Buses (aka Type II or the hippy van) for excursions.

The couple says seeing the vintage Volkswagen vans brings joy to guests and passersby alike.

There’s the tough-looking biker who suddenly grinned and flashed the peace sign when he spotted one of the Buses. There’s the Bay Area tech company that rented the Painted Ladies fleet for the Pride Parade, tossing daisies to the crowd from one of the Buses.

Then there’s the group that booked a tour to celebrate a sister’s birthday. The sister “loved Volkswagen Buses so much,” recalls Josh. “She had no idea there was a company that could take you around in one. When she saw it pull up, she almost broke down in tears; she was so excited.”

Moments like these are what make Painted Ladies Tour Company—named after a much-photographed row of colorful Victorian houses in San Francisco’s Alamo Square—so popular with Bay Area visitors.

Asides from a city tour of San Francisco, the company also operates a Sonoma Valley wine country tour, visiting smaller, award-winning wineries and tasting rooms. And it hosts private, customizable experiences for everything from weddings to corporate events.

The compact size of the Buses allows them to get close to city sights that larger tour buses can’t, from the vibrant murals in The Mission to the actual “Painted Ladies” houses in Alamo Square. Their smaller capacity—a maximum of six or seven people—also affords a more personalized experience for guests. Josh says that each tour provides “an intimate experience where you’re building personal connections,” while still maintaining careful health and safety protocols.

The tour guides are not the only draw. The company’s fully restored vintage Type 2 Transporter Buses, each with its own charming character, have gained their own diehard fans.

The Buses all have names with California connections. Among them are Pearl, a 1968 model whose moniker comes from an album recorded in California by Janis Joplin; Poppy, a 1975 model named for the Golden Poppy, California’s state flower; Skye, a 1971 model whose name references the Golden State’s ultra-blue skies; and Buttercup, a 1974 model inspired by the California Buttercup flowering plant.

Before joining the active fleet, each Bus gets a makeover typically involving a new engine and transmission, along with upgrades to tires and brakes if needed. To enhance safety, each vehicle gets lap belts for every seat, plus shoulder restraints in front. Add a new sound system and convenient USB charging ports—which weren’t standard in 1968—and the result is a unique roadgoing experience that blends classic and modern.

It was Virgine’s idea to add whimsical eyelash extensions to the headlights. Josh, meanwhile, transformed some of the vinyl headliners of the Buses by replacing them with birch wood panels, which he then covered with distinctive wallpaper prints to create overhead murals. Hot-pink Buttercup, for example, has a beautiful floral headliner.

As Virgine says, spending time with Painted Ladies Tour Company is a chance to “just be in the present moment and enjoy it.” The couple’s primary focus, Josh adds, is to “put a big smile on your face.”

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