Luxury RVs have all the trappings of penthouse suites, writes Marian Carroll.
Squinting into the sun, the petrol-station attendant eyes our motorhome, spits out of the corner of his mouth and drawls, "So, you plannin' on drivin' that thang all the way back to Australia?"
We're about to laugh when we realise he's serious.
We are, in fact, driving back to Los Angeles, where our winter road trip with our two children - a teething 9-month-old and a toilet-training 2-year-old - began almost three months before.
After 11,260km we had picked up a taste of the American obsession with RVing as we traversed the spectacular coast, desert and mountain landscapes of six states: California, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
We are on the last leg of the journey, winding down the coastal road from North Oregon to California and catching glimpses of migrating whales and elephant seals, when we make an unplanned detour inland to Coburg.
A forgettable town on the I-5 highway, Coburg boasts no major attractions. Yet it has hosted celebrities from Paul Newman to Shania Twain all for one reason: million-dollar RVs (recreational vehicles).
With price tags of up to US$2.2 million ($2.8 million), these McMansions on Wheels sell to wealthy outdoors-lovers for more than the average house on Sydney or Auckland harbours.
We're curious to see what they do to demand such prices. I'm half-expecting a tour to outer space.
"Our buyers are accustomed to a certain standard and they're looking for that in their coach," says Rod Johnston, sales rep for Marathon Coach, the world's largest Prevost coach converter.
"They get their own interior designer and engineer to custom-build their coach from scratch. These are people who travel in style and dine out at fancy restaurants, and they demand attention to detail."
The 13.7m Prevost coaches arrive at Marathon as shells, with little more than dashboard and controls inside. The whole thing is converted into the equivalent of a penthouse suite, with all the mod-cons of a luxury house.
Their owners often attach toy trailers to the back to transport cars, motorcycles, jet skis and other essentials. Some reserve a special place in the cabin for pets.
This is serious RVing, and for Marathon that means serious business. In a normal year Marathon sells more than one new coach a week, but its workshops are quiet as Johnston gives his spiel. The firm's still suffering amid the economic crisis and has stopped production temporarily.
Johnston leads us through a gleaming honey-hued model adorned with wooden floorboards, marble benchtops, bronze fittings and tinted windows.
A kitchen with microwave, stove and dishwasher opens on to a rotatable dining table and leather sofa. A washing machine and dryer are tucked away next to a double bathroom that leads to a large king-sized bed and sliding wardrobe. Three separate slide-outs double the cabin space.
And then there are the gadgets: three HD-LCD TVs (including one stowed in a luggage bay for outdoor viewing), GPS mapping systems and theatre-quality sound.
Touch-screen panels manage climate control, lighting and window shades. A central operating system alerts the owner to vehicle maintenance issues, and tracks generator, sewage and fresh water levels. Best yet, the dirtiest part of RVing is hands-free; Marathons Freedom Sewer Hose releases and retracts at the push of a button.
"Our operating systems are a major selling point," Johnston says. "We use many of the same parts as an aircraft."
Impressive as it is, we can't help but wonder whether there's really US$2 million extra value in it compared with other coaches.
Take our humble Wanderer. Nine metres long, it sleeps five people and is completely self-contained so we can pull off the road, cook a meal, have a shower and flop into bed at a whim.
It may not be a million-dollar RV but it's convenient, comfortable and has everything we need. It's also reliable, except for a couple of minor incidents such as the water pipes freezing in Lake Tahoe and the cabin flooding in the Nevada desert.
Similarly, full-time RVers Nullet and Sandi Schneider are more than satisfied with their 12m coach, which cost them US$225,000 five years ago.
These San Franciscan locals have been chasing the sun for most of their married life, since selling their 1.2ha property and almost everything they own.
They're among more than 8 million RV owners in the United States, many of whom are retirees.
Nullet, 68, a former trucker, is reclining on a leather sofa in the RV's lavish cabin after taking his Harley Davidson for a spin.
"It's a great life. We spend most of our time outdoors, travelling around according to the seasons."
Even as Sandi undergoes treatment for breast cancer, they never consider giving up their nomadic lifestyle. "We enjoy such a simple, relaxed lifestyle, and if things get really bad [with the cancer] we can always move in to a resort that's like a respite care facility, where people clean your RV and help take care of you," she says.
Such resorts, known as "gated communities", boast facilities rivalling those of five-star hotels, with golf courses, restaurants, spas, tennis courts, business centres, movie theatres, children's playgrounds and pet runs. Nightly rates range from US$35 to US$100 but many RV owners buy a deeded lot or pay an annual fee.
With or without a million-dollar RV, it's a world away from your average trailer park.
If you go: Queensland-based Apollo Motorhomes has a large fleet of well-maintained RVs. The writer rented a 30-foot Wanderer for an average of $US65 a day, for a three-month period.
Flights: Air New Zealand flies to LA from Auckland.
RV parks: Parks are as common as roadside motels are in ew Zealand. They often provide a 10 per cent discount on published rates. You can take up Wal-Mart's open invitation to boondock - stay overnight in their parking lots - if you're passing through.
- AAPBy Marian Carroll