I can't wait to show up in my Scamp
May 16, 2003
Where Luxury R.V.'s Go to Roost
By CHRIS DIXON New York Times
In a golf-cart tour along palm-lined avenues, Joanne Williams was explaining the amenities of the neighborhood, a gated community that she manages for its owners. "We have seven lakes, waterfalls and four pools," she said. "I have a full-time masseuse, hairdresser and spa health director who does personal training. We have local pros who come and provide golf or tennis lessons."
It was an early May day in Indio, Calif., just outside Palm Springs. The sun was comfortably warm, the air clear and dry, the vista of the distant San Jacinto Mountains majestic. Ms. Williams drove at a leisurely pace past the perfectly manicured 18-hole par-three golf course. "I have a landscape gardener with a budget of $600,000 a year," she said. "We have a lot of landscaping."
The homes lining these streets are recreational vehicles ? enormous, lavishly appointed motor coaches that sell for $500,000 to $2 million apiece and stand at the very pinnacle of the R.V. hierarchy. And in contrast to the usual image of an R.V. park ? ragtag clusters of tightly packed campers and trailers in various states of repair, with children running in packs from one smoky campfire to another ? this community, the Outdoor Resorts Indio Motorcoach Resort and Spa, looks like a plush and placid country club neighborhood.
The coaches, which are the size of tour buses and are fitted out with a staggering variety of luxurious appointments, from Sub-Zero refrigerators to fancy Global Positioning System receivers, come and go, staying for a few weeks to several months at a time. Most of their owners have purchased their Indio lots, which range in price from $75,000 to $250,000. (Some rent out their spaces when they are not in town, though few actually need the money.)
Like most R.V. owners, these people are gregarious types who like the friendliness of an R.V. park. "By 5 o'clock, everyone's already a drink or two into their afternoon, and the food's already on the grill ? people already know which party they're going to, and you'll see crowds of 10 to 30 gathered around a coach," Ms. Williams said.
At this resort, they can be comfortable in the knowledge that their fellow wayfarers will be not only like-minded but like-moneyed. No humble campers built on pickup trucks, no silvery trailers, no modified vans are allowed. Plans are in place for a ban on anything smaller than these 40- or 45-foot-long coaches.
Pamela Ford, who owns a lot at the Indio park with her husband, Lewis, called their purple and lavender motor home, with cherry wood floors and 320 square feet of living space, "one of the plainer ones."
"Lewis used to be in the antique biz," she said as she pointed out their collection of Japanese sculptures. She is 50; Mr. Ford, who is retired after 55 years as the head of his own metal fabrication company, is 81. Their landbound home is in Memphis.
Above the driver's seat in their coach, a cable-fed television set pumps out CNN; farther back, a lavender- and cream-colored sofa bed and captain's chairs beckon under wraparound lights
. Amidships is a full-size kitchen with a side-by-side refrigerator
and custom cabinets. At the rear are a washer and dryer, a tiled bathroom and a bedroom with a queen-size bed and its own separate entertainment center.
Their setup is average at best, Mrs. Ford insisted. "There are models with Italian marble floors, fiber-optic lighting
systems and 24-karat gold fixtures," she said. "We've even seen them with those 46-inch plasma TV screens with surround-sound that zip out, swivel, and then you have your own home theater."
Outside, hydraulic storage doors below the deck of the Fords' bus open to reveal a sliding toolbox, a generator
, a bank of six 24-volt batteries, a 275-gallon water-softening and purification system and water storage tanks. (It is de rigueur for these coaches to be equipped for "dry camping," allowing them to function for up to a week with no hookup to any outside utilities.)
A 225-gallon tank delivers diesel fuel to the 12.7-liter, 500-horsepower turbodiesel engine, which Mrs. Ford said can easily move this 24-ton vehicle up long, steep grades at 70 miles per hour. And, she said, it gets 8 miles to the gallon.
The Fords aren't telling what they paid for this machine, but Mrs. Ford said that it was on the low end of its range, which starts at around $750,000, and that she and her husband are proud that it is not "garish."
Like many other coach owners, they bought a shell ? a mechanically complete chassis and a metal body ? and had it finished with a floor plan, interior materials and furnishings of their choosing. It is what motor home owners fondly call a Prevo, made by Prevost Car, a Canadian company known for turning out the Rolls-Royces of the R.V. world.
The company sells only about 300 shells a year, at $400,000 or more, yet in the peak winter season the Indio resort, which has 419 lots, often holds 200 Prevos. Many of the other lots are occupied by Monacos, made by the Monaco Coach Corporation of Coburg, Ore., a leading American manufacturer of luxury R.V.'s.
The coaches are finished by specialty companies like American Carriage in Tehachapi, Calif., and Angola Coachworks in Angola, Ind. ? where the Fords' coach was customized ? for prices that sometimes rise to $1.5 million.
Sitting alongside the coaches on the Indio lots are various expensive toys that owners haul behind them in 20-foot-long matching trailers: huge barbecue grills for the inevitable parties, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, customized golf carts that mimic Hummers and Model A Fords, even full-size Hummers themselves. After acquiring these possessions, it's not much of a stretch to buy a lot at the Indio resort.
MOST owners of the big coaches, and of R.V.'s in general, are retired people with an abundance of leisure time and a yen for travel. But Ms. Williams, whose job at Indio includes selling the lots as well as managing the resort, also sees younger buyers. "I just sold No. 386 to a young couple with four daughters," she said. "They're all under the age of 16, they're home-schooled, and they're all prodigies."
Their father is a 39-year-old San Diego real estate developer named Steve Franks, who paid nearly $100,000 for the lot. An avid camper, Mr. Franks was compelled to seek an alternative to tent camping by his wife, Jodi, whose travel tastes run more toward Ritz-Carlton hotels. "Luxury R.V.-ing was somewhere in between," he said. Now the Franks leave their eight-bedroom house in San Diego about once a month to pile into their 40-foot Winnebago Land Tour model for a week in Indio.
"It challenges you to interact, instead of having everyone just going to their own room in the house and kind of being disconnected," Mr. Franks said.
His 15-year-old daughter, Lauren, called the Winnebago "small quarters for a family," but added: "I still enjoy being right together. We play a lot of games, do a lot of grilling, and I really like being able to take school on the road and study in interesting surroundings."
The Franks children also make friends, even though few people in the park are close to their ages. "They like all the older people out there," Mr. Franks said. "It's like having a park full of grandparents."
On this lazy spring afternoon, many of the surrogate grandparents had already packed up and moved out ? ahead of the summer heat ? to cooler spots. Ms. Williams said that many leave in caravans of 10 or 20 vehicles; the ever-sociable motor home crowd seems to like traveling in groups.
Pat Kenney, 66, who with his wife, Claudette, 60, drives their Prevo to Indio from their home in Cincinnati, recalled being in a 19-coach caravan that followed the route of the Lewis & Clark expedition across the West; he called it "a tremendous trip." The Kenneys consider the camaraderie the best part of owning a motor home. "It's a very close-knit community," Ms. Kenney said.
Denise and David Sustello, a retired couple in their early 50's, would be heading out alone, but they were not yet ready to leave. The Sustellos are particularly avid converts to the motor coach life. "We haven't found a downside," Mrs. Sustello said.
Back home in Eugene, Ore., a new house was waiting, but after owning it for three years, they have not yet bothered to furnish it. In their brief stays before moving on to the next R.V. stop and the next adventure, they just park alongside it and stay where they really want to be ? inside their Prevo.