Why an American RV?

As Vanessa wrote in ‘Could you drive from Singapore to England?” we’d fallen in love with traveling via a RV back in 2011 when we hired one in Washington DC and drove south (and west) all the way to Florida. That rental was one way and we then flew to Denver, Colorado picking up a 2nd RV and continuing west through Death Valley until arriving in San Francisco from where we flew home.

The flexibility, convenience and ‘luxury’ was compelling. That was a true ‘trip of a lifetime’ but with work and school commitments we were always on a schedule given we had to be in San Francisco to catch a flight back to Asia. To tick off so many bucket list wishes somedays we drove for hours on end and although we saw so much, it was tiring. I had a cold for a few days and didn’t really feel great (especially after Vanessa knocked me out with a concoction of over the counter medication!) but we had to push on and get in some miles so as to keep on schedule. Several years later we took another RV on a big loop around Florida in 14 days. Far less miles than the previous trip and once again we loved every minute.

Xmas 2016 in Japan was planned as a holiday and I discovered you could rent a ‘RV’ there as well so we went for it. Talk about the sublime to the ridiculous though. In the US we’d opted for +30 feet class A RVs. In Japan, the biggest one we could find was 17 feet long!

Although we had an awesome week in Japan, there was so little space…driving, sleeping and even sitting down to eat was OK but there was almost zero storage space and no floor/standing space…we literally had to get out of bed 1 person at a time, get dressed and then get out of the camper so the next person could get up ! Remember, I said it was Xmas (and therefore really cold in Japan) ? So if you were first up, once dressed you had to stand outside in the cold until everyone else was ready ! Me and V are too old for this kind of nonsense, maybe if you’re a student it’s OK but we enjoy/expect some creature comforts. Oh, and that was all without the dog !

I suppose flexibility and convenience can be applied to all campers, big or small, but when you throw in the luxury of an American RV, it’s a no-brainer. Dual slide outs, a king sized bed, a full size shower, separate fridge and freezers, a gas oven, a combination microwave/oven, multiple TVs, air conditioning, a full sized sofa etc etc are all standard kit in a Class A.

When we’d committed to this adventure, we wanted to do it in a proper American RV but in all honesty we spent weeks going through all the pros and cons of every different combination ….

1. American RV & tow car

2. American RV alone

3. European style/size motor home

4. Car & caravan

We looked at lots of caravans and can see why that appeals. They are much cheaper and having a decent car to pull it gives you the car we knew we’d need for small journeys within Europe. In the end, 2 things discounted caravans though, firstly the space, and secondly the concerns about traffic accidents.

We also looked at European style motorhomes. Easier to drive and manoeuvre around towns, cheaper to buy & run and far fewer dramas about bridges and weight restricted roads. However, once again we came back to size/space…you need to remember this is not a 14 days summer holiday to France, it’s our home for 12 months as we travel across Europe and through 4 different seasons.

So that just left an RV with a tow car or an RV alone. For weeks, I was convinced the alone option was best, driving something 35 feet long is daunting enough without adding an A frame and tow car. American highways, garages and even most towns will swallow up an RV but Europe is different, small roads, low bridges, tight corners and villages on the route that we’d never seen before. Becoming increasingly nervous about how we’d visit the beach or supermarket in a RV won in the end and we settled on the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ strategy of a RV and a car. The RV has a 6.8 litre V10 engine so towing our Mini Cooper would be easy enough but the legality of towing a car behind a motorhome is a grey area. Obviously a car can tow a caravan and a car or motorhome can tow a trailer but a motorhome towing a car is very grey. In the UK it seems OK but the internet is full of conflicting opinions and stories about mainland Europe. Nevertheless we satisfied ourselves that there was sufficient grey area to give it a bash and even if we were forced by local Police to separate them, Vanessa could always drive the Mini until we reached the next border !

We bought the A-frame and had the Mini professionally modified to be towed by CAR-A-TOW in Poole http://www.caratow.com

The A-frame includes independent brakes for the Mini and all the lights being controlled from the RV so we did everything we could to make sure it was as legal and safe as humanly possible. The RV has a rear facing camera so as we drive along it’s comforting to see the Mini still attached !

We are 3 weeks into the trip so far and haven’t yet seen anything close to our size in Europe. Rolling into towns or campsites does feel a bit like ‘the circus is in town’ but I’m starting to feel that all the stares and inquisitive onlookers are more genuinely interested and intrigued than annoyed. Wait until the summer and millions of holidaymakers are on the roads with their caravans and roof boxes and I’ll let you know whether we’ve moved into a different space!

So far, no regrets at all but managing the RV consumes a lot of time and you’ve got to plan well, you can’t just rock up in a town and hope for the best. We bought a commercial truck TomTom (GPS) so we can stick to big roads but it’s really a house on wheels with electrics, water, gas, doors and windows and lots of things that need monitoring and dare I say, maintaining/repairing as you travel. It takes us about 1 hour from deciding to leave to actually pulling away. Joe is big enough and strong enough to be really helpful and Mikey has his own set of responsibilities before ‘lift-off’ and we’re steadily getting better. The boys run around in their hi-viz jackets guiding me in and out of campsites and so far we haven’t hit anything although we’ve destroyed plenty of grass and run over a few flowerbeds!

The renovation I

So we bought the RV. It was 10 years old with only 27,000 miles on the clock but very ‘brown’ inside. Literally everything was brown, beige, taupe, cream or some other variant of the 1970’s caravan look.

Actually the outside is still brown as well but that will have to wait until another day. The carpet and lino was brown, every single cabinet door or drawer front (all 46 of them) were brown, the walls were brown, all the upholstery was brown and on it went.

For months we’d been checking out images and stories of RV renovations and had concluded that a mix of white, greys and black would be cool. In addition, some light blue accent pieces (as Vanessa calls them, I just agree!) would work.

I’d somehow guesstimated that 3 months full time would be sufficient to get everything done. In reality though days off, weekends away, birthdays, Christmas etc all got in the way and in the end it took us about 4-5 months. There were times we spend all day in the RV and others where we spent the whole day researching or out shopping for the RV so I guess in total my 3 months actual work estimate was about right.

Our first problem/mistake was where we stored the RV during this process. It was winter time and damn cold and we had no access to mains power. I’d watched so many YouTube videos of people renovating their RVs and they all seem to be in Florida in the summer ! Try doing it in England in December with no power !

Some days I was so cold and fed up I’d give up for a bit but Vanessa’s endless supply of coffee, food and encouragement would get me back to work.

It was only daylight from about 09.00 until 16.00 so the days were short and batteries on power tools and iPods/speakers would run out. I’d fire up the engine on the RV to provide some heat and charge up the leisure batteries but it was only a short term fix. If I ever did this kind of project again, no way would I do it without mains power. Lesson learned.

Anyway, first task was to remove all the cabinet doors for painting. Took me all day – this was mistake No.2. Unless once you’ve removed 46 doors you’ve got somewhere sensible to store them all, do this in stages. I put mine in the RV storage lockers but it was a clumsy process and some got scratched.

Next phase was the carpet removal. Horrible horrible job. When Winnebago install the carpets and vinyl they intend them to stay put for ever. Glue and 1,000’s of tacks have to be removed and there ain’t no magic trick to this, it’s just getting down on your knees and pulling & scraping. Carpet and vinyl is all laid before the cabinets & furniture are installed so you either cut really close to the edges or you also take out the furniture as well.

What became apparent to me after a few days was that RVs are built by people rather than robots welding them. What that means is what 1 man has screwed together, another man can take apart ! If you can find the screws or bolts you can take them out, no special skills required other than reasonable DIY competency and plenty of tools.

I took all the dinette chairs and table out and also the sofa bed but I left the kitchen cabinets in place. The captains chair came out with 1 bolt and the driver and passenger seats came out with 4 bolts each and a bit of fiddling with the manual slide control. The sofa called for Joe to squeeze underneath to help get all the bolts out…he’s not significantly smaller than me anymore but no point doing all the crap jobs yourself when you’ve got teenage sons ! The sofa wasn’t going back in anyway, it was yellowy brown fake leather and we soon discovered it would be more expensive to cover/reupholster it than simply buy a new sofa. We wouldn’t need the seatbelts for the sofa so simply bought and installed a regular house sofa which fitted perfectly and it’s far more comfortable than the original factory-fit sofabed.

The original sofabed is now in the shipping container we used to move back to the UK – one day I’ll see if anyone wants to buy an original Winnebago sofa on eBay !

The captains chair didn’t feature in the plans either so that was also dispensed with (into the shipping container). We needed the space behind the front passenger seat to build a multipurpose cupboard to house coats, shoes, wine bottles and our dog! More about that later. There had originally been some discussion about installing a washer/dryer into that space but that would have been a horrible mistake – water supply in Europe isn’t ‘city water’ like in the US and we’d have been draining our water tank. A few Euros in laundries once a week and so far we’re all good with the laundry process.

With the flooring and cabinet doors removed plus most of the big furniture and all the blinds out it started to look awful and on a cold day was quite miserable working on it.

Painting all the cabinets plus 46 doors was a total nightmare. We experimented with primers, undercoats, rollers, brushes, spraypaint and to be honest, I’m not sure we really mastered it. The doors were all painted satin white and took at least 5 coats to cover. We did all the fronts and edges and I kept promising to do the insides if I had enough time but it never happened! It was cold and each coat would take so long to dry properly that this process seemed to go on and on for ever.

The cabinets themselves were a bit easier as they were still in place and we painted most of them grey. Before anyone asks, the doors have to come off as the hinges will be in the way and you’ll end up getting paint on them. I tried to mask the hinges but it’s too fiddly and you can’t paint close enough to them.

All 46 of the door/drawer handles were replaced with more contemporary designs – tip – find new handles that can use the same bolt holes as the originals or you’ll end up trying to fill the old holes which will look terrible unless you’re a cabinet maker. We got some that ‘fitted’ with a little persuasion from a hammer remembering that US imperial measurements will be a fraction different from metric ones you buy in the UK. The old handles all went in the trash which seemed a waste, maybe someone out there wanted them but I really had no time to waste trying to sell small stuff on eBay.

Walls. The factory design brown walls are super durable but horrible. We considered wallpaper at one point but our friend rightly raised the issue of condensation and heat and whether one morning we’d wake up to find it all peeled off ! Hence we just painted them. This was easy enough with a roller but there are 100’s of edges, nooks and crannies and they take forever to paint. Vanessa was good at painting the walls and then leaving me all the fun of cutting in and painting up to the edge of carpets, ceilings, cabinets etc !!!!

As light relief from the drudgery of painting, I built the multi purpose and customised cabinet which would sit between the door and passenger seat. Timber frame and 9mm MDF sheets did most of the work. I relocated a light fitting and put in some extra insulation where the dog would sleep and covered the ‘wall’ with 2 sheets of MDF panelling. Expensive but looks much nicer than plain MDF.

Measuring the dog for his entrance hole and a jigsaw did the trick and this area was now looking OK.

The Netherlands, Rotterdam

Rotterdam

So Rotterdam wasn’t on our list either. Glad we made the stop though. We parked up the RV and headed straight to the city in Mini.

I had researched the Markthal, a huge indoor food market in the centre of Rotterdam, opened in 2014 and costing €178,000,000 this is a food lovers paradise. An afternoon very well spent. Every market stall offers samples which meant we had eaten a three course meal without spending a single cent !

Just across the road from the Markthal are the famous cube houses, these 100 square metre homes are really interesting use of space and look really quirky.

A short drive from our campsite in Alblasserdam is Kinderdijk a village full of windmills.

An early start tomorrow as we make our way to Amsterdam.

The Netherlands, Eindhoven

Eindhoven

Head straight for Amsterdam, that was the plan but what we have realised already is that it’s the diversions, detours and spontaneous stops which can be the most fun and this one was certainly no exception. Our Dutch friends invited us for lunch at their home which took us to Helmond, a town close to Eindhoven not on our original route but we are so glad we made the detour.

Caroline and Marco, former neighbours from Singapore had prepared a fabulous lunch for us and lunch led to dinner. With the snow settling and a perfect canal side campsite in Oirschot we decided to stay for a couple more days.

Oirschot is a picture perfect town, it’s small stores look like a Disney set. A super friendly place with a beautiful church in the centre and shops around the square.

Waking up to a blanket of snow was a first, the boys were so excited and so was Lester.

We decided to have a relaxing day and chill-out after the past couple of weeks, the snow was a good excuse to stay put.

Sunday afternoon we went to a local brewery recommended by the campsite owner as they were hosting a German Festival. The music was played by a band from the town.

The snow has melted and we are ready to move on, next stop Rotterdam.

Belgium, Bruges

Bruges, the capital city of West Flanders turned out to be a whole lot more than chocolate, beer, waffles and frites even though I am sure you could survive on those four staples for a long time. The cobbled town centre with its morning market selling fresh fruit and vegetables, freshly cooked meats and spit roasted chickens, cheeses and hot waffles did not disappoint. Trip Advisor will give you the run down on churches and historical buildings to visit but what we were most taken with was the people, friendly, engaging, warm and cheerful…we were all struggling with the arctic snap and yet all we felt was warmth.

I have fallen in love with the shops too, each one is quite understated and classy. The signage doesn’t really give any clues to what is behind the door – the bakery looked like a high end law firm but if you look carefully through the windows you’ll see tastefully presented breads and cakes…it’s Disney like.

We also struck gold with the ongoing LPG saga in a small local garage where the owner (who spoke English as well as us) had all the necessary attachments and knew how to fully fuel us up – and the gas was literally half the price of France – again, another mystery about a so called United Europe.

We’d overdosed a bit on World War 2 cemeteries in France so for a change decided to visit all the World War 1 memorials, cemeteries and trenches we could find in Belgium ! Joking apart, it’s hard to explain how moving and deeply tragic it is…we’ve all studied this stuff in school but nothing stops you in your tracks quite like 12,000 graves of young men at Tyne Cot cemetery and the amazing city gates of Ypres. It’s hard to describe the Menin Gate, it is truly a magnificent memorial, remembering those lost in WW1 without a known grave.

To round off the historical tour for the day, we drove the 200 km round trip to the site of the Battle of Waterloo where the Duke of Wellington kicked Napoleons backside. We were proud to be British.

So having fallen in love with Belgium and it’s lovely people it was quite entertaining watching Jon being pulled over and breathalysed by the Belgium Highway police this morning in the motorhome. After a document check the police told us that whilst a car can tow a caravan in Belgium it’s apparently not legal for a motorhome to tow a car (!) We were then asked to remove Mini and get on our way. Which we did and continued to the Dutch border.

When you are drowning just keep swimming

Coming back to Devon, the place I grew up was an eye opener. I had always envisaged returning to the beautiful tranquillity of Devon, the quiet and laidback lifestyle. The Devon-way. I surprised myself that it wasn’t all I had imagined it to be and that I must have changed somehow. Devon was of course glorious as ever, the beaches a real pleasure, the towns quintessentialy British and the weather was mild. Although there was a nagging in the back of my mind that this wasn’t all I had wanted it to be, we actually felt a little bit cut off , 14 years living in capital cities does this to you. The instant gratification of walking out of your house and grabbing a Starbucks, department stores on your doorstep and bars and restaurants minutes away, Devon now felt a bit remote. It has given us food for thought about where our long term home will be.

Anyway I digress, we had returned and were in the most part enjoying Devon life as a retired couple (boys at school) enjoying lesisurly walks with the dog and coffees whilst undertaking the mammoth task of renovating the RV.

It doesn’t sound like a massive task but trust me it was huge and even now we look at what we have achieved and still find things we would like to improve. The title sums up our feelings throughout the renovation process, when you are drowning you just have to keep swimming. That’s what 7 coats of paint on each cupboard door does to you. So after weeks of Jon getting up every morning at 6.30 and going to the RV to demolish, paint, build and beautify we got to a point of seeing this ‘thing’ as a reality. I have to say Jon is the real driving force behind everything we do, I am a dreamer and a proscrastanator, Jon is a doer. Without him none of this would have happened, he sees a problem or a challenge and turns it into a real thing, making it better as he goes and enlisting people along the way to have the same belief and passion he has. I am in awe of his passion and enthusiasm for a project. I look at a task and can’t even start because I see so many obstacles, Jon walks in and just says “lets go and don’t stop until the job is done”.

When I did come and help, it was cold and quite depressing without electricity I would whinge and whine about not having the right paintbrush, being hungry, not having enough paint, the paint not sticking and so on and so on. Jon just soldiered on, never complaining or giving up. That’s just one of the reasons I love him.

Could you drive from Singapore to England?

I really wanted to give a bit of background to what we are doing right now and I suppose this question really defines the moment that it became a thing.

Those who have met Jon will know he is a general knowledge guru, he knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things, a good friend once said “Mr S you know a lot of shit”, she was not wrong. So Mr. S enjoys learning knew facts and figuring out the answers to questions I don’t even think about. So imagine about 3 and a half years ago, sitting in our gorgeous shophouse in Singapore eating dinner with the boys and Jon says “boys could you drive from Singapore all the way to England?”

The discussion ensued and we figured out a route and possible problems and then discussed what vehicle you could use. Of course at the time it was just a discussion.

In the summer of 2015 we took a trip to America, at this point we already knew Jon wanted to retire at or before 50. We had booked an RV for 2 weeks to tour around Florida. We had enjoyed an earlier trip to the States in 2011 when we spent a month in an RV traveling from the East coast to the West coast. The trip was fantastic and we all really enjoyed the freedom traveling in an RV gave us, everyday we would rock up in a new town and experience things that we wouldn’t have found in a guide book.

Over dinner during this trip Jon brought up the subject of his impending retirement again, only this time it felt very real, the boys and I put up some resistance to returning to the UK, I say returning as for me it is where I was born but for the boys Asia is very much their birthplace and home. Joe, our eldest boy put across his argument for staying in Singapore one more year. It was August and Jon had already decided he would retire in September and for us all to return to the UK for Christmas 2015. After many more discussions and the fact that we all needed to get our heads around ‘retirement’ Jon agreed to wait one more year. It was on this trip that we decided we would go back to the UK and buy an RV and head out to Europe for one year, going to as many of the 50 (ish) countries as possible. Joe was delighted and I felt like I had a year to enjoy life in Singapore.