Give today's KOA a try

May 29 2011 - 10:15am

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People mill around at the KOA in Rodanthe,N.C.

JOSH NOEL/Chicago Tribune/MCT
People mill around at the KOA in Rodanthe,N.C.

JOSH NOEL/Chicago Tribune/MCT

RODANTHE, N.C. -- My symbiosis with Kampgrounds of America didn't happen all at once. It was, in fact, a slow build.

It began on the jumping pillow, that dome of inflated rubber planted in the ground where I sprang endlessly into a warm summer afternoon -- never mind the 7-year-old girl who counseled her younger brother to jump away from me because "grown-ups make it too bouncy."

It continued during the $1 ice cream social, when I was told, yes, I can have chocolate and vanilla on the same cone. And it was cemented atop the water slides, while debating between the blue one and the yellow one. The chlorine-slickened 8-year-olds squealed in near unanimity on behalf of the blue.

"It goes down to the deep end!" they shouted.

When you stand 4 1/2 feet, yes, 5 feet is quite deep.

I took the youngsters' advice and, to their cheers, splashed into the chlorine for myself. It was then that Kampgrounds of America and I became one; I realized there is no cleaner, safer, more programmed camping experience -- some would say "camping experience" -- to be had. Accept that and you're set.

Kids accept it easily, which is why they love the place.

Among the squealing pool masses was Jordan Lester, a 7-year-old from Dunn, N.C., about to turn 8. Told he could do anything for his birthday, he searched KOAs online and picked this one on the Carolina coast that backs up to a wide, salty-aired beach. In three days he had watched a movie at the outdoor theater, made s'mores by the campfire, tie-dyed T-shirts, rented a banana bike, played miniature golf, hit the arcade several times and made repeat visits to the jumping pillow.

"Last year we rented out a skating rink and had 100 people," said his mother, Jamie Lester, 43, a nurse. "He thinks this is more awesome."

The legend

Parents think so, too, for more practical reasons. Loud parties are not tolerated at KOAs. The grounds are safe and clean. Activities abound. The showers are hot (if not quite immaculate). And entry is affordable. During three days at this coastal KOA, the Dunn family had not left the grounds, except to hit the beach.

"We even had better food at the cafe here than we did in town," Lester said.

Even if you've never stayed in a KOA, you've undoubtedly passed one of the 475 spread through 43 states and Canada. The chain's roots can be traced to 1962, when, legend has it, Billings, Mont., businessman Dave Drum noticed cars streaming toward Seattle's World's Fair. Sensing opportunity, the company says, "Drum quickly constructed a campground on his land that offered hot showers, clean restrooms, a small store and a patch of grass -- all for $1.75 a night."

Still operating in that vein, KOA today does to camping what it also does to spelling: mold something recognizable into a fun, easy and slightly absurd experience. When does camping include air hockey and pizza delivered to your tent? When you're at a KOA.

You can pitch a tent, park your camper, rent a bare-bones cabin (air conditioning, no running water) or stay in a deluxe cabin (air conditioning and running water). The grounds can neighbor oceans, state parks, mountain ranges or redwood forests. Some people come to KOAs for a night, and some stay long enough to fill their front yards with toys, folding chairs and satellite dishes.

'Not hotel people'

While there is something comfortable and family-oriented about KOAs, they're humble enough that drinking white Russians from plastic cups while mini-golfing a pebble-strewn 10-hole course still feels appropriate -- exactly what a foursome was doing at the one in Virginia Beach, Va.

"We're just not hotel people," said Kathy Shupe, 52, of Orchard Park, N.Y., swinging her putter a stone's throw from the tent she shared with her son, sister and future daughter-in-law. "We usually camp in the woods, but with that camping you can't do this stuff."

The differences between KOAs and "woods" camping, as Shupe put it, are clear the moment you arrive. At the Virginia Beach KOA, for example, I checked in at the main lodge, which doubles as the convenience store (KOA red wine, anyone?) and gift shop (perhaps a KOA stuffed bear?). After I paid $100 for a one-room "kabin" that sleeps four, a woman in a yellow KOA polo picked up a walkie-talkie.

"Camp store to camp host," she said.

"Camp host," crackled the reply.

"The gentleman in the gray vehicle is going to Cabin 2," she said. "I repeat: The gentleman in the gray vehicle is going to Cabin 2."

By the time I stepped into the humid afternoon, a man driving a golf cart was waiting.

"You going to Cabin 2?" he said. "Follow me."

He led me 15 seconds up the road to a squat wood cabin. As he explained the intricacies of the door lock, some French teenagers stopped to ask about Wi-Fi.

"The whole park is wired," he told them.

Wireless Internet in your tent; will KOA's wonders never cease?

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