An alternative view of the famous beach town in Florida reveals much beyond flash and sparkle the city is most noted for
On a quintessential sunny Florida day, my husband and I slowly wound our motorhome down Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Daytona Beach. We were immediately confronted by all the diversions that make this destination renowned. The city’s nickname has long been the “World’s Most Famous Beach.” The name is an appropriate moniker given the area’s international reputation.
Daytona Beach is most famously a mecca of motorsports and motorcycles, and of beach driving and bikinis. Lining the streets, we saw surf shops, trinket emporiums and party bars. The popular amusement-filled boardwalk was brimming with happy, sunburned tourists. Racing- and motorcycle-themed souvenirs hung in shop windows next to colorful beach towels and tiny string bikinis. There was the unique sight of cars leisurely driving on the hard-packed, white-sand beach, and the less unique sight of teenagers happily munching from paper plates loaded down with funnel cakes and french fries.
Everyone seemed to be having a great time enjoying all of Daytona’s signature offerings, but I was in the mood for something a little different. I decided to look past all the flashy and in-your-face fun to see what else Daytona might have to offer. I discovered that if you will peer curiously beyond the condos, wander with abandon up and down the residential streets, and even venture boldly down to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Halifax River, you will find another side of Daytona. This alternative view of the famous beach town showcases the natural wonders of the area, takes you into maritime history and even recalls the fascinating lives of those who arrived first.
The Museum of Arts & Sciences features exhibits from Daytona’s history, including the original Coca-Cola glass bottle design and other memorabilia of the fizzy drink. Photos: A.M. Murphy
When businessman Mathias Day purchased thousands of acres of wild and abandoned lands on the eastern coast of Florida, his dreams of establishing a new community would have seemed to many onlookers to be both fanciful and bold. The year was 1871 and Day, an Ohio native and purveyor of farm machinery, saw an opportunity to create a settlement on the Florida coast near the Halifax River.
Did You Know?
Daytona Beach is located on the eastern shoreline of Florida where the Atlantic Ocean and the Halifax River meet. Prior to the late 1800s the area was a wild and empty land traversed only occasionally by Seminole Indians and claimed by the Spanish Crown.
Prior to formal European settlement, the area now known as Daytona Beach had been traversed by various groups of Native Americans, with no group in particular settling the area. Eventually the terrain was mapped by both Spanish and French explorers studying the whole of Florida. It was Spain that most frequently laid claim to the lands as part of the Spanish Crown’s vast holdings in the region.
The Spanish eventually granted the land to Samuel Williams, who built a working plantation on the Halifax River. In the early 1800s, Williams’ plantation produced bountiful amounts of sugar, rice and cotton. He also established large groves of citrus trees. In the mid-1800s the Seminole Indians, wanting to drive out the land owners and protest Indian removal efforts, burned down the plantation and subsequently the area laid neglected and decaying for a number of years. On occasion, a lumber company would temporarily establish itself in the area to harvest some of the large native live-oak trees for use in shipbuilding.
Where others saw empty and abandoned acres, Day saw opportunity. For less than $10,000, Day purchased the thousands of acres that were primarily lands of the defunct Williams plantation. Over the next few years the intrepid entrepreneur, along with a cousin and a dozen or so skilled workers, built close to 20 individual homes. They also constructed a general store, post office and a hotel called the Palmetto House. Whether it was the heat, the giant mosquitos, or the lack of modern amenities, few pioneers came to the area to share Day’s dream. The slow settlement rate was more than Day could bankroll, and he eventually returned to Ohio.
A handful of the original pioneers who had settled in the Day-built homes stayed on and continued to maintain the fledgling settlement. The community was little more than a wilderness outpost. The area was wild terrain filled with swamps, thick stands of weeds and no easy access to other settlement areas. Despite the harsh conditions, the settlers persisted. Finally, on a sweltering afternoon in June 1876, the men of the settlement gathered to vote on an official incorporation of the town. After much discussion they ultimately chose to honor the original settler, Mathias Day, with their selection of the name Daytona Beach for the nascent town.
Over time the primitive sandy paths lined with live-oak trees and palmettos slowly gave way to more durable streets, modern homes and storefronts. Finally, in the modern era, the area settled into its signature blend of unruly spring break teenagers, crowds of cheering race fans, high-rise condos and the roar of biker rallies. Eventually all these rowdy diversions took a toll on the city and it gained a reputation as being a bit shabby and struggling; a place fit only for a crowd in search of the raucous and rollicking. Now the famed city is once again in a period of renaissance where landmarks are being restored, neighborhoods rehabilitated and appreciation of the past cultivated. It was this historic and natural side of Daytona that I desired to step off the beaten path and explore.
The Seabird Sanctuary treats and releases thousands of injured birds each year while a handful, like this proud fellow, become resident ambassadors.
Our first stop was the Museum of Arts & Sciences. The “MOAS,” as it is locally referred to, is a campus of art, science and natural history exhibits. The main museum building contains a number of wings and galleries dedicated to American, Cuban, Chinese and African art, as well as large collections of antique furniture and decorative arts. A unique assortment of historic weaponry dominates one wing and includes Napoleonic swords, examples of armor and some intricately crafted firearms. The museum galleries also provide space to feature a number of visiting or rotating exhibits. An overview of current displays can be pre-viewed on the MOAS website. One rotating exhibit that I especially enjoyed during our visit was a display of vintage Florida postcards.
In one distinct area of the MOAS, we located the fascinating Root Family Museum. The Root Glass Co. created the original design of the classic glass Coca-Cola bottle in 1915. The glass company competed against others to win the right to produce their bottle design for the fledgling Coca-Cola Co. It would not be an exaggeration to say that millions of people around the world would instantly recognize this famous bottle, with its green glass and curvy ribbed design. The MOAS prestigiously possesses one (of only two in existence) of the original prototype bottles. The Coca-Cola collection also includes hundreds of other pieces of memorabilia related to the fizzy drink, including everything from historic advertising pieces to large-scale production equipment. The Root family also collected many other items of Americana, including full-size train cars, teddy bears, artifacts of American Indian heritage and relics from the Wild West period. All of the collections are permanently on display at the museum.
Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida. Climb 203 steps to the deck of this National Historic Landmark for sweeping views.
The MOAS has a number of other diverse offerings, like the interactive Charles and Linda Williams Children’s Museum, a full-size planetarium that offers a variety of daily virtual trips out into the universe and the 90-acre Tuscawilla Preserve. The preserve provides an opportunity to walk nature trails through indigenous gardens and plant life. A short walk or quick drive to the other end of the campus and fine art enthusiasts can visit the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art. The building houses a collection of art specific to the history and culture of Florida. The MOAS is a place you could easily adjust to any itinerary by spending just two hours or two full days visiting the campus. A variety of admission ticket options are available, and I noted that the campus had plenty of free parking that could accommodate motorhomes.
After leaving the museum campus we stopped for lunch at Our Deck Down Under which, as the name suggests, is a restaurant located just under the Dunlawton Avenue Bridge. The restaurant’s outdoor deck has great water views and the seafood selections, which primarily revolve around various fried platters, are served in unpretentious and generous portions by a friendly staff.
Our next stop was the Lilian Place Heritage Center. This historic Victorian mansion is the oldest dwelling in beachside Daytona. The home is a quaint piece of the area’s history that is maintained by the Heritage Preservation Trust of Volusia County. Tucked into a quiet and unassuming neighborhood on the banks of Halifax River, I managed to drive past the home three times before catching a glimpse of its unmistakable Victorian Italianate tower. Once I found my way into the small parking area, we were warmly welcomed by a guide who gave us a brief overview of the home’s charming history and welcomed us inside for a guided tour. The home was constructed by the area’s original settlers. The building materials, including the stunning heart-of-pine floors, were brought in by boat on the river. The original owner, Lawrence Thompson, operated the local dry-goods store. The home was passed down through a number of generations before being lovingly restored by the Trust. Filled with antiques and local period artifacts, the Lilian Place provides a chance to step back into the time of the original founding of Daytona. The home also has some additional quirky history that includes visits by a friendly resident ghost, and a visit by famous author Stephen Crane (who wrote “The Red Badge of Courage”), who was literally washed ashore near Daytona and recovered at Lilian Place when his boat, the SS Commodore, sank in 1896. He later wrote about his time at Lilian Place in his acclaimed short story, “The Open Boat.”
Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church welcomes visitors to Sunday service on the grounds of a former drive-in movie theater.
After leaving the refinement of a Victorian mansion, my outside-the-box visit to Daytona Beach was about to take a turn to the wild side. No, I don’t mean a late-night visit to a biker bar or a trip around the track at Daytona International Speedway. We drove the short few miles down to Ponce Inlet and the Marine Science Center, where we discovered that a treasure of natural and historic experiences is available in the Inlet area.
The Marine Science Center specializes in the rehabilitation of sea turtles and seabirds. Through the clear glass panes of the turtle hospital walls, I watched the veterinary treatment and care of injured and ailing turtles. As the turtles recover, they are released back into the ocean, healthy and ready to tackle life in the open sea once again. At the seabird sanctuary next door, thousands of injured birds of all species are brought back to full health. Those that are not able to be released into the wild become permanent resident-ambassadors of the facility. We saw numerous species of birds recovering in naturally appointed flight cages and wading pools. Guides provided us with additional information and interaction with bird ambassadors. After watching the care of the turtles and birds, we spent some time in the Marine Center’s educational exhibit gallery to learn about current and historic aspects of local marine life. Finally, we went by the Center’s touch pool. The shallow 1,400-gallon indoor pool allows visitors a chance to interact directly with some small marine life. I was able to handle, and learn about, a number of creatures, including some friendly stingrays, local fish species and cute hermit crabs.
After leaving the Marine Center it was just a few hundred yards to the entrance of Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum. The lighthouse, which was built in 1887 and is a National Historic Landmark, is the tallest in Florida. I challenged myself to climb the 203 steps to the gallery deck and was rewarded with incredible views of the ocean, the river and greater Daytona. The lighthouse tower was just the beginning of our experience. In the converted woodshed and privy building, we watched a short film that provided an overview of the history and construction of the lighthouse as well as information on its keepers.
Following the film, we explored some of the historic buildings and exhibits including the keeper’s dwelling, the oil storage building and the most enlightening: the lens exhibit building. The Ayers Davies Lens Exhibit Building houses a number of Fresnel glass prism lenses and other lighthouse artifacts. It also provides a fascinating look at the history of lighthouse illumination, from the Pharaohs of Alexandria to modern times.
Campsites at Daytona’s Endless Summer Campground, in nearby Port Orange, are well-kept and conveniently located.
We could not conclude our visit to the Ponce Inlet area without a stop at Lighthouse Point Park. The park is 52 acres of preserved land that includes beaches, picnic areas, and an impressively long and scenic jetty. There was a $10 entrance fee that provided admission for the day, and the park is open sunrise to sunset. After exploring some trails and enjoying the wide, pristine beach, the park’s jetty afforded us a great opportunity to watch some determined fishermen in action.
The park and surrounding areas are very amenable to bicycle or pedestrian exploration and many areas are pooch-friendly. All that walking, exploring and climbing left us famished, so we walked quickly through the small picturesque Davies Park (named for the area’s first mayor) and over to the Hidden Treasure Rum Bar & Grill. The restaurant sits on the Halifax River and among a labyrinth of ancient oak trees. We enjoyed a dinner of fish tacos and clams in a relaxed setting with a lovely view of the water and the setting sun.
There are many campgrounds, RV resorts and state parks within easy driving distance of Daytona Beach. We opted to stay at Daytona’s Endless Summer Campground, a well-kept and friendly park in nearby Port Orange. After our busy days of exploring, we were tempted to skip our custom of visiting a local church on Sunday morning. I am happy we managed to rise and shine that particular Sunday to visit the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church.
The church is located on the beautifully landscaped grounds of a former drive-in theater. As we pulled into the entrance, we rolled down our windows to be greeted by deacons with big smiles. The gentlemen provided us with Communion cups, service bulletins and instructions on tuning in. We pulled into a spot near the front and dialed our radio into the assigned FM station. The fellowship hall was offering donuts, coffee and the option of a seat inside the church building. We, like most other parishioners on this sunny morning, opted to simply sit back in our seats and listen to the services from the comfort of our dinghy vehicle. The non-denominational Christian church is located on South Atlantic Drive, in Daytona Shores, and heartily welcomes visitors.
This nontraditional church setting certainly provided a fitting end to our nontraditional visit to “The World’s Most Famous Beach.”
We all have our own way of setting up the motorhome once we get into camp. Some of us have very elaborate and specific rituals that we follow to the letter, others just wing it and play it by ear (not actually the best course of action), and some of us have created our own checklist based on our preferences and years of experience (read: lessons learned the hard way). If you’re a newbie, or in the winging-it category, check out MotorHome’s 12 Steps for Setting Up Camp, below, and if you are an RV veteran — you know who you are — how about adding your wisdom to the Comments section below.
And, hey, while we’re at it, our resident experts have thrown in a bonus list: Leaving the RV Site. Sorry, but that one is twice as long (we don’t know why), and not as much fun (’cause nobody wants to say goodbye to s’mores) 🙂
I own a 2009 Roadtrek Class B motorhome. The power cord gets stiff below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Are there any companies that make a 30-amp cord that stays flexible in the cold?
Mel Eberly | via emai
This is a widely overlooked problem. I checked around and found the Mighty Cord Replacement Hardwire RV Power Cord No. A10-3025END. This cord is 25 feet long and is rated for minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s available from Etrailer.com (800-298-8924, www.etrailer.com). SmartPlug (206-285-2990, www.smartplug.com) also offers solutions in 30- and 50-amp configurations.
The 9200 Power Awning from Dometic features a newly designed motor for quiet, one-touch operation. It’s easily set up by one person and comes with an improved manual override in case of power outages. The durable mildew- and moisture-resistant vinyl fabric protects you from the elements. Available lengths range from 8 to 21 feet. Hardware is sold separately.
Thor’s roomy 35M Class A gasser has the features and space for families
Even with the slideout retracted, the kitchen and living area are fully functional. The two-basin sink, oven, microwave, 11-cubic-foot residential refrigerator, pantry and 40-inch LED TV line the side wall opposite the dinette and extending sofa (the slideout must be out to expand). Photos: Scott Hirko
Somehow we lucked out and splendid RVing weather coincided with our test of the Hurricane 35M smack in the middle of winter. Even though we’re in Southern California where weather patterns aren’t extreme, there are still surprises. For the time we had the motorhome booked, the only hurricane — or any other storm — in the forecast was Thor Motor Coach’s family-focused Class A. Built by Thor for Camping World, the Hurricane rides on a Ford F-53 chassis and, at 37 feet 2 inches, is the longest of six floorplans in the Hurricane lineup.
Motoring out of a lakefront campsite that was no longer lakefront due to California’s drought, we headed to where we were guaranteed there’d be water: the Pacific Ocean. After miles of highway and another 15 on a stunningly gorgeous road with rolling hills carpeted in green after recent much-needed rain, we turned off on a slow-going two-lane road to the coast. The Hurricane’s enormous one-piece windshield and sliding side windows afforded a fantastic view of the undulating hillsides dotted with California live oak, ruminating cows studying passers-by behind barbed wire, and the road ahead, where we turned into one after another posted 15- and 20-mph curves.
The dinette and sofa both easily transform into additional sleeping space. Expansive windows with pleated pull-down shades above the seating area allow for plenty of natural light.
The Ford’s 320-hp 6.8-liter V-10 engine, which took the narrow climbing and diving twisty road in stride (while I did my best to dodge overhanging branches), toted the 17,620-pound Hurricane with ease. I’d dropped off Bill, my husband, to tackle this road on his bicycle while I continued on, and I could have kicked myself for not raising the shade for the window over the sink before starting out. The weighted bar at the bottom of the shade clanged into the single-handle chrome faucet with each turn until there was finally a place to pull off.
Reaching the beachside campground, we backed smoothly into a site with help from the rear-view camera monitor showing an image of the hill behind us plastered on its 10-inch screen in the cockpit. The touchscreen has an AM/FM radio with Bluetooth and iGo primo navigation that shares space with HVAC controls and is surrounded by multiple cupholders, and USB and 12-volt DC outlets. As a bonus, there is a 19-by-25-inch workstation built into the dash that hinges up and toward the copilot. The Hurricane is pet-friendly, with a (non-opening) window placed at the passenger’s feet level, giving your furry friend and the driver a view. Outside the entry door, behind the compartment door for accessing the 20-gallon LP-gas tank, is a Pet-Link tie-down for attaching a dog leash or cable.
Facing the ocean, we watched the sunset from the comfort of the cockpit’s leatherette swiveling and reclining captain’s chairs with adjustable armrests while enjoying the warmth from the 35M’s 35,000-Btu furnace. The Hurricane is outfitted with 50-amp power but the campground offered only a 30-amp connection; not a problem since we didn’t need to use the two 13,500-Btu air conditioners (or even one of them). And when heavy-duty wind gusts came knocking during the night, the 35M didn’t budge on its Lippert auto-leveling jacks. Sliding off my front-seat, ocean-view perch once the sun had set, I whipped up a quick dinner. The kitchen’s solid-surface counter houses a two-basin stainless-steel sink and three-burner Dometic range with a glass cover that leaves only 8 inches of countertop space between the two for food prep unless the covers are in place. In that case, the length stretches to a 5½-foot flush surface, and with two push-button LEDs over the sink, it becomes a great space for slicing and dicing. The faucet is located close to the window over the sink, so when moving the handle to the hot-water position, it bumped into the window’s metal casing.
Full access to kitchen and appliances and half-bath when galley slide is retracted, abundant storage and ROCCC, comfy places to lounge
Panel-operated light switches in bathroom difficult to see in the dark, a step stool may be needed to open and close vent hatches and to operate galley fan
The stain- and tear-resistant Armstrong ToughGuard vinyl flooring (with a three-year cold crack warranty) is part of the Sterling Mist II décor that not only looks great but barely showed dirt during the test. Each time I swept, I was amazed at how much ended up in the dustpan. An attractive glass-and-tile backsplash protects the walls from food splatters between the range and overhead 1.6-cubic-foot High Pointe microwave. An 11-cubic-foot Whirlpool residential refrigerator with icemaker locks for travel by simply moving a lever. The two-door electric fridge is powered by an 1,800-watt inverter during travel. We weren’t plugged into electric when loading up the Hurricane for our trip and the fridge petered out after about seven hours, but the contents were still cold six hours later. Potential buyers would do well to take a look at their prospective travel and destination plans, and the types of campgrounds they plan to visit, when selecting a residential-type refrigerator that runs on 120-volt AC power. The test motorhome was also prepped for solar, though not set up with solar panels.
The Hurricane’s one-stop panel for monitoring holding and freshwater tanks and operating the Hurricane’s various functions, located on the wall next to the range, can be paired to a smartphone or tablet for easy viewing within range. The single-speed fans in each bathroom can be turned off and on from the panel (as well as from a touchpad in the bathrooms). The galley’s four-speed MaxxAir ceiling fan (with roof shroud), however, is manual, which means a 7-plus-foot reach to operate it; some folks will need a step stool.
The galley’s slideout, which houses the side-by-side booth dinette and sofa, opens the living area into a spacious room where each family member can relax in their own zone, whether it’s on the extended L-shaped sofa, seated at the dinette, in the captain’s chairs or on the hideaway power drop-down front bunk’s Cotton Cloud mattress. There are seat belts for two in the sofa and two more in the dinette’s forward-facing seat, for a total of six positions, with a child’s safety tether in the dinette available as an option.
Even with the slide retracted, the galley is livable, with 27 inches width at its narrowest point and full access to the kitchen and amidships half-bath. When the 35M’s bedroom slide is closed it smooshes the king-sized mattress up against the wardrobe’s drawers, blocking access to the Hurricane’s rear loo, unless you want to crawl over the bed.
There’s an impressive amount of storage in the 35M, with multiple cabinets and drawers all done in Malibu Maple. Thought clearly went into designing each nook and cranny, with the possible exception of the kitchen’s four-shelf pantry. Two lower pull-out shelves on ball-bearing glides make it easy to reach the contents but, curiously, the upper 25-inch-deep shelves are not on glides — it’s as if the shelf design was reversed. I’m 5-foot-9 and was on tiptoes to reach boxes of rice in the back of the top shelf, where they had made a beeline during travel.
The dinette’s firm 5-inch-thick cushions were a fine place to kick back lengthwise with my back to the frameless window, and drinks stayed upright in the table’s two cupholders. A single lever unlocks the table, which can then be pushed down to create a 70-by-40-inch bed. There’s a winsome glass lamp situated on the wall between the dinette and sofa that is bookended by large windows with bottom outward-opening glass and pleated pull-down privacy shades.
When retracted, the 500-pound-capacity drop-down bunk is so well incorporated that visitors did not know it existed. Portable pedestal table easily sets up between the captain’s chairs.
Moving to the comfy L-shaped sofa for front-row viewing of the 40-inch LED TV that’s mounted on a bracket so it can be moved away from the wall, we pulled out the sofa’s extension to add another seat. The extension is great for accommodating extra people but those sitting in the corner will be tangling legs. On the other hand, the person lounging at the extended end has to lift but one arm to pluck a refreshment from the fridge, and there are strategically placed cupholders and a shelf behind the sofa where drinks can be parked. The sofa, with its 6-inch-thick cushions, jackknives into a comfortable bed.
Over the sofa is a deep storage cabinet that is almost 7 feet long and accessed by four doors that open via gas struts toward the ceiling. A Sony Blu-ray/DVD player occupies the space in the cabinet over the microwave, out of reach of children (and some adults, too). A Winegard Rayzar antenna is mounted in the ceiling over the entry steps, and there’s a WiFiRanger for boosting Wi-Fi signal.
For a peaceful night’s rest, smooth-sliding wood pocket doors section off the bedroom from the living area and rear bathroom. The 72-by-76-inch king-sized bed with a 6½-inch-thick Euro-top mattress is across from a large three-door mirrored wardrobe with a hanging clothes rod and six deep drawers. There’s no storage under the bed, but plenty above it, as well as in the dresser and the hidden cabinet to which a 32-inch LED TV is attached.
A 12-volt DC outlet is next to the bed, and there are narrow shelves and cubbies on each side, and a padded headboard covers two-thirds of the wall. Over the dresser is a charging center with four USB ports and a GFCI outlet. There’s good floor space in the bedroom at the foot of the bed, which transitions into the rear bath. In fact, a friend was able to use her standard 2-foot-wide walker to travel from the front of the Hurricane to the rear bath and ADA-compliant 19-inch-high porcelain toilet.
The bedroom has three windows; the largest, at 26 inches wide, doubles as an emergency exit. Smaller windows bookend the head of the bed and with no other slides obscuring the view, I awoke each morning to a perfect view of the ocean with a simple turn of my head.
The master bathroom boasts great lighting, a long countertop and, as in the rest of the interior, lots of storage, including handy open shelving. The backsplash, like in the half-bath, is finished with a peel-and-stick material in colors that pair well with the laminate counter and cabinets. Stepping up about a foot through a 17-inch-wide three-section glass door that curves smoothly in its track places you in a shower that is a couple inches shy of 7 feet tall with the skylight. The shower pan, at more than 5 inches deep, can act as a shallow bathtub for a child or dog. Being tall, we appreciated that the showerhead is mounted at 6 feet high, and thumbs up to easy-to-grip hot and cold levers and a shut-off valve.
There’s room on each side of the king-size mattress to squeeze in to make the bed, and cubbies keep books and nighttime necessities close by.
The 35M could benefit from an instant water heater like Truma’s AquaGo. In this family-friendly motorhome set up for multiple people, its 6-gallon DSI water heater is likely to make someone unhappy if showers aren’t timed appropriately. Towel hooks are conveniently located outside the shower so no need to step out to reach a towel, and a heat register at floor level can keep your feet toasty after you do step out. There’s also a hand-towel ring by the sink, and a 17-inch towel bar by the toilet.
Half-bath (above) and master bath (below) both offer rounded countertops, large mirrored medicine cabinets and storage.
One gripe about the bathrooms is that the light switches are in the same panels as the fans and water-pump, so when groping around in the dark we inadvertently turned on the fans or couldn’t find the lights at all. This could be remedied with a night light or by leaving a bathroom light on. And although this isn’t an issue for tall folks, reaching the manual cranks to raise the vent hatches in the bathroom ceilings can be a challenge.
Among the extensive storage in the half-bath are large cabinets behind the porcelain toilet; the toilet seat needs to be down to open the lower cabinet. If the cabinets are left open, I pictured exuberant kids seeing this as an invitation to use the four deep shelves as a ladder. A corner-set mirrored medicine cabinet extends over the low-set sink in a spacious counter — a great perk for kids, but anyone taller than 4 feet who leans over the sink to wash their face or brush their teeth will have a mirror in the way. Across from the half-bath is a large cabinet prepped for a washer and dryer.
With such a captivating view, we enjoyed sitting outside and chatting with happy campers who walked by with dogs and fishing rods, so the Hurricane’s 32-inch outdoor TV stayed behind lock and key. But for those who like that outdoor entertainment, the system fills the bill with a swivel TV mount, sound bar, radio, USB and Bluetooth connectivity — all under cover of the 18-foot lateral-arm awning with LED lighting.
A big step up places you in the master bath’s roomy shower with almost 7 feet of head clearance.
Side-opening storage bins line both sides of the Hurricane and with its 4,380-pound realistic occupant and cargo carrying capacity, numerous items like inflatable watercraft can be toted along. The company calls it pass-through storage and technically it is; however, there’s maybe 6 inches height clearance through the center portion of the pass-through.
The tallest exterior storage bin offers 41 inches height and the longest 5 feet width, and they are made of rotocast plastic molding and a drain so they can be hosed out for easy clean-up. Curiously, there were no individually switched LEDs; the lights are operated from a panel inside by the entry steps and when they’re turned on or off, it’s all or none. A drawer resides in one of the entry steps, and the first step up onto the Hurricane’s roof ladder is a doozy at 33 inches. The 35M is outfitted with a 360-degree siphon vent cap for tank odor prevention, an 8,000-pound-rated hitch receiver, an outside water sprayer, and dual gray and black tanks. The large holding-tank capacities are great, but you’ll need three hoses and a T-fitting to make it work, unless you want to remove a sewer hose and move it from one place to the other.
The Hurricane 35M is set up well for a family, whether for a weekend break or an extended outing. This Class A offers plenty of room and amenities for lounging and entertainment inside if the weather’s not cooperating, as well as the space to bring along plenty of gear for outdoor fun.
Model Ford F-53 Engine 6.8-liter V-10
SAE Hp 320 @ 3,900 rpm
Torque 460 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic with
Tow/Haul mode Axle Ratio 5.38:1 Front Tires 245/70R19.5 Rear Tires 245/70R19.5 Wheelbase 242″ Brakes Front/Rear Disc, anti-lock Suspension Front/Rear Leaf springs,
gas shock absorbers Fuel Capacity 80 gal Fuel Economy 7.61 mpg Warranty 3 years/36,000 miles basic,
5 years/60,000 miles drivetrain
Exterior Length 37′ 2″ Exterior Width 8′ 3″ Exterior Height with A/C 12′ 2″ Interior Width 8′ Interior Height 7′ Construction Laminated walls and floor with block foam insulation, one-piece roof,
fiberglass front and rear caps Freshwater Capacity 50 gal Black-Water Capacity 40 gal front/39 gal rear Gray-Water Capacity 40 gal front/39 gal rear Water-Heater Capacity 6 gal LP-Gas Capacity 20 gal Air Conditioner (2) 13,500-Btu Furnace 35,000-Btu Refrigerator 11-cu-ft residential Inverter/Charger 1,800-watt/55-amp Batteries (1) 12-volt chassis, (2) 12-volt house AC Generator 5.5 kW MSRP $153,300 MSRP as Tested $155,444 Warranty 1 year/15,000 miles bumper to bumper,
3 years/45,000 miles structural
(Water and water heater, fuel full; no supplies or passengers) Front Axle 6,540 lbs Rear Axle 11,080 lbs Total 17,620 lbs
The storage space in our compact Class B is limited, which requires us to get creative. The two rules we have are: square is best for containers, and think vertical! Finding a place to store our baseball-type caps was an issue, so I came up with a vertical solution made of easy-to-find materials. I used a durable piece of ribbon and sewed on sturdy plastic clothespins to hold the caps. We mounted it to a section of wall by the door and it has worked really well. The caps are out of the way, but still easily accessible when we are heading out on sunny days.
These motorhomes allow for on-road versatility without sacrificing livability
As most people know, motorhome owners hit every note on the scale of dreams and destinations and somewhere between City Mouse and Country Mouse, there is a sweet spot where the two harmoniously combine. These days, that soul-soothing chord is quite often struck in Class B’s and compact Class C’s. But with such a wide sea of choices to surf, what’s a mouse to do?
Well, we’ve got a few motorhomes that may help. They all share the common characteristics that make this segment appealing: shorter lengths (all between 17 and 26 feet) on smaller chassis, mobility and compact but comfortable living.
We have, however, grouped them into categories based on some of their more stand-out features: Family-Friendly, those that more easily accommodate more passengers; Clever Compact, streamlined and innovative with a more European influence; Adventurers, for those who like to go off-road, off-grid or both; and Luxury, for those (like us) who believe downsizing is absolutely not synonymous with sacrifice.
No motorhome is perfect, nor is there one that is perfect for everyone; but hopefully the following will help point you toward your motorhome soulmate … or at least give you a good place to start.
Coach House Platinum II 241XL DRT
Made and sold by Coach House in Nokomis, Florida, the Platinum II 241XL DRT is the largest among our stand-outs and the most expensive, but we’re including it because it’s remarkable and well-made; and we’re tagging it family-friendly because Coach House was diligent about creating a pleasant space for multiple occupants in a more compact package.
Every component in the Platinum II is chosen and handled with conscious care. Take, for example, the hydraulic slideout with its own awning to keep out falling debris, the patented one-piece seamless fiberglass body reinforced with carbon fiber and the lightweight substrate, which is more durable and eco-friendly than traditional construction materials, according to Coach House.
Chassis Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 Engine 3.0L V-6 turbodiesel Fuel Cap 26.4 gal GVWR 11,030 lbs Exterior Length 25′ 9″ Exterior Width 8′ Exterior Height with A/C 10′ 8″ Wheelbase 170″ Freshwater Cap 31 gal
Black-/Gray-Water Cap 25 gal/28 gal LP-Gas Cap 15 gal Base MSRP $193,497
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There isn’t room for a full run-down of all the 241XL’s appointments, which appear in 10 floorplans that shuffle various seating and sleeping options into whichever configuration best floats your boat. Oh, that’s another thing: Coach House says it takes its cues from marine manufacturers on any elements where there might be a functional or aesthetic advantage. If you’re in the Florida area and you’re in the market for a high-quality, manageable-sized Class C in which to hit the road with some companions, it’s worth swinging by Coach House for some show-and-tell.
The Coachmen Orion 21TB is the very definition of family-friendly: Plenty of room for more people to stash their stuff and be comfy during travel and downtime. Now, that’s nothing unusual for a Class C motorhome, but this Class C is a little unusual in how much it packs into a smaller footprint, and with a smaller price tag.
Even with no slideouts and a trim waistline, the Orion 21TB still has room for five to sleep and lounge comfortably between the 48-by-87-inch over-cab bunk, dinette that converts to a single sleeper and two rear sofa twins that can be combined into one king-sized bed. What’s more, it houses a spacious bathroom with a surprising amount of wiggle room that occupies the rear.
Chassis Ford Transit T350 Engine 3.7L V-6 Fuel Cap 25 gal GVWR 10,360 lbs Exterior Length 23′ 9″ Exterior Width 7′ 7″ Exterior Height with A/C 10′ 6″ Wheelbase 156″ Freshwater Cap 37 gal Black-/Gray-Water Cap
32 gal/32 gal LP-Gas Cap 10 gal Base MSRP $76,560
The 21TB has a few more surprises to offer for a motorhome this size, such as its stout 37-gallon freshwater capacity, abundant storage space, water-impervious Azdel substrate, standard LCD TV, and back-up and side-view cameras. Plus, it’s all built on a chassis with a good reputation for drivability and fuel economy. While we prefer overhead cabinets that prop open and a cover or flush mounting for the cooktop burners, with its sizeable features and value, the Orion 21TB has competently hunted and captured our attention.
It’s hard to categorize the Pleasure-Way Tofino van conversion. Should we call it a budget-pleaser, or family-friendly? Is it a stand-out for its technology, or for its boondocking capability? The one-size-fits-all answer is “yes.” But we placed it here because it defies typical Class B two-occupant capacity by doubling it through its efficient use of considerably less space.
The Tofino is the most diminutive vehicle in this lineup in every way, but there’s plenty of room to play. The absence of weighty components like a generator or air conditioner allows for a substantial 2,000-pound occupant and cargo carrying capacity, which can be utilized with the 70-cubic-foot rear cargo area. Two can sleep in the 54-by-72-inch bed in the rear, while two more can open the pop-top to access a 49-by-72-inch overhead bunk with a foam mattress, USB charging and remote-control lighting.
Chassis RAM Pro-Master 1500 Engine 3.6L V-6 Pentastar Fuel Cap 24 gal GVWR 8,550 lbs Exterior Length 17′ 9″ Exterior Width 8′ 2.5″ Exterior Height 8′ 2″ Wheelbase 136″ Freshwater Cap 15 gal Black-/Gray-Water Cap
N/A / 8 gal LP-Gas Cap 5.9 gal Base MSRP $69,550
The Tofino fits into traffic patterns and parking spaces with ease. Owners can expect a respectable 16-20 mpg and then corral it in a 10-foot garage. You could take it tailgating because it has a functional kitchenette with a 2.3-cubic-foot compressor refrigerator, an induction burner and a stainless-steel sink with a flush countertop-material cover.
Head into the wilderness, and you’ll still find yourself in comfort. Two 100-amp-hour-rated lithium house batteries and a 2,000-watt inverter, plus optional solar charging, will keep the multiplex switching, touch-screen control panel with remote, real-time amperage meter and 16,000-Btu furnace running. Fresh- and gray-water lines are housed inside for all-season protection, though you’ll need to bring your own portable toilet because the Tofino isn’t equipped with bathroom facilities.
Most everything is standard, including a back-up camera, GPS, electronic stability control, power folding heated mirrors, MCD roller shades and dimmable LED lights. All that with a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty.
Being in the Airstream Interstate Nineteen feels a bit like being on a cruise ship. The marine plank-style flooring and porthole-styled bathroom window add to that ambience. It’s the slimmest model in the bunch and one of the shortest, but it’s feature-packed, with smart use of space and thoughtful appointments.
Chassis Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Engine 3.0L V-6 turbodiesel Fuel Cap 24.5 gal GVWR 8,550 lbs Exterior Length 19′ 5″ Exterior Width 6′ 7″ Exterior Height with A/C 9′ 7″ Wheelbase 144″ Freshwater Cap 20 gal Black-/Gray-Water Cap
10 gal/15 gal LP-Gas Cap 9.34 gal Base MSRP $149,240
A sliding side screen door and rear power screen door help transform the Nineteen’s space from van to motorhome. Multiplex controls operate the shades, lighting, power awning, climate control, generator and more. Rear seating folds into a relatively roomy 66-by-73-inch bed, and the wet bath is of decent size for such a trim unit. Still, it’s the extra touches like an in-counter waste basket and a waterproof toilet-paper cover that make the livability difference.
Built on the Sprinter chassis with a host of safety features, the Airstream Interstate Nineteen is easy to handle and park. While it only sleeps two, it seats four, so you could also use it as an everyday vehicle to transport friends and family around town.
The Passage MDP2 by Midwest Automotive Designs is flagged as an upscale choice for backroad treks. Already equipped with a 100-watt rooftop solar charging system, tankless water heater and exterior shower for outdoor-play clean-up, a handful of extras are available to take it farther from hookups. Take your pick from options like all-terrain tires, 4×4 chassis, VB air ride system and the Eco Freedom Package’s upgrades in battery and solar power supply and management.
Chassis Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 Engine 3.0L V-6 turbodiesel Fuel Cap 24.6 gal GVWR 9,050 lbs Exterior Length 19′ 6″ Exterior Width 7′ 8″ Exterior Height with A/C 9′ 8″ Wheelbase 144″ Freshwater Cap 32 gal Black-/Gray-Water Cap
15 gal/27 gal LP-Gas Cap 15.1 gal Base MSRP $160,495
There’s no “roughing it” feel inside, though, with touches like the 16-step high-gloss Burland wood finish on the cabinets. Ultraleather adorns the seating but also lines storage areas to add insulation and sound-deadening. An amidships wet bath hides in a wood-finish closet of sorts with a shower curtain (you may want to replace the transparent one with a more opaque one of your own). Midwest builds and installs its own components without the use of an assembly line.
To accommodate four passengers, upgrade to the Passage MDP4 floorplan for two extra seats, and add the 69-by-72-inch power lift bed to sleep them as well.
We’ve found Phoenix Cruiser to be a standout for its customized units, factory-direct value and off-road capabilities. The 4×4 option will bulk up any of its 10 floorplans ranging roughly from 21 to 31 feet, starting with our pick here, the 2100. The 4×4 package includes a heavy-duty transfer case and beefier driveshaft, bearings and stabilizers. Tires are upgraded to BF Goodrich All-Terrain with a more aggressive tread that’s still quiet on the road, something Phoenix is mindful of. All units have rubber pucks to keep vibration from traveling from the chassis into the interior floor, and double heat-and-sound insulation in the cab floor.
Chassis Ford E-450 Engine 6.8L V-10 Fuel Cap 55 gal GVWR 14,500 lbs Exterior Length 21′ 7″
(without ladder) Exterior Width 7’ 9” Exterior Height with A/C 10′ 1″ Wheelbase 138″ Freshwater Cap 26 gal Black-/Gray-Water Cap
35gal/23 gal LP-Gas Cap 5 gal Base MSRP $105,183
Another option is the LiquidSpring Compressible Liquid Adaptive Suspension System (CLASS), which we have experienced ourselves. It automatically changes spring stiffness and damps at each wheel with minimal power consumption to help hold down body roll, especially on turns and in crosswinds.
Even though the 2100 is the smallest Phoenix Cruiser model, it still has a slideout and a three-piece kitchen with a pop-up power tower, memory-foam seating and full dry bath. Because Phoenix Cruiser emphasizes customizing its units, you’ll probably want a few add-ons that may come standard in other models (e.g., swivel passenger seat, power locks and TV antenna), and there’s an extensive menu to choose from. Plus, you can even throw back a standard option you may not want.
The Embassy has evolved quite a bit since SVO Group first introduced it to the Class B market. Its first incarnation contained hardy, functional components, as well as a few nice touches like magnetic window covers and a wastebasket drawer, but the interior was dark and almost felt like a cargo van with furniture.
Chassis RAM ProMaster 3500 Engine 3.6L V-6 Fuel Cap 24 gal GVWR 9,350 lbs Exterior Length 20′ 8.5″ Exterior Width 6′ 8″ Exterior Height with A/C 8′ 11.75″ Wheelbase 159″ Freshwater Cap 23.5 gal Black-/Gray-Water Cap
Cassette toilet, 5.1 gal/23.5 gal LP-Gas Cap N/A Base MSRP $129,850
with porch and tent
Looking at the 2019 Embassy, it’s clear SVO Group has softened a few edges and lightened things up considerably, bringing it up to speed with contemporary motorhome-owner expectations: For example, whereas fabric curtains once separated a toilet from other occupants, sliding pocket doors now create a more private space for the vanity/cassette toilet space.
What hasn’t changed is the Embassy’s focus on utility. All cabinet doors are still made of lightweight marine plastic that’ll take a beating. There’s a pull-out exterior rear shower, heavy fiberglass running boards, high-traffic flooring with composite subflooring, an additional 280-amp alternator, eight-layer aircraft-style insulation and more. It seems ready to go anywhere and to put up with just about anything.
Of course, we can’t forget the Embassy’s (optional) star feature: A 6-foot fold-out tented rear porch, which is..
Recycle your old name-tag lanyard and avoid the damage caused by trying to extend your motorhome’s slideout while the locking bar is in place. Shorten the lanyard to the correct length for the slide control, then insert a warning message in the name-tag holder. Hang this close to the slide-extend switch so you remember to remove the bar before extending the slide. Our switch is behind the lift-up door in the photo, which made the location for the reminder an easy choice.
A guide to products and services that will make life in your motorhome even better
As we all know, a motorhome is a gateway to adventure. Once you’ve purchased one, your travel options increase, and are limited only by your imagination — and where the road leads, of course. But as any owner — new or longtime — knows, ownership of a motorhome also leads to additional necessities. You wouldn’t buy a new home without furnishing it would, you? And although we’re not suggesting a new set of furniture every time you pull up stakes, the following items are virtual must-haves; some should be purchased right away (like insurance, sewer equipment and water hoses). All are easy to find at www.campingworld.com or other online retailers.
Before You Go
Good Sam Club Membership
With more than 2 million members, the Good Sam Club is the largest RV and outdoor organization. Club benefits include 10 percent off at Camping World, Gander Outdoors and Overton’s, plus free shipping on orders of $49 or more at www.campingworld.com; members-only discounts on RV products and services; fuel discounts at Pilot Flying J locations; online trip planning; Good Sam mail service; recall notifications; discounts on RV magazines (including MotorHome) and more.
Have you insured your motorhome on your auto policy, thinking your homeowner’s insurance will cover the livability features? Many auto insurance companies consider items like plumbing, refrigeration and dining equipment to be personal property that should be covered under a homeowner’s policy, which could cause the premiums to rise on both your auto and homeowner’s policies if your motorhome is in an accident. The best solution is RV specialty insurance, offering coverage options and features like: personal belongings coverage, permanent attachments coverage, storage option, full-timer liability, vacation liability, optional full replacement cost coverage and emergency expense allowance. The Good Sam Insurance Agency represents several specialty RV insurance carriers in order to compare protections and prices to find the best coverage and rate.
Water, Water Everywhere
In addition to on-demand mobility, having fresh, potable water on demand is one of the primary conveniences that sets motorhome ownership apart from camping in a tent. Proper hose selection is important; a cheaper hose can lead to a cheapened experience. Remember to carry at least two hoses with you: one for the city-water connection and one for rinsing the black-water holding tank (or other smelly tasks). After your trial run, you should also know which fittings and adapters will be necessary on future trips.
Every manufacturer offers a recommended pressure rating for water flowing into the motorhome from the city-water inlet. It won’t take long to realize that campground water pressure is often much higher than those ratings. To reduce the flow rate, simply attach a pressure regulator to the RV park’s water supply. Be sure to invest in a durable model (i.e., brass) that is safe to use with drinking water.
Although water from the campground spigot is a wonderful convenience, its quality can be inconsistent and it can not only taste bad, but also can damage the faucets, sinks and shower enclosures if left unfiltered. Installing an inline filter helps reduce harmful and foul-tasting contaminants. Many new motorhomes contain whole-house filters; when replacing those filters, we recommend a filter with a rating of 1 micron or less.
Adding chemical treatments to your motorhome’s holding tank helps control offensive odors, and also aids in breaking down solids for a smooth flow. As an added bonus, many of the treatments are designed to lubricate the seals, which helps prolong the life of these vital components to avoid nasty mishaps. They are available in drop-in or liquid forms; some use formaldehyde, while some go the all-natural route.
Sewer Hose and Components
Despite years of schoolyard jokes and guffaws, raw sewage is no laughing matter. And sewer hoses are nothing to take lightly, nor are they all created equal. A cheap hose may work in a pinch, but this is one area where you certainly don’t want to deal with a component failing. Spending a little more on high-quality fixtures, hoses and connectors is a good way to ensure smooth operation, and will help to avoid embarrassing and messy spills at the campsite or dump station.
Before you tune in, you have to plug in. And before you plug in, be sure to use a surge protector at the campground pedestal. Surge protectors are designed to protect motorhomes from damaging, unsteady and downright untrustworthy 30- or 50-amp, 120-volt AC power from an RV park pedestal. It only takes a few seconds of faulty power or a power surge to fry the circuits of your motorhome’s expensive electronics and appliances. Some surge protectors are also equipped with a miswired pedestal indicator, which informs the user that the coast is clear before plugging in.
Hey, I’d rather perform on-road origami and try to read the tiny lines on the trifold map buried in the depths of my glovebox … said no one, ever. How about voice-guided directions? A large visual screen to see your surroundings? Or, what about RV-specific road measurements and restrictions, with points-of-interest and favorite eateries along the way? Sounds good to us, too. Throw in weather monitoring, instant traffic rerouting, fuel stops and dozens of other technological wonders, and we’re sure you can see why an RV GPS is a smart choice.
Motorhome Fuse Kit
Fuses can blow at any time, catching many motorhome owners unaware and unprepared. Much like you should carry extra fuses with you in your automobile, pack along a set of replacement fuses in your motorhome toolbox. They’re cheap insurance against getting stranded without some of the modern conveniences in your motorhome.
Once in camp, the wheels on your motorhome must be stabilized so that they don’t move when the vehicle is parked. Chocks for this purpose come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they deploy in different ways. Chocks range from simple wedges up to lockable models that are adjustable and retractable.
RV-park and campground sites are not all precisely on the level. For motorhomes that don’t have an automatic leveling system, blocks may be needed to raise some of the tires to get the vehicle on an even plane. Using wood blocks is an option, but there are dedicated, stackable units available that do the job even better.
Whether it’s a handheld tackle-box type with common household tools, or a larger box you keep in basement storage, every motorhome owner should have a toolbox stocked with common hand tools that help get the job done. Larger models could even house your dinghy-towing equipment, lug wrenches and the like.
Good Sam Roadside Assistance helps stranded motorhome owners get back on the road without breaking the bank. Good Sam Roadside Assistance is available 24 hours a day, and if an RV-specific technician is unable to fix the problem on the spot, Roadside Assistance will tow the vehicle to the nearest professional service center. Other Good Sam Roadside Assistance benefits include: coverage for RVs and autos, motorcycles and boat trailers; coverage for member, spouse and dependent children at no extra cost; unlimited distance towing to the nearest service center; and even battery jump-starts, fuel/fluid delivery, flat tire and locksmith service. 866-864-7752, www.goodsamroadside.com
Wherever you go, and with whomever, it’s important to be prepared. Nothing ruins an adventure like an illness or injury. Make sure to pack all the essentials — band-aids, antiseptic wipes, anti-itch cream, eye wash, cold medications, painkillers, prescriptions, etc. And don’t forget to pack a kit for your four-legged companions, as well.
Your motorhome likely came equipped from the factory with a fire extinguisher. Make sure it is still operable, and maybe even buy a second one. Fire safety is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s definitely a case where we say get more than you think you need. The situation to put one to use may never arise, but spending a few bucks to save your motorhome, your family and fellow campers is more than worth it.
Good Sam Extended Service Plan
Nobody wants to think about the bad stuff, but the fact is that motorhomes, like everything else on the planet, may experience problems or, gasp!, breakdowns. The Good Sam Extended Service Plan can help you save thousands of dollars on repairs. Pay as you go, and immediately begin enjoying the benefits, which include unlimited annual mileage, plus the ability to choose your deductible and your repair center (within the Good Sam network). It’s easy to purchase and offers a 100 percent money-back guarantee. You can cancel anytime.
Life on the Inside
Kitchen and Bath Mats
Anti-fatigue floor mats aren’t only for cashiers and professional chefs. Using a cushy PVC mat not only makes feet and legs happier, it keeps the galley and bathroom floors dry. This is also a great place to let your personality shine … go nuts with fun designs and textures.
Saving space is never more important than in a motorhome’s galley (especially in more compact floorplans). Conventional dishware can eat up your storage space quickly. An easy way to free up the real estate in your cupboards is to buy nesting cookware and collapsible storage containers, colanders, measuring cups, bowls, etc.
Think of the number of towels in your bathroom at home. Now, multiply that number by however many are in your motorhome crew. Considering many of us use more than one towel, daily, a single towel rod (if so equipped) simply won’t cut it. We recommend clipping a couple of inexpensive 3M plastic hooks on the bathroom door for hanging towels.
We can’t stress enough how valuable space is in a motorhome. That means double-duty isn’t a suggestion … it’s a way of life. Utilizing hanging cubbies or shoe organizers to hold items like toiletries, remote controls, magazines, etc., is a great way to reduce the clutter and maximize available space.
A no-brainer, really. Or is it? Leave your home’s toilet paper at home. The best practice for RV owners is to use quick-dissolving toilet paper designed for RV/marine use. That will ensure your motorhome’s sewer system works properly for many years to come, will help minimize clogs and will lead to a much more enjoyable tank-dumping experience. Besides, it’s good for the environment.
You might not believe it, but many motorhomes don’t come with a trashcan, let alone a dedicated space for one. Many owners often resort to hanging grocery bags from doorknobs or cabinet pulls to hold trash. Does it work? Yes. Does it look as bad as it sounds? Also, yes. One innovative solution is a collapsible frame that holds plastic kitchen bags. Topped with a lid, the trash-bag holder folds to an easy-to-store size for travel and sets up instantly, indoors or out. Another solution,..
Exploring Forest City and Mason City, Iowa, right in Winnebago’s backyard
On June 2, 2018, my husband, Jim, and I drove to La Mesa RV in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take possession of our brand-new 2019 Winnebago Vista LX 30T. I got teary eyed as I watched it being driven onto the lot for our walk through. It was love at first sight.
As we got to know our new motorhome better, we found a few things that needed repair, which we fully expected. The first destination on our upcoming three-month-long motorhome trip was to be Forest City, Iowa, home of Winnebago. On YouTube, I watched people talking about the dreaded factory visit, but we were excited about it. This was a chance to see where our baby was born, and to check out a new area of our country. Cool!
When we arrived in Forest City, we thought our list was long enough to keep a customer-service representative busy for a day or two. We had a hydraulic jack with a faulty seal, various squeaks and rattles, and a few cosmetic items. On the afternoon before our scheduled appointment, we checked in at the Customer Service Center. It has a nice lobby, perfect for reading, watching TV, knitting, or making new friends.
All finished motorhomes undergo a high-pressure water test, with 250 spray holes simulating 50 inches of rain per hour.
At the Winnebago Visitors Center, we reserved spots for the factory tour the next morning, and then settled in at the Winnebago Service Campground at the nearby fairgrounds. The RV sites have electric hookups only, but there is an on-site dump station.
Our afternoon was free to check out local sites. We started at Pilot Knob State Park. Dedicated in 1923, the 700-acre park is one of the oldest state parks in Iowa. Pilot Knob, the second-highest point in Iowa, got its name from pioneers traveling west in covered wagons who used this isolated hill as a guide. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built an observation tower on the park’s high point, which is accessible via a short hike on a trail through lush, green forest. From the top of the observation tower, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding farmland. Pilot Knob Lake, a man-made, 15-acre lake, is stocked with bass and bluegill, and is popular for fishing and boating (electric motors only).
Early the next morning we joined the exodus of Winnebagos returning to the Service Center. There were close to 20 people standing outside when the doors opened at 7 a.m. Since most of us had checked in the day before, we simply waited for our names to be called. Our customer service rep, Beto, went through our list with us. He assured us he could probably get it done in one day.
Pilot Knob State Park, the second-highest point in Iowa, got its name from pioneers traveling west in covered wagons who used this isolated hill as a guide.
At 9 a.m., we started the factory tour, where we found at least a dozen new reasons to love our motorhome. In the 20-minute film, we learned about Winnebago’s commitment to safety and quality. The company builds a steel cab superstructure for durability, strength and safety. Vertical integration is key to Winnebago’s ability to make quality products that are long lasting. According to Sam Jefson, Winnebago public relations specialist, nearly 80 percent of components are manufactured in-house. Water and dump tanks are custom built to take advantage of every square inch. We were also impressed by the testing each prototype undergoes before mass production: a “shaker machine” that simulates the equivalent of 40,000 road miles in one week, and a proprietary test track that subjects models to a 30 percent grade, 2-inch cobblestones, 4-inch chuckholes and 6-inch bumps. All finished motorhomes undergo a high-pressure water test, with 250 spray holes simulating 50 inches of rain per hour.
A bus shuttled us to the factory that spreads across 60 acres. On the two-hour tour, we were able to watch the coach assembly line from catwalks in “Big Bertha,” the largest production facility. In the Stitchcraft building, we got a closer view of the machines that make upholstered furniture, bedspreads and pillows.
Getting There Forest City is about 120 miles north of Iowa’s capital, Des Moines. From Des Moines, take Interstate 235 East for about 5 miles. Keep straight onto Interstate 35 North. Continue for about 110 miles. At Exit 197, take the ramp on the right and follow the signs to CR-B20. Turn left onto 300th Street/CR-B20 and continue for about 1.6 miles. Turn right onto Grouse Avenue/CR-S28, then continue for 5 miles. Turn right onto Balsam Avenue/CR-S14, then left onto IA-9 after a mile. Follow the signs to Forest City.
Since we needed to be nearby to pick up our motorhome by 3 p.m., we figured we had time for at least nine holes of golf. Bear Creek Golf Course is just five minutes away. It’s a nice course, with manicured fairways and greens. Just as we were finishing up, wondering if we could squeeze in nine more, we got a call from Beto saying our motorhome would be ready for a test drive at 2 p.m.
Jim drove our motorhome on the rural roads near the factory, while I listened for the squeaks and rattles that had plagued us in the past few months. Nothing. Nada. Just normal road noise we’d expect to hear while driving a car. Not only had Beto quieted all the racket, he’d fixed all our other complaints, too, in less than five hours.
That left us three full days to discover what else the area had to offer. The next morning we had a tour of Heritage Park of North Iowa, a 91-acre site within walking distance of the fairgrounds where our motorhome was parked. In 1999, the Winnebago Historical Society created the park, dedicated to the preservation of America’s rural heritage. Ron Holland gave us a tour through the Antique Transportation Museum. Many of the old cars, trucks and bicycles are owned by Ron. We were enchanted by the 1936 Ford that employees gave to John K. Hanson, founder of Winnebago, on his 50th wedding anniversary. It was a replica of the car that John K. and his wife, Luise, drove after their wedding. The fact that employees took up a collection to buy this car for their boss is a testament to how beloved this man was.
The Horse and Mule Event is one of several special events held at Heritage Park of North Iowa throughout the year.
Heritage Park hosts several events throughout the year. We attended the Horse and Mule Event, which is an opportunity to see farm animals at work in the fields or while moving a house. This event also includes a Civil War re-enactment. The Annual Heritage Festival is held in conjunction with the Winnebago International Travelers (WIT) Club’s National Rally in July.
The Mansion Museum, in the heart of Forest City, is another place to learn about the area’s history. Built for Charley Thompson, a banker, in 1899, the building was restored by the Winnebago Historical Society in 1977. I had a greater appreciation of life in the 19th century when I saw a dress made by a woman in 1873. A sign on the dress said, “She raised the sheep, sheared, carded and spun the wool, dyed the yarn, wove the cloth and made the dress.”
For the next two days, we explored sites in nearby Mason City and learned about the influence Frank Lloyd Wright, “America’s greatest architect,” had on the area. In 1907, a banker, James Markley, asked Wright to build a bank. Wright convinced him it should include a hotel and law offices, too. A local physician, Dr. George Stockman, also asked him to build a house. Several other families wanted Prairie School homes. In the middle of all this, Wright ran off to Europe with his mistress. Three of Wright’s associates stepped in to finish the bank, hotel and eight homes. We heard these basic facts on three different tours, each with a different emphasis depending on which sites we were admiring.
The Stockman House is an iteration of the house Frank Lloyd Wright introduced in a Ladies’ Home Journal article in 1907 entitled “A Fireproof Home for $5,000.”
At the Historic Park Inn, we learned that after Wright’s associate, William Drummond, completed the hotel, it opened on September 10, 1910. After that, the multi-use building with a bank, hotel and law office went though some tough times. The farm crisis forced the bank into bankruptcy in 1921. The bank was remodeled into retail and office space in 1926.
The law firm moved to a new location. The hotel’s 43 rooms, each 10-by-10 feet with shared bathrooms, lost their commercial appeal in 1922 when another hotel with larger rooms and private baths opened nearby. The historic building continued to deteriorate until a group of concerned citizens formed Wright on the Park Inc. in 2005. The nonprofit group’s mission is “to own, preserve and maintain The Historic Park Inn Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and to provide continuing education to the public about its place in the context of architectural history.” Construction started in 2010 and the grand reopening was in 2011, 101 years after its original completion. It is the “last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built hotel in the world,” according to the inn’s website (www.stoneycreek
hotels.com/hotel/travel/masoncity-parkinn/home.do). You might well ask, what about the Arizona Biltmore Hotel? Wright was a consultant for that project, but not the architect of record.
One of the founding members of Wright on the Park was our tour guide, Robert “Chip” Kinsey. He showed us photos of a few of the 27 spacious remodeled rooms, including the “honeymoon suite” with a view of the park, art glass on three sides and a whirlpool tub. As we toured the property, Kinsey pointed out some of the original items that were returned to the hotel after at least 85 years of absence. The 25 art-glass panels in the Skylight Room were recovered from one of the Prairie School homes in the city. After serving as part of a fence and surviving many Iowa winters, 14 of the grilles over the clerestory windows were donated to the restoration effort.
The Sound of Music’s “The Lonely Goatherd” puppets, created by master puppeteer Bil Baird, are on display at the MacNider Art Museum.
On the Historic Architectural Walking Tour, we learned that Mason City has the largest cluster of Prairie School homes. Tour guide Edith Blanchard told our group the history behind the homes on the tour. The first house belonged to James Markley, the man who brought Wright to Mason City. His house is a Neoclassical Revival home, a far cry from the Prairie School homes on the tour. From there, we walked across the Music Man Footbridge to see a house designed by Wrights’ associate, Drummond. The Yelland House has an open floorplan similar to a house Wright introduced in a Ladies’ Home Journal article in 1907 entitled “A Fireproof Home for $5,000.” In an odd twist of fate, the house burned in 2008. It sat vacant for two years and was slated for demolition, but then a local developer restored it to look like a classic 1909 Prairie School house with modern conveniences. There were 10 houses on our tour, all with interesting stories.
On a separate tour, we saw the Stockman House, designed by Wright. This house was also an iteration of the Fireproof Home. In 1989 the home was moved several blocks to its new location just north of the Rock Glen Historic District.
The Historic Architectural Walking Tour (now known as the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District Walking Tour) started and ended at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum. It features a permanent collection of American art, which includes 18 Grant Wood lithographs, blown glass by Dale Chihuly and the largest collection of Bil Baird marionettes.
Baird was raised in Mason City. For more than 60 years, he was a master puppeteer who entertained millions around the world. Remember that scene in the 1965 classic,“The Sound of Music,” where Maria and the von Trapp children entertained the Captain with “The Lonely Goatherd” puppet show? Bil Baird and his wife, Cora, were pulling the strings. Outside the museum, big blue blocks are available for kids to build forts, castles or whatever sparks their imagination.
We got another dose of musical nostalgia at Music Man Square. The 1962 film, “The Music Man,” was set in River City, Iowa. The movie was based on Mason City, the hometown of playwright Meredith Willson. The characters in the story are based on people he knew. While the movie was filmed at Warner Brothers studio in California, Music Man Square contains a 1912 replica streetscape. One glance at the ceiling in the Madison Park room will have you singing the lyrics to the most recognizable song from the movie, “76 Trombones.” Meredith Willson’s Boyhood Home is located next to the museum.
Winnebago motorhomes. Architectural wonders. Classic musicals. These are a few of my favorite things.