Long trips by car are almost always uncomfortable, cramped affairs punctuated by heated debates over where to stop for lunch, repeated searches for clean bathrooms and squabbles between the kids crowded into the back seat. In mid-June my family set out on a 1,500-mile drive unworried about any of those problems. We took along our own lunch counter, bathroom and several beds -- in a recreational vehicle.
*Not owning an RV, we rented one and headed south to visit a part of the country new to us, the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, with a stop at Savannah's restored historic area as well. It was a trip of discovery. We watched alligators in a wilderness pond and explored interesting shops. We found beautiful beaches both crowded and empty and toured a winter retreat of millionaires of the last century. And we gorged ourselves on the fresh seafood available all along the coast.
We also learned a great deal about life in a modern RV.
Fourteen years ago my wife and I bought a long-bodied Ford van that had been converted into a pop-top camper and set off on a five-week trip to Alaska. The trip was great, but the van's amenities left something to be desired: The bed was too short; there was neither toilet nor hot water nor shower; you had to work a hand pump to get water; and the refrigeration was a tiny ice box -- if you could find ice.
*Nevertheless, the camper gave us a sense of great freedom. We could stop when and where we wished and sit down for lunch. There was never any hassle about checking in and out of motels. If a campground was full, why all we needed was a few square feet of level space in which to park.
*Over the years since then, most of the van and pickup-truck campers have been replaced by a new generation of recreational vehicles that properly are called motor homes. They range in length from less than 20 feet to more than 30 feet and can come equipped not just with hot and cold running water, showers, toilets and air conditioning, but also television antennas, microwave ovens, couches and easy chairs, and maybe even a Jacuzzi.
*After watching this evolution pass us by on the highways, we decided to see personally just how much things had changed in the RV world. Our destination was the southern part of the string of barrier islands that stretches along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Florida. South to North Carolina they tend to be narrow lines of dunes backed by marshes or shallow sounds, such as the Outer Banks around Cape Hatteras. In South Carolina and Georgia, the islands become wider with extensive vegetation, a plethora of wildlife and, in some instances, posh developments and resorts.
Each of the islands we visited along about 100 miles of coast had its own unique character. Hilton Head, S.C. -- our first stop -- was all carefully manicured developments, hundreds of shops and resorts with security guards, but with easy access to several public beaches.
*Cumberland Island, just north of the Florida line, is largely a national seashore where on a 5 1/2-mile hike to a tent campsite -- we had to leave the RV in St. Marys, Ga., and take a boat -- we passed trees full of nesting egrets. Later we swam on a deserted beach, saw alligators patiently waiting in a pond for prey and watched as an armadillo, ignoring our presence, nosed about our otherwise empty camping area in search of insects.
*In between was Jekyll Island, a Georgia state park that includes the 100-year-old millionaires' club and "cottages" that once attracted the J.P. Morgans, members of the Rockefeller family and midwesterners such as Marshall Field. Elsewhere on Jekyll, one of the smaller islands, there are inexpensive beach-front hotels and miles of open public beach.
*Savannah's historic district, where we spent a day after securing a quiet campsite a few miles outside town at Skidaway Island State Park, was fascinating. In particular, retired Army Col. Bill Hopkinson made a tour of the Isaiah Davenport house, an 1821 masterpiece, a true excursion into the past. It was the best but just one of numerous restored homes worth a visit.
*Our biggest mistake on this trip was in not allowing more time to explore the islands and the adjacent mainland. For instance, we learned too late to get reservations to the new lunch and dinner trips to Little St. Simons Island, a 10,000-acre privately owned island just north of Brunswick, Ga. Previously only 24 overnight guests had been accommodated there.
Our plan for the first day was to drive to Pawleys Island, S.C., drop our teen-aged son and daughter with friends and go on to Hilton Head Island, just north of the Georgia border. Altogether, it was to be more than a 600-mile day.
*As soon as we pulled out of the rental lot, it was obvious that this 23-foot vehicle was not a car. It seemed at first to be wider than the highway lane, though it was not, and it accelerated no better than the 36-horsepower VW we once had. Once up to speed, like most trucks, it rolled right along.
*The kids loved it. They promptly found comfortable spots and went to sleep. There was none of the usual bickering from a jammed back seat. Cold drinks and chilled fruit were in the refrigerator when we wanted them, and the bathroom was there as needed. The remembered sense of freedom quickly returned.
*After a brief stop at Pawleys Island -- itself a marvelously understated spit of sand just south of Myrtle Beach with dozens of homes available for rent, a few of which have survived 200 years of hurricanes -- we reached Hilton Head about 10 p.m. in a driving rainstorm. We faced the prospect of making our first campsite hookup to water, sewer and electricity in the dark and the rain.
*The office of the Outdoor Resorts Motorcoach Resort at which we had made a reservation was closed, but a map of the sites and the code for getting through the electronically operated gate were taped to the office door as promised. The rain even slacked off as we backed cautiously into the site we picked next to a small lake -- complete with spouting fountain.
The next morning we found that, strictly on the basis of an ad in a book listing camping areas, we had picked what has to be one of the best RV parks in the country. The campsites, while close together, were beautifully landscaped. There was a large swimming pool, several lighted tennis courts, shower and bathrooms and even a free exercise room with equipment. The cost was $20 a night, or $22 if you also wanted to hook up to the cable TV system.
*The thunderstorms parted the next morning long enough for us to spend time on the beach and then to explore some of numerous shops. When the storms departed, we sought to rent a sailboat. There were two marinas that had small boats available, but both were on Sea Pines Plantation, a huge private end of the island with security guards and a flat ban on RVs. So, no sailing.
Our next move was to Skidaway Island State Park, where the sites for RVs were much more spread out but the other amenities much more spartan: electric and water hookups, a dump site and showers and bathrooms. The overnight cost was only $7.
In Savannah, we decided not to try to maneuver the large RV around the narrow streets of the old port city's large historic area. We left it a few blocks away in a free parking area next to a visitor center, after collecting maps and brochures about the city's attractions.
Only a few of the city's hundreds of restored homes and buildings are open to the public, but a walking tour of the area is still a delight. Georgia's founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, laid out the original plan, which includes about two dozen small squares that are public parks. The squares, with their canopies of live oaks, break up the city's grid and enhance the aura of unhurried, somewhat worn elegance.
*To us, the Davenport House was the most interesting in the city. Many of the original furnishings have been returned to the house, a beautiful example of Federal architecture.
*Savannah also has the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in the city in 1912. Low was an artist and a sculptor, among other talents, and many examples of her work are in the Low home, which is open to the public.
*The next day we drove south to St. Marys to catch the boat to Cumberland Island. The National Park Service requires reservations both for overnight camping trips or day trips to the island, and again we had gotten the word a bit late. The developed campsite close to the boat landing was full -- it has showers and running water and is only 100 yards or so from the beach.
*That meant we were committed to hike at least 3 1/2 miles to the closest "primitive" campsite at Stafford Beach. We chose to go on to the next site -- 5 1/2 miles of hot but shady hiking along a shell road under the spreading live oaks -- to a hill we had all to ourselves. It was a long walk both to the beach and to water, which had to be boiled or treated to be safe, but it was still well worth it. For a while, we were in our own verdant, private world, except for the armadillo, of course.
On the way north again, after a pleasant stay at Crooked River State Park outside St. Marys, we spent a morning on Jekyll Island touring some of the cottages at the millionaires' club. The huge main club building is being renovated and is to be reopened next year as a Radisson resort hotel. There is also a large, wooded campground for tents and RVs on the island.
*Wending our way steadily northward, we took a quick look at St. Simons Island, which is heavily developed and more than a bit shabby. Sea Island, reached from St. Simons by a short causeway, turned out to be essentially one very long street lined with elegant private homes and a single luxury resort, The Cloister.
*On the mainland a few miles north of St. Simons, we also stopped to tour Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, one of the former rice plantations of the area. Now owned by the state, the plantation badly needs an experienced curator, but the presentations of the complex rice-growing procedures -- ended by a combination of salt-water contamination during hurricanes and competition from cheaper rice from Texas -- are fascinating anyway.
*Almost as a test, we stopped later that day at a more typical commercial campground, the Charleston KOA. This is one of a nationwide franchised system with directories and reservations, which is one reason we picked it. We would not go back.
For virtually the same cost as at Hilton Head, we were put cheek by jowl with other RVs in a dusty area. There was a teen room, with video games and billiard tables, and a swimming pool, showers and bathrooms, and the usual hookups ($2.50 extra if you wanted to use your air conditioner). The most offensive "attraction" was the caged mountain lion surrounded by a separate cage of rabbits!
*The final night we were back at Pawleys Island. Our friends' rented house was full, but with our own home with us, that didn't matter. And the next day we left early to be sure to get back to our rental firm before it closed. Along the way we cleaned up the interior of the vehicle, as our contract required.
There is no ready way to do what we did except by car or RV. The mileage charge for the RV and the cost of gasoline added up to about 20 cents a mile, considerably less than the true full cost of operating a car. Without the RV, we would have had nightly lodging expenses, of course, and our food would have been more expensive. Depending on the lodging, we might or might not have been able to make the trip for less.
*But had we made that choice, we would have had a very different and less interesting trip. Yes, we would take an RV again, particularly if we were heading some place where we would need to take full advantage of the RV's ability to function independently of all those hookups.
And someday we would like to return to the Sea Islands, particularly in the spring or fall. There were so many things we had no time to see . . .