How it began…
Ok, not really van life, but more like a van trip… for newbies. Being an avid traveler, int‘l backpacker and camper, RV travel seemed like a near tangent but something I had not seriously considered until recently. Prior to covid, travel had been easy, even with kids.
However, since the epidemic descended upon us, I started to realize our limitations even with local sites. If I had wanted to take the children to enjoy the outdoors for a decent amount of time, it required not only masks and sanitizers, but most importantly, to time the trip (round-trip) between potty needs. With most sinks and restrooms closed, which are also not the safest options for kids who like to touch everything even if they weren’t closed, avoiding the use of outside facilities is a concern for us. Though we also have one of those kid-porta-potties in the car, we’ve found that as our kids get bigger, it gets messier, even to the point of soiling their clothes/shoes. In addition, with distance learning opening up the possibility of learning from anywhere as long as you can get online, having access to an RV opens up great possibilities. And thereupon it was decided that I would enter this world of RVs and without further ado, I started the process.
I began by doing some research on RVs and found that there were no simple “Getting Started Guides”, nor was the world of RVs a straightforward field of travel. I felt it was simpler to get started tent camping or backpacking abroad (thanks Lonely Planet/Rick Steves) than it was to get into RV’ing. Towables, GWR, black tank, grey tank, generator, cassette toilet, compost toilet, dump station, hookups, Class ABCdefghxxxyy, dry weight and etc, soon threw me for a loop. So I figured, in order to really get a feel for what all that stuff means and the relative significance, the best method would be to rent one first.
Learn through Renting…
Now for renting, one obvious choice comes to mind, which was CruiseAmerica. On my travels, I had seen CruiseAmericas at various sights, with their notable branding, driven by travelers who rented from them. From looking further into them, it seemed to me they were to RV rentals as U-Haul was to moving truck rentals. It seemed they had franchises in various locations around the country and their reviews were mostly hit or miss. Renting from a company like this would’ve been ideal, were it not for the mixed reviews (breakdowns, floods, poor customer service, cleanliness concerns) during covid times and the fact that I would be transporting kids, and really didn’t want to take unnecessary risks.
Two other options I found were Outdoorsy.com and RVshare.com. Both of which seem to be for RV rentals what AirBnb/VRBO are for private vacation rentals. These would’ve been good options were it not for the fact that I was a newbie (is training included?), I was worried I might nick someone’s RV (insurance probably covers it, but still), hard to tell which RVs are kept clean, where would I leave my own vehicle once I got to the RV, which RV should I pick?
For all 3 of these options, I also had to consider… do I also have to pack my camping cookware, camping dining ware, camp chairs & table, sleeping bags, salt and cooking oil, etc etc etc? Hmm.. back to searching to see what other options there are.
Then I found the one that we ultimately went with… BlissRV from Sausalito. We had been stuck at home for months by then and at this point, if our RV trial could also double as a comfortable R&R vacation, that would be great. Plus, human behavior generally dictates that if you don’t enjoy something the first time you try it (and are stuck doing it for a while), you will likely be very turned off by any future prospects of it.
Renting from BlissRV ticked off nearly all the dots for me. They included pretty much everything (charcoal, logs, tongs, camp chairs, camp table, broom, colander, cookware, dining ware, drink ware, dish sponge, coffee grinder, blankets, pillows, towels, soap, paper towels, shower mat, etc etc). All we had to bring were our own clothes. The biggest downside would have been the hefty rental price at first glance, but once I ran some comparison numbers with comparable setups/features from CruiseAmerica and the other sites, the difference was negligible. I would say, the biggest selling point, besides their 100% 5-star reviews on Google (it almost seemed too good to be true) and the fact that everything was included, was their extremely helpful Adventure Guide that details recommendations on where you could take your BlissRV to. No other rental site offered such a helpful guide for a newbie. It was from these pages that I started to formulate where we might go and what I needed to book/learn to make it happen. (Of course, during the COVID-era, you will have to be more flexible as some of their recommended places to book are closed/unreachable, not to mention the also raging fires in California.)
Rented from BlissRV…
So, let me now share my experience… I went through their site and made a reservation inquiry through their online form. They promptly replied the next day with dates and options. We made our choice and paid for a portion of the rental. They made it very clear that there is no cancellation and that you should purchase insurance for cancellation. They sent us a thorough document on what would be supplied for us, inquired on what sort of bedding/seating options we would like, as well as a spot to leave our car until our return. That was it and we simply waited to get closer to the rental date.
A couple days before the trip, they scheduled a call to make the final portion of the rental payment and to take a deposit that would be returned if all goes well. We got the address of our meeting place, a direct # to reach them at and scheduled our pickup time.
The morning of the rental, we loaded up the family, our clothing, our distance learning and remote work devices. We sent BlissRV a text that we were on our way with our ETA. We arrived in the lovely Sausalito area and easily found the location and sent them a text to let them know we arrived.
It was here that Conrad came out to greet us. He was masked, as were we, and showed us our RV along with some paperwork. We reviewed the details of the rental. Conrad went through the interior of the RV and showed us how the toilet, switches, fans, a/c, fridge and everything operated. It was a lot to remember, but he was extremely patient and friendly. He probably spent a good half hour with us and then Derek came. Now it was Derek’s turn to show us the exterior, the hoses and the hookups. The exterior had a lot to learn as well, but it was very good that both Conrad and Derek not only demonstrated to us, but also made us give-it-a-go until we felt confident as well. In total, we got about an hour of hands-on training and had the opportunity to ask any questions we had about RV’ing and how things worked. When it concluded, Derek showed us where we could park our vehicle and where the local grocery store was, so that we could go stock up our RV fridge/freezer with.
And here was the lovely RV that we would spend our next several days in… the 2018 Serenity…
After loading up our RV, we parked our vehicle at a safe spot and I drove our RV over to the Mollie Stones grocery store.
The RV Experience Begins…
The Serenity was a Class C vehicle and the largest vehicle I had ever driven. I am a pretty confident driver, but even I felt a little nervous at first, especially with how tall the Class C was, which made me particularly careful when taking turns. While trying to park at Mollie Stones, I learned my first lesson of the trip…
Lesson #1 A Class C is a large vehicle. It will be longer than a regular parking spot and hang right over the lines on either side of a spot. Therefore, park far away and back so that you can get in/out and not be a nuisance to other vehicles.
The whole family had a lot of fun grocery shopping for what we wanted to eat/cook on our trip, and we even bought some nice ice cream to put inside the Serenity’s freezer. It was a very hot day; we had just finished grocery shopping, hadn’t had lunch yet, and were starving. So we set up the dining table inside the Serenity, turned on the generator, switched the a/c on, and enjoyed our very first meal inside our RV in comfort. Then we packed everything away and took off towards our campsite in Olema, CA; aiming to stay by the coast for fresh-air and cooler temperatures.
The Serenity, which is built on a Mercedes chasses, came with blind spot mirrors (which proved to be invaluable), a rear camera that you can keep on during your whole drive, and a rear window which I found very helpful (esp. to see how many cars were trailing me). Between careful driving and pulling over when safe to let groups of cars behind me pass, we made it safely to Olema.
The far-from-simple task of searching for a semi-decent RV Campsite…
Before booking Olema, I had a few other sites/locations I would have preferred. However you learn, once you start choosing sites to book, that generally it seems…
Lesson #2 “the more beautiful and remote a location is, the worse the privately owned RV campground would be” Boondock if you can, avoid the campground if schedule allows or suck it up if you have no other choice.
From the many reviews and research I did, it seemed like experienced RVers who didn’t want to deal with poorly kept campgrounds and customer service, would instead “boondock” for a couple days or more at those beautiful locations. Then when it’s time to recharge/fill up… they would drive out to a nice and reputable RV site and bypass the cringe-worthy ones. “Boondocking”… that was a term that I read up on a lot, but never fully understood the nuts and bolts of the concept until we rented the Serenity (which is a boondock-capable vehicle). So… we pulled into the Olema Campground, which had very good reviews; like I mentioned, I wanted our first experience to be positive. Check-in was smooth and service was very friendly, with masks and social distancing signs. We circled round over to our campsite and was afforded views of all types of RVs and towables from humble to grand, from small to gigantic. It was a sight and extremely interesting for us. We even saw some RVs decked out for a longer stay with twinkle lights and linens.
Setting up at camp…
Once we reached the site, my partner hopped out of the vehicle and helped me pull-in to our site. We let the kids out to enjoy the fresh air and nature. My partner worked on the hookups while I setup the interior for our first night at the site. We found Olema Campground to be very well managed, the staff to be friendly, and we appreciated their rules which aimed to keep Olema more nature-oriented for everyone’s enjoyment. Olema’s sites all come with a picnic bench and fortunately we were placed near a wifi booster which enabled our kids to do Distance Learning from the RV for the next few days.
We setup our camp chairs, grilled some dinner, and waved to our RV neighbors as the evening came. We took a nice walk throughout the campground, passing by some deer and sheep, a creek and watched as kids rode their bikes around. We even saw one or two tent campers. I was not sure if those tent campers were allowed to use any shower facilities due to covid, but we did find that they had Honeybuckets stationed throughout the grounds. Fortunately, our RV featured a very comfortable toilet and we did not have need of the Honeybuckets.
Distance Learning from an RV…
On our second day, we got the kids up and dressed them. It was a chilly morning, but we were nice & toasty in the RV. I have to say, with the heating or a/c on, there definitely was a noticeable background noise (you can hear it in parts of my videos). To mitigate the noise, we would use the heating or a/c in combination with the “max air fan” (not sure if that’s a general term for that type of fan, or a brand name), so that the heater or a/c wouldn’t be running endlessly.
The kids got their Distance Learning equipment set up on the dining table inside the Serenity, plopped their headphones on and for the very first time… dialed into class from an RV. Later, as it warmed up outdoors, the kids would move to the camp chairs or the picnic bench outdoors, to continue their lessons. It was a real treat, something totally different for us and very fun. My partner and I joke that we were playing house in an RV.
In terms of Distance Learning and Remote Working, you want to have interior table space, headsets w/built-in mic (cordless ideally) and that you packed all the classwork materials you might need. You also want to ensure that your campsite has decent wifi or that you can tether. You should test all of this ahead of time, before class, as soon as your arrive. Fortunately most DL curriculums don’t require you to be printing things, so that’s one less worry. You can always do DL outside the RV too if your children don’t get squirmy in the cold mornings, hot afternoons, and potentially buggy evenings (we didn’t have bug problems at Olema), but if you have space to do it inside, you will be set for most situations.
I will share some of the great features of the Serenity that we really appreciated.
By the time Distance Learning was over, and from what I hear it seems we have a more packed curriculum than others, it would be about 3p in the afternoon (not including homework which we continued later in the evening). It was at this time that we would pack and tighten things up and take our RV-home out for a spin. The Serenity comes with a lot of smart storage space and BlissRV had organized everything to be really easy to put back, so that packing/tightening up the ship was relatively quick to do. And shortly we were on our way out, headed towards Bolinas Beach to enjoy a comfortable heatwave day on the beach.
Bringing your house around…
This is where I learned my lesson of our second day…
We drove along the lovely Sir Frances Drake Blvd towards Bolinas beach and into their downtown area. We noticed that this little town was swarming with cars and surfers. After squeezing in and then squeezing out, I tried to take another road to get down close to the beach. This resulted in an even tighter squeeze on smaller roads, which resulted in my concession that it was time to leave for greener pastures. After our departure from Bolinas, we paused on the side of the road and considered our remaining options and decided to head over to Stinson Beach to see how the situation was there, but cautioned ourselves that it may also be crowded and we may have to head elsewhere.
As we drove along Hwy 1, enjoying the drive along the Bolinas Lagoon, we spotted a large empty shoulder on the side of the road with a gorgeous view of the lagoon. It was here, that I pulled over and our family enjoyed a nice secluded picnic, in lieu of continuing towards Stinson Beach.
Surrounded by nature and beauty, with fresh cold drinks from the fridge and snacks from our pantry, we laid out on our picnic blanket (I brought our own) on the shores of the lagoon and I pondered what RV lesson had I learned…
Lesson #3a I learned that a Class C RV is not meant to go to a popular spot in the middle of the day. It is better used to go to a beautiful, spacious and secluded spot in the middle of the day.
Lesson #3b I learned that you should take your Class C RV to a popular spot after everyone has left, pick your primo spot and boondock there (if you can), so that you will be there before everyone else arrives the next day and then you get to enjoy the best time of the day at that popular spot, no matter how crowded it then gets. (Especially when you have your own toilet, shower and kitchen all with you.)
When early evening came and the fog rolled in over the lagoon, we packed up our picnic and headed back to camp. We pulled into our site, the hookups were easy to do and settled in for a lovely evening among birdsong and trees.
Quality of life in a luxury Class C…
So the Serenity is a luxury RV from Leisure Travel Vans and during your stay, you will notice all the thoughtful touches they put in there. (Their cabinetry is nicer than the cabinets in our own home.) Showering in the Serenity was very comfortable. The hot water system felt no different than what we had at home. I couldn’t help but compare this to our experience renting homes in other countries through Airbnb, where the water would get hot, then cold, then hot, or run out of hot water, but never happened in the Serenity, which was an RV. They did mention this was a German RV hot-water system. All four of us showered comfortably, washed our hair and didn’t have to be too concerned with how much we were filling up the grey tank. I was impressed.
After dinner, we set up the kids bed and put on a DVD (yes, BlissRV provides you with a selection of DVDs, including kid-friendly ones) to occupy them so we, adults, could focus on ourselves for the evening. I was just blown away by how full-featured this RV was and how relaxed & comfortable we were able to be in it. Then it’s lights out and bed time….
The next morning, we again did the same morning procedure and setup the kids for Distance Learning again. This time, while they were in class, I took the time to fully enjoy the master bed area with its two large windows overlooking the campground. BlissRV had also provided a bed tray so that you could lie in bed with your beverage and snacks beside you, which I indulged in. That feeling of lying on a soft bed (BlissRV provided us with a foam futon), with my laptop and a window view of nature, being warm and toasty inside while it’s chilly outside, is just heavenly. Ahh… #vanlife, I could get used to this.
My beloved Cafflano
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After we were done with Distance Learning for the day, we again packed up and this time we headed north to the Pt. Reyes Station because we wanted to pickup some more eggs and a bit of local honey for my tea. Each day it gets easier to drive the Serenity.
Benefits of having an RV nearby while shopping with kids…
Having been to Pt. Reyes Station many times before, I knew that as soon as I pull into the town, I should look for parking on the outskirts. However, since it was a Tuesday and perhaps due to covid, the town was not nearly as crowded. I was able to park on the side of a large building, close to the main street. We locked up our Serenity, put on our masks, and headed out to shop. We were glad to see that the entire area was very mask and distant conscious with signs all over the place, which made us feel very safe as well. As my partner went to pick up some groceries (just one person from the family), I took the girls on a walk around the streets, picking up some honey and some snacks. When we were done, we headed back to the RV to enjoy our treats and I put on a DVD for the kids, while my partner continued his shopping spree. It was then that I learned another lesson…
Lesson #4 An RV with a/c is really good to have, if you have kids who run out of patience shopping and are wiggly. You can simply take them back to the RV to play & be at ease, while you can relax in your RV bed with your laptop/ipad, while your partner can shop to his hearts content.
After that enjoyable small town shopping spree, we headed back to camp for our last night in the Serenity. By this time, we had become really comfortable in the Serenity and had come to the conclusion that the four of us could’ve spent even more days in the Serenity and still be happy. One more lesson I learned from these days of Distance Learning was….
Lesson #5 If you have Distance Learning or Remote Work, you can’t actually head anywhere until that is all done. Therefore, it really helps to be setup in a nice campsite rather than a grungy one.
Farewell to our first RV experience…
The next morning, we did our final Distance Learning ritual to conclusion, then we checked out at the Front Desk and headed back towards Sausalito. While driving the winding roads back home, I noticed I had become more smooth at this and that it was easier driving the Class C. I also learned another lesson…
Lesson #6 If driving a Class C or larger, save the long trips for the weekdays when less cars are on the road.
I noticed that the return trip, which was on a Wednesday, had far less cars than when we first departed, which was a Sunday. Not long after, we reached Sausalito and met up with Conrad and Derek. They were busy helping another renter into another vehicle of their fleet, and we took the time to unload the Serenity.
When we were finished, Derek came to check us out. He asked how our trip was and we responded that we had a great trip. It was then that we heard the heartbreaking news…. they now have a new vehicle to replace the Serenity, and therefore the Serenity has been sold! Oh, my heart sank because we had fallen in love with the Serenity. But Derek was kind enough to pull the new vehicle over and gave us a tour of it. The new Unity that he showed us had quite a few quality of life improvements over the Serenity and would’ve made our trip even more convenient; though the Serenity was already so nice that I didn’t think there was much room left for improvement. That definitely cheered us up a bit as we bid farewell to our beloved Serenity, home and travel companion for four days. But the biggest downside of the new Unity (along with all the other 2019 and later models from LTV) was the removal of that rear window. I had used that rear window so much while driving and I enjoyed it so much when I sat there, looking out of it, on the bed.
And so ended our RV trip and our brief romance with the Serenity. But now begins the more serious topic of… how is an RV going to be a part of our future, because it definitely will be. This rental experience has now allowed us to emerge as RV alums, with working knowledge of the features and the resource needs of our family of four.
Our next journey as regular RV renters or as future owners begins… and I will post more on it in a (near) future piece.