WALNUT CREEK, Calif. —When I was a child, camping in style meant sleeping in a trailer and not having to use a flashlight to find the bathroom.
Camping was a no-frills family vacation, but also all about outdoor family time: paddling a canoe in the Russian River, roasting marshmallows and mountain pies around the campfire and telling ghost stories in our sleeping bags.
Today, the great outdoors is filled not only with pools, game rooms and horseshoe pits but giant movie screens, inflatable bounce pillows, cappuccino carts and, of course, Wi-Fi. Tent sites and recreational vehicle parks sharing space with cabins and fully appointed lodges.
Campers need look no farther than the California coastline to find campgrounds such as Manchester Beach, Petaluma and Santa Cruz.
"They're like department stores," explained Jim Rogers, chief executive officer of KOA, a leading private campground company in North America. "If you want to set off by yourself and pitch a tent, we have it. Parties of five or six can go in together and park their rigs in the group area. We have cabins overlooking the ocean for wedding parties. We want to be a place for everyone."
Camping has become an outdoor hospitality industry, but without the $200- or $300-a-night resort price tag.
In 2008, the travel industry slapped the word "glamping" onto this trend of luxury camping. Since then, some of those "glamping" perks have burrowed into even mainstream camping.
KOA offers free Wi-Fi at all its locations and has added more cottagelike trailers, complete with kitchens, bathrooms and lofts. One state park now even includes cabins with kitchenettes and televisions with DVD players. Cable hookups and satellite television are available, often free of charge.
Sacred Rocks Reserve near San Diego has gone a step further, allotting 36 sites for eco-friendly, solar-powered park models that are on sale as year-round vacation homes. "It's for people who want to escape the noise of the city and hear the owls at night," said owner Sharon Courmousis.
I'll be the first to admit — I prefer camping with four walls, a real bed and a private bathroom. But laptops propped up on picnic tables? RVs with outdoor televisions? Texting around the campfire? Has our inability to disconnect from the outside world and our favorite tech toys gone too far?
Courmousis sees it this way: "At least they're getting some of what nature has to offer."
Rogers sees an even more valuable upshot: "We're getting our youth outdoors. If we don't find some way to do it, we will not have future land stewards."
The trick, says Pauline Wood, co-owner of Petaluma KOA Camping, is to provide entertainment that will draw campers away from their televisions, laptops and cell phones. To that end, her campground offers a full schedule of events from May to October, including hay rides, pool parties, rock wall climbing and wine tastings.
"We're like the Disney of camping," she said. "We offer the full spectrum."
Here's a closer look at a few California sites that have redefined camping in style (all rates are nightly):
El Capitan Canyon: About 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, this luxury campground offers fully appointed cedar cabins — some of which look bigger and nicer than my house — and raised canvas safari tents with willow beds and linens. There's a restaurant and deli selling barbecue kits. During the summer, guests can enjoy free concerts on Saturday nights. Beach cruise bikes are also complimentary.
Details: www.elcapitancanyon.com; 866-352-2729; cabins from $185 a night offseason and $225 peak; safari tents from $135 offseason and $155 peak.
Petaluma KOA Camping: The 70-acre campground has tent and RV sites, cabins and Wine Country lodges with a private bedroom, bunk bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, television and DVD, fire pit and deck. The campground has a playground, basketball and volleyball courts, pool, arcade, movie theater, dog park and themed weeks during the summer. San Francisco and Wine Country tours also are available.
Details: www.petalumakoa.com; 800-992-2267; tent sites from $39.50, RV sites with hookups from $59, cabins from $73 and lodges from $185.
Crystal Cove Beach Cottages: Located in Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, these restored cottages were built as part of a seaside colony in the 1930s and '40s. Available for rent are 11 individual cottages with different floor plans and designs and three dorm-style cottages. Most have kitchens and views of the ocean in Newport Beach.
Details: www.crystalcovebeachcottages.com; 800-444-7275; individual cottages from $125; dorms from $65 for two people.
Sacred Rocks Reserve: The tent and RV park in San Diego County's Boulevard has a mile-long labyrinth for meditation, a pool, clubhouse with movie nights and a dog run. Also available for rent are a bunkhouse that sleeps 14, and two show models of its eco-friendly vacation homes. Home to an artists' colony, the reserve hosts workshops in writing, poetry, photography and crafts and holds occasional geocaching events.
Details: www.sacredrocksreserve.com; 619-766-4480; tent sites from $18 offseason and $22 peak, RVs from $36/$45 and vacation homes from $78.
Emerald Desert RV Park: This gem in Palm Springs for RVs only is a resort in disguise. There's a driving range and two-hole putting green, tennis courts, two pools, a fitness center, indoor and outdoor spas, a video library and event catering. Golf and tennis clinics are offered seasonally. Two-bedroom condos with luxury furnishings are available to rent.
Details: www.emeralddesert.com; 877-624-4140; standard RV sites from $47.50; condos from $125.
Manhattan Beach: The biggest draw here is direct access to a five-mile stretch of beach. Like other KOA sites, Manhattan Beach offers tent and RV sites, cabins and cottages, but it also rents stationary trailers for guests who want a more traditional camping experience (without the tent). Amenities include an 18-hole disc golf course, two bocce ball courts, food court, pool, arcade, volleyball court, two playgrounds, dog park and peddle carts for rent. Television and DVD rentals also are available.
Details: www.manhattanbeachkoa.com; 707-882-2375; tent sites from $28 offseason and $35 peak; full RV sites from $48/$56; cabins from $62/$70; cottages from $152/$168; stationary trailers from $109/$129.
Santa Cruz KOA: There's little chance of being bored at this park at La Selva Beach. Intriguing attractions include a mechanical bull, mechanical surfboard, fun train and agility course for pets. There are outdoor movies, a game room, pool, espresso cafe, volleyball and basketball courts, climbing wall, bounce pillow and playground, as well as golf carts, bike rentals and mini golf for an extra charge. The campground also has a pizza parlor with campsite deliveries, Sunday pancake breakfasts and Saturday barbecue lunches. And in addition to cabins and lodges, guests can rent classic Airstream trailers.
Details: www.santacruzkoa.com; 800-562-7701; tent sites from $57 offseason and $64 peak; RVs with full hookups from $78/$84; cabins from $89/$115; lodges from $180 and Airstreams from $165; plus a $2 a night resort fee.
The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course: The 90-site RV resort located just outside Anza Borrego State Park capitalized on its hot mineral baths by opening a wellness center last month. Services include massages, acupuncture and acupressure. It was named Small RV Park of the Year last year by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. The reason: a 9-hole golf course, dog park, saltwater swimming pool, fitness center, tennis courts, pond with catch-and-release fishing and an astronomy park with an 11-inch telescope. The Springs also rents RVs.
Details: www.springsatborrego.com; 866-330-0003; RV sites from $35.
Campland on the Bay: The park in San Diego offers a private getaway called the Super Site — private patio, grill and hot tub, all tucked away from the other campsites. For everyone, there's a pool, marina with 124 slips, watercraft and bike rentals, game room, restaurant, new skate park and activities that include sand castle building contests, concerts with live bands and scavenger hunts.
Details: www.campland.com; 800-422-9386; RV sites from $36 offseason and $46 peak season; Super Site from $166/$268; primitive sites available in the summer from $41.