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We caught the retro bug at the largest VW Beetle gathering on the planet

The glitzy Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance isn’t the only immense automotive gathering that takes place in August. Every year, hundreds of Volkswagen Beetle owners get together in Travemünde, Germany, to show off their ride and meet like-minded enthusiasts. The 12th annual Beetle Sunshine Tour took place last month, and I joined the festivities to find out what it’s like to be part of the Beetle clan.

The Beetle Sunshine Tour is held on the shores of the Baltic Sea in what’s widely considered one of the most charming regions of Germany. Like many similar events, it started out small. Gaby Kraft, the energetic woman who founded and still runs the tour, explained that only about 60 cars participated in the very first edition.

When the Beetles have found a parking spot, the road rally turns into a full-blown festival like only the Germans can throw.

Over the past 12 years, the Sunshine Tour has grown to become the largest Beetle gathering in Europe, and possibly in the world. Precisely 606 Beetles were present this year, not counting the 40 cars brought over by Volkswagen. What’s even more impressive is that about 4,000 participants attended the tour. They came from ten nations including the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Switzerland, and Belgium. It was such a large event that Volkswagen hosted the public debut of the redesigned 2017 Beetle there.

Putting together such a big event is easier said than done, but the organizers have it down to a science. Participants are encouraged to arrive on Friday in order to pick up their registration documents and get settled in. The actual tour begins on Saturday morning when the cars break off into five groups that participate in different activities. This year’s options included picking fruits at a local farm, discovering the historic city of Lübeck, and visiting the Hasselburg heritage site.

At about noon the cars leave their respective locations and head towards the fairgrounds in Travemünde, a trip affectionately called the Beetle crawl. Our convoy got smiles, waves, and thumbs up everywhere we went. After parking my Beetle Dune, I talked an employee of a nearby hotel into letting me up on the roof to take a couple of pictures. Watching 600 Beetles invade a small resort town is truly a sight to behold.

When all of the Beetles have found a spot on the makeshift parking lot, the road rally turns into a full-blown festival like only the Germans can throw. It’s an opportunity to experience the tastes of Germany, not just the sights and the cars, because about half a dozen vendors sell currywurst – which, believe it or not, carries a Volkswagen parts number –, pretzels, and flammkuchen, a mouth-watering dish best described as Germany’s spin on pizza. Live music begins at dusk, and of course no festival in Germany would be complete without a cold pint of hefeweizen.

While most of the cars are either New Beetles or current Beetles, a handful of classic air-cooled models also made the trip out to Travemünde. Some are fully stock, but a vast majority of them are customized in wild, imaginative, and unexpected ways that reflect the personality of each owner. You’re unlikely to find two cars that are exactly alike on the Sunshine Tour. The automotive diversity also encourages participants to make new friends while chatting about cars and travel. Most everyone we talked to agreed that camaraderie is the main reason why they keep returning to the Sunshine Tour year after year.

You’re unlikely to find two cars that are exactly alike on the Sunshine Tour.

It’s hard to know where to look when you’re surrounded by so many Beetles. However, one of the most eye-catching cars on this year’s tour was undoubtedly a brown Beetle pickup. The owners explained that it took two years to build, and it shows. The conversion is absolutely immaculate, if they’d told me it was an obscure, never-before-seen concept built by Volkswagen I would have believed it. It features a wood-lined bed, a custom interior, and there’s even a button on the key fob to pop open the tailgate.

I was also surprised to find a friendly German couple who drove to the event with their kids in a pair of matching Beetles. The man told me that he wanted his wife to drive a New Beetle that matched his classic, air-cooled model built in the early 1960s. He painted his wife’s car in the same shade of metallic green as his, fitted it with a thin strip of chrome trim on the hood, mounted vintage hubcaps on body-colored steel wheels, and even installed an original Beetle push-button handle on the trunk lid. The retro look continues inside with period upholstery and a classic shift knob. The attention paid to every minute detail is jaw-dropping.

Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Those weren’t the only cars that stood out. I saw a Beetle with the same two-tone green and silver paint job as a Mexican taxi, a New Beetle wearing a yellow cab livery, and a Captain America-themed Beetle, just to name a few. Volkswagen was kind enough to bring out an immaculate 1973 Beetle GSR, a perfectly-preserved Beetle Jeans, and an extremely rare New Beetle RSi powered by a 3.2-liter VR6 engine.

The couple with the matching Beetles explained that they randomly stumbled upon the Beetle Sunshine Tour last year while on vacation. They were driving their Passat at the time so they couldn’t join, but they made it a point to come back this year. After hearing their story, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the on-lookers who gave us thumbs up and Instragrammed us will be back next year with a Beetle of their own.