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Luxury camping: Roughing it the easy way

By Ann Hoevel

A couple enjoys champagne by their tent at the Chattooga River Resort
A couple enjoys champagne by their tent at the Chattooga River Resort

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ATLANTA (CNN) -- For some camping purists, a backpack, pocket knife and two sticks could be considered a heavy load of outdoor essentials, but to a growing number of luxury campers, a list of necessities could include a travel espresso machine, laptop and three-piece sushi set with chopsticks.

"There's a whole new variety of campers out there who want to do it their own way luxuriously," said Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

Since the mid-1990s, Profaizer said, an increasing number of baby boomers, families and young couples have sought to add comfort, convenience and pampering to their outdoor adventures.

The Chattooga River Resort near Clayton, Georgia, caters to this new type of campers.

James Harpe, 50, and his wife camped at the resort last spring and were surprised by the level of detail. Even the bathhouses get the deluxe treatment, outfitted with "marble and tile ... nothing (like) we expected," Harpe said.

"One night we decided we wanted filet mignon, sweet potatoes and corn and it was there when we got back," said Harpe. "One other night we had trout and wine."

Minutes from the mighty Chattooga River, and surrounded by natural rhododendron fields and fern forests, the campsite offers specialized room service for whitewater rafters and other campers in search of rest. Craig Ewing, who founded the camp in June 2000 with his wife Mary, wanted to offer an alternative to exhausted rafters who used to spend hours backpacking the area in search of the perfect camp site after a day on the water.

In the past six years, Profaizer said she's seen a trend across the country to add comfort to modern camping and renovate facilities with new equipment and office technology. "We're seeing wireless Internet being as usual as fire rings these days," said Profaizer.

The 2002 annual Natural Operations & Economic Survey study, commissioned by the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds, shows that 90% of RV parks and campgrounds have invested in improving and expanding their facilities. Upgrades and additions include increased electrical amperage to campsites, landscaping, restroom additions and remodeling, cable TV and phone hookups at campsites, and recreational amenities like splash pools, walking trails and fitness facilities. One thousand sites were surveyed.

Pack the comforts of home

While laptops and wireless phones bring technological synergy to the deep woods, it takes more than e-mail to have an extravagant experience around the campfire.

Stylish, collapsible camp furniture and hi-tech multi-burner stoves are some of the luxury items offered by an increasing number of retailers. "We even sell the kitchen sink," Doug Peterson, Product Manager for R.E.I., a national outdoor outfitter chain, said.

"The fastest growth in our camping area has been in things that make the outdoors comfortable instead of just accessible," he said.

Other camping gear retailers, like Bass Pro Shops and Galyans Trading Company are taking notice of this trend and stocking their stores with items that make the campsite less inhospitable. Luxury camping gear can even be found in superstores like Target, WalMart and Kmart, and not always in the sporting section -- this kind of gear makes everything more comfortable, from tailgating at football games to a staying in a relative's guest bedroom.

Items like the Eddie Bauer Raised Insta-bed, a queen-size air mattress, with simulated box spring can make any campsite cozier, lending pop-up nylon tents a "master bedroom suite" flair. A "privacy shelter" can be set up near a campsite or tent, incorporating a bathroom tent in the great outdoors that's nearly eight-foot tall, with windows, removable top, portable toilet seat and shower.

The convenience of a portable refrigerator assures the availability of cool drinks on even the hottest of days. When electricity provided by a lightweight, gas powered generator is added to the mix, the forest might as well be a living room, complete with television, radio and laptop. There's even luxury camping gear for dogs, including the Camp K9 Dog Bed for lazing around the campfire.

The five star campsite

But you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on equipment to enjoy the luxury. Many camping facilities in the United States offer backpack-free camping. At some, visitors only bring clothes.

Costanoa, a lodge and campground in southern California, offers canvas cabins with queen sized beds, heated mattress pads, towels and bathrobes.

The cabins surround a comfort station, complete with public restrooms, soap and shampoo-stocked showers and an in-house spa. Canvas cabins cost $130 a night and massages in the comfort stations are $85. Campers can order from a gourmet deli while they take in the beach scenery or after exploring the surrounding wildlife reserve and four nearby state parks.

Buck's on the Brazos -- located in Rainbow, Texas, on the banks of the Brazos River -- offers two-room canvas tents secured on wooden platforms. Each $100 a night tent has a ceiling fan, electricity and a queen sized bed. The site provides grills, utensils, charcoal, towels, linens, chairs and tables.

Scott Chaffin, who owns and operates Buck's on the Brazos, said that popular outings like antiquing, golfing and visiting the nearby Fossil Rim Wildlife Park delight the luxury campers who visit his year-round facility.

An average Chattooga River Resort camping plot for four costs $18 a night but with food which can include a cooler stocked to each guest's specifications; ready-to-grill meal of marinated steak, pork and chicken; champagne and sushi -- the average luxury camper spends between $75 and $120 in a weekend.

Different rewards

While luxury camping might sound like an all-catered gala event, some die-hard "roughing it" fans find the new trend disappointing.

"It's a whole different type of experience pitching your own tent," said Kate Tucker, manager of GORP Travel, the booking division of the online outdoor activity information site She said the planning and packing that go into the "roughing it" style of camping is exciting. "It's almost like you make your own adventure," she said.

"It's definitely hard work, but I also think that it's very rewarding to hike all day and make your own food and find a campsite and make a fire. It forces you to get back to the basics."

But Profaizer defends luxury camping, saying that it also offers a venue for experiencing nature.

Campers, luxury or not, still have to deal with the elements, she said. "You're never going to get rid of mosquitoes totally. It still rains, so you're going to still get mud on occasion."

And in spite of the bug bites, she said, "it's a great way to see the country and a great way to relax."

The Harpes, who spent $600 on camping, catering and souvenirs during their six-night stay, looked back on their time in the Chattooga River Resort with fond memories.

"Everyone was having a good time, it was like a big gathering. It isn't like camping at a public ground; you felt like you were part of a group. Mr. and Mrs. Ewing treated us like we were family." Harpe said.

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