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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Comfy Camping

Air Date: Week of

Americans are so pinched for time and so stressed, camping is suddenly too much work. Maybe we're just getting lazier. Robin White reports on the blurring line between camping and the spa vacation.


CURWOOD: It used to be that camping divided the hearty and daring from the shrinking violets. Cold water, latrines, and nights on hard ground were all part of the fun of roughing it. But campground managers say few of us care to go that route anymore. Camping is changing. And there are now luxury campsites that provide all the comforts of home, if your home comes with room service, that is. Robin White has our report on today’s pampered campers.

WHITE: As a backpacker, I had to admit I was skeptical when I heard about Costa Noa. It's a high-end campsite on the spectacular central coast of California. Here, for about 18 times the cost of a Forest Service campsite, you can sleep out under canvas in a luxury escape, with heated mattress pads and a hot tub to soothe your aching muscles. Manager Daniel Medellin says many of his customers are in, what you might call, mixed marriages.

MEDELLIN: We have a lot of couples that have come to visit us where one of the party – and we really can't distinguish whether it was the guy or the gal that wasn't so comfortable with camping. But, there's a happy medium. You get the outdoor experience, and then you're able to enjoy some creature comforts at the same time.

WHITE: Creature comforts like restrooms with heated floors, queen-size beds with down comforters, terrycloth robes, and fancy smelling soaps and shampoos. Outside one tent cabin, some campers who don't usually get close to nature are right now experiencing it firsthand.


Where are you from? [TO CAMPER]

MILLER: Marin County.

WHITE: And what's your name?

MILLER: Christine Miller.

WHITE: Okay, Christine…

MILLER: [LAUGHTER IN BACKGROUND] Oh, we've been attacked by birds. Deluxe camping has gone to, like, not so deluxe. We had a dead bird on our doorstep this morning. It's fine.

WHITE: Replete with dead swallows, Costa Noa is the brainchild of Chip Conley. He spotted the exploding market for SUVs in the 1990s. He saw people looking for escape. And, he designed Costa Noa to give them somewhere to escape to.

CONLEY: What we're trying to do is attract the person who can go and experience nature in a new way without having to walk into the office on Monday morning and having red, bloodshot eyes from not having slept all weekend.


WHITE: At the huge recreational equipment coop, REI, in Berkley, they're picking up the theme. Annie Irwin shows me around some of the latest products.

IRWIN: There's a tea-for-two table, the blow-up supreme mattress, camp espresso machine. A propane tent heater, put it right in there. Hey, it's just like being in the house, only you're outdoors.

WHITE: There's a hand-crank blender, solar panels for GameBoy on the trail, titanium cook sets, pressure-heated showers, and portable sit-down toilets.

[TO FEMALE CUSTOMER] Can I just show you a couple of things and see if you would ever buy these, and what you think of them?

FEMALE CUSTOMER: Probably not, but you could show me.

WHITE: Right there. That, there, is a hand-cranked blender. Would you ever--

FEMALE CUSTOMER: No way, no way.

WHITE: See this?


WHITE: It's a hand-crank blender.

MALE CUSTOMER: Unnecessary.

WHITE: Could you ever see using one of those, a propane tent heater?

2ND MALE CUSTOMER: No, I wouldn't see that. No.

WHITE: Well that's what they say now. But they might get caught by the trend. REI says the hand-crank blender is one of their hottest items. An estimated 850 campsites from California to Georgia, offer some sort of luxury service. And they're packed in a year when hotel occupancy is down. Even some KOA campgrounds have organic vegetable stands, web access and wine tasting on Saturday nights.

I had to go try this luxury camping for myself. I grabbed my friend Rob Tufel and we set off to Safari West in Santa Rosa. The promo material calls it "Serengeti in the Wine Country."


TUFEL: Tent camp adventure at Safari West is a deluxe camping experience at a premier safari park located right over the interstate. Safari West is home to over 350 exotic endangered and extinct-in-the-wild, African mammals and birds. Extinct-in-the-wild? Extinct-in-the-wild, all hyphens. Is that correct?


WHITE: In the morning, we woke up to the sight of nine giraffes wandering across the field, only 20 feet from our tent cabin. Kelly Verhoeg said it wasn't camping, but she liked it anyway. [TO KELLY VERHOEG] If it's not camping, what is it?

VERHOAG: [LAUGHING] Pretending you're going to Africa. Last night, sitting in the tent cabin, I guess they call it, you know, I was looking at my husband sitting there. And I was like, it's like I'm looking at Ernest Hemingway or something, and we had been taken back in time. And, you know, this is kind of how you would picture it.

WHITE: Well, he didn't look like the big game-hunting author, Ernest Hemingway, to me. But who am I to spoil the fun? For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White at Safari West.



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