A family tries to save on a beach trip by staying among RVs — and finds it has some upsides.

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HOLLY RIDGE, N.C. — We pulled up to a picnic table on Skeeters Drive, emptied our minivan and took stock of our camping gear.

Out came the 10-man tent — preposterously large for just me and my two sons.

Then, the camp cots, the sleeping bags, flashlights, inflatable kayak, clothes and food — so much food.

But despite all the gear, I still wondered if a vacationing family in a tent could co-exist in an RV park filled mostly with resident retirees.

Would it really be possible for three people to take a five-day trip to the beach for around $500, including gas, food, entertainment and something resembling lodging?

And most importantly, could it all that be done while strengthening, rather than destroying, the bonds between a man and his sons, age 17 and 10?

The answer to all of those questions turned out to be yes, yes and, surprisingly, yes.

Creating a hybrid trip

Those accustomed to the pampering of concierge-class beachfront resorts may want to stop reading, or else continue on for the sheer pleasure of sneering at my squalid itinerary.

The RV park’s amenities included a big pool, a clubhouse and electricity.
The RV park’s amenities included a big pool, a clubhouse and electricity.

Nor is there much by way of useful travel advice here for those who camp only off-the-grid, with ultralight provisions packed neatly in a backpack no larger than a newborn.

I can relate to both groups. I’ve done high-adventure backpacking and, while I’m cheap, I can splurge on travel. My family’s most typical vacation involves a beachfront condo, with pools, jacuzzis and tennis courts.

But this was another kind of trip, a spontaneous one that we hadn’t saved for.

I had time off, but my wife didn’t. Nor did my daughters. So we had all but called off previous plans to attend a family reunion near Jacksonville, N.C., a half-hour from the Atlantic coast.

But the beach kept calling me, and my two sons were itching to get out of town.

We knew oceanside hotels were out of our budget. So, too, were condos rented online. Even if we could find a last-minute deal, it would certainly be for a full week — time we didn’t have.

So why not camp?

Opting for an RV park

Our destination was the beaches of Topsail Island, N.C., or as close to the beach as we could reserve last-minute. We would attend the family reunion on the last day.

I picked an RV park, rather than a state park, for the extra amenities the kind of place with a pool, shower houses and laundry — three essentials for battling the sand, saltwater and sogginess of the beach.

We found all those things at Lanier’s Campground in Holly Ridge, N.C., on the Intercoastal Waterway about a mile from the beach.

I paid the lean price of $100 for three nights combined. We saved even more by stopping by a friend’s house on the way for a free night of lodging at their lakeside home — with water skiing thrown in.

We were high spirits when we unpacked at Lanier’s on a Thursday afternoon. We formed a small mountain of gear on the sandy seagrass of our 15-by-30-foot plot, complete with picnic table, water spigot and power pole.

We were all proud of the fabric cabin we erected. There was plenty of room for our cots (the bulky kind, almost as nice as a bed), a dining area with a card table and, thanks to the power pole, electronic comforts like a portable DVD player. We felt spoiled.

Life in the RV camp

But spoiled is a relative term at Lanier’s Campground, a place that really isn’t a campground at all.

Ours was the only tent we could see among the dozens of plots on the compound that day.

Lanier’s is better described as a mobile home park, especially on the weekdays. The trailers and RVs that fill most of its lots have not been on the road for months or even years.

The clubhouse at Lanier’s Campground in Holly Ridge, N.C. provided air conditioning, food and recreation activities.
The clubhouse at Lanier’s Campground in Holly Ridge, N.C. provided air conditioning, food and recreation activities.

Their wheels are covered with gardening lattice. Most have decks and three-season rooms attached, in some cases larger than the trailers themselves.

Setting up camp there is like visiting a new cultural ecosystem.

Several Confederate flags hung in our corner of camp. Even so, it was a fairly racially diverse group.

Throughout the day and into the evening, golf carts circled the complex, with teen and preteen drivers taking advantage of one summer perk of being dropped off for weeks with the grandparents.

Together, these gangs of grandchildren formed a kind of summer camp, one swallowed by a retirement community, with all its camp counselors and rules spit out.

Then came the weekend, and with it a whole new dynamic.

By Friday afternoon, convoys of roadworthy RVs and popup trailers pulled in, filling almost every vacant pad. Along with them came fellow tent campers, seeking a few days at the beach.

Soon our van-sized tent was hemmed by a canyon of big rigs. We were like the last two-bedroom ranch house in a neighborhood taken over by McMansions.

One beast parked immediately behind us had a flat-screen TV attached to its exterior side. The owner roasted hot dogs over a fire pit while “Law and Order” episodes played on satellite.

But I’m not dissing the whole scene. In truth, the three of us found life at the RV park to be a kick, and often a refreshing one.

We soaked up every one of its many features. The huge concrete pool dwarfed any found at a hotel or condo complex. The shower house was clean and private. The laundry room was essential.

And the air-conditioned clubhouse, with an arcade, Wi-Fi and a makeshift diner was a vital hangout. I lavished the boys in quarters and watched them dump them into the claw machine or the pool table, marveling at how well the two were getting along.

All about the ocean, after all

Each of us must decide what we are willing to give up as we chase adventure or natural beauty or leisure. Even on vacation, we do not escape our budgets or our fixation with comfort.

But when we finally settled into our lodging and hit the beach, none of that mattered as much.

The ocean does not care where you roomed the night before. It offers the same waves and sunsets to residents of beachfront mansions and tent dwellers alike.

And so you we dug our feet in the sand and soaked it all in, satisfied that it was worth the cost and effort — and in some cases the deprivations.

I watched my two sons crash into wave after wave, seeing the seven years of age that divided them temporarily disappear in the sheer joy of each others’ company. And I stored away, as vividly as I could, memories without price tags.