Many of us are familiar with the benefits of RV travel and the ability it provides to see America. But what if the same advantages--traveling with the comforts of home, sleeping in your own bed, and saving money compared with airfare and hotel stays--could also be applied to foreign travel?
That was our purpose when my family and I plotted an RV trip to Canada. And while English-speaking Canada may not be as exotic as a country on another continent, the Quebec province provides the opportunity for immersion in French language and culture while traveling in your own camper. The most noticeable contrast of cultures: Among the other emergency supplies in the KOA camp store, there was a selection of French red table wines.
We headed up to Quebec from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, rolling north on U.S. 15 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we had to fend off the kids' requests for a stop at nearby Hershey Park. We instead picked up I-81, which took us all the way to Canada.
Construction on I-81 in Pennsylvania and New York slowed our progress, so the first day, we made it only as far as Watertown, New York, where we found a state park in Sackets Harbor, on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Our camper for the week was a 31-foot Jayco Melbourne Class C motorhome, built on a Ford E-450 cutaway van chassis. It featured one real bedroom at the rear with a queen-size bed and two part-time beds in the living area--the couch and dining table convert to sleeping areas. Jayco reckoned these would provide enough sleeping space for four adults and two children. We found the bedroom was, as expected, plenty comfortable for Mom and Dad, but the three kids--ages seven through 13--were less than thrilled with sharing the foldout couch with a sibling.
We rotated them nightly, giving each kid a chance to sleep alone on the table-bed. So we'd count the Melbourne as a comfortable four-passenger sleeper. The camper was also lavishly outfitted with all of the conveniences of home, with a microwave/convection oven, three-burner gas stovetop, and a refrigerator/freezer about half the size of a home model. Also, the Melbourne has a couple of 19-inch flat-panel HD TVs, with a DVD player, roof-mounted antenna, and even a satellite dish, but the video system works only when the vehicle is parked.
The Melbourne featured a bathroom and shower, but we opted to use the facilities at campgrounds and rest stops instead, because the built-in facilities were quite cramped. And, to be honest, we didn't really want to deal with the euphemistically labeled black water tank.
Particular kudos go to Jayco's cabinetmakers for their extremely solidly constructed and rattle-free handiwork. In this, and most other respects, Jayco seemed to have executed most of the "home" aspects of the Melbourne impressively. When stationary, with the side slide-out deployed, there was good space inside the camper. During inclement weather, the interior table was a little snug, but for the kids, it was better than sitting in the rain or swatting flies at a picnic table.
From Sackets Harbor we headed north, crossing the border at the St. Lawrence Seaway in the international Thousand Islands region, where the scenery is spectacular. An observation tower immediately inside the Canadian border gave us an incredible vista of the waterway and the multitude of islands scattered throughout. Our target that day was Montreal, so we continued east on Autoroute 20.
The Melbourne's standard and optional conveniences are geared more toward comfortable camping than road-tripping. The stereo has no iPod input and is merely satellite-ready. GPS navigation, ideal for people driving motorhomes to unfamiliar territory, isn't even an option. Considering how important weather is when camping, one with real-time weather mapping would be ideal, as would one that locates the nearest gas stations and prices, especially in a vehicle with a 55-gallon tank.
Lacking a nav system screen, the back-up camera's picture is displayed on a small black-and-white screen in a lumpy container above the rearview mirror. The Melbourne also lacked a remote for unlocking the doors, an external temperature indicator, and a compass, all features that would come in handy while on the road.
RV makers could look at the kinds of features available in minivans and SUVs as examples of the types of technology that prospective buyers would not only appreciate, but that they expect: Sirius Backseat TV, back-up cameras, and the sideview radar parking aid that looks to the left and right from the back of the vehicle are all add-ons that wouldn't require a major redesign.
Montreal proved worth the trip, with its great Old Montreal district packed with above-average attractions. The Notre Dame cathedral is spectacular, as were the Euro-typical street performers and local shops. Unsurprisingly, the restaurants looked fantastic and most boasted impressive ratings. We limited our sampling of them to a visit to a crperie that resulted in a $125 tab.
After that we mostly stuck to eating packed lunches or at the campground, but we did stop at Les Glaceurs cupcake shop. We also found time to visit the Formula 1 racetrack on the le Notre-Dame. It is a public park when not being used as a track, and we drove around the circuit. Plastic lane markers separate vehicles from pedestrians, cyclists, and skaters,so they can also enjoy the track without fear of getting run over.
We spent another day touring the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics. The one-time velodrome has been converted into an indoor zoo called the Biodome, so the kids can see animals from all kinds of climates at any time of the year.
KING OF THE ROAD?
Driving the Melbourne is a mixed bag. The 305-horsepower, 6.8-liter Ford V-10 engine moves the 31-foot camper with surprising authority. It's well-matched to the five-speed automatic transmission, letting the Melbourne climb mountains at highway speeds without undue strain. Although big gasoline engines aren't noted for their fuel efficiency, having one that's strong enough that it isn't perpetually at full throttle gives it the ability to return a respectable 9.5 highway mpg.
Steering, however, left more to be desired. In parking lots, the Melbourne has an enormous turning radius, making it difficult to maneuver. (No kidding, you say.) The problem lies in the van foundation upon which the Melbourne is built. The steering in these vans just doesn't turn as far as it does in purpose-built large vehicles, so they need more space to turn around than even bigger vehicles such as Jayco's Seneca, which is built on a commercial truck platform.
| Taking an RV on the road can provide the conveniences of home while touring unfamiliar areas. This Jayco offered plenty of room to eat meals inside when the weather got rough, but when skies were clear, we enjoyed taking in the scenery.
Staying at the Kampgrounds of America site south of Montreal, we saw more motorhomes and campers than we've ever seen in the U.S. A fellow guest at the KOA site explained that he and his wife have 51 days of holidays and vacation a year, so they travel extensively in their RV. Perhaps that's the norm in Canada, which would provide ample opportunity to see travel the country.
After staying at the KOA for a few days, it was time to head home. We turned south on A15 toward upstate New York and, once back in the U.S., we diverted off I-87 to lunch in Lake Placid so we could visit the arena where the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team joined sports history.
Why put up with voracious fuel consumption, challenging highway manners, and fewer automotive amenities than a minivan? This family of five had nightly camping fees of $20 for state parks and $50 for nicer private campgrounds such as those of KOA, and included in that cheaper-than-a-hotel cost is the ability to cook your own meals for even greater savings while on vacation.
How does the gas bill compare with airfare for five to Montreal? We used about $550 worth of gas to travel there from Washington, D.C. That's about the cost of one regular fare round-trip flight, or maybe two discount fares on sale. Yes, the kids bicker. But they also play games and look out the windows at the changing flora during the drive.
RV travel, it turns out, is a little like a visit to Quebec. It's foreign in some ways and very familiar in others, and that combination makes it an unforgettable adventure for the kids.