Monday, April 22, 2019

Getting Ready For Our First RV Road Trip



Visiting as many National Parks as possible is on top of our Bucket List.  We talked about seeing them all once we retired.   We have been retired 3 years now and have visited one park, Great Smoky Mountains, partly because it is only 6 hours away from our home in NC.  (Read about our trip here.)  The more we thought about how we would get to the many parks on the West Coast and the others across the country, the more we thought that we would have to get an RV.  Flying to the parks, renting cars, staying at hotels and eating out 3 times a day would be too expensive for our retirement budget.**

We had conversations about taking a cross country trip in an RV before but we gave up on the idea because we were very nervous about towing a big camper and about having to buy a very expensive truck to tow it with.  But since we realized that camping our way to the parks would be the only way we could really do it, we started to consider looking for a pop-up.  We would be able to tow it with our van and we had seen pop-ups with bathrooms so it might work.  A couple of the families we went camping with every year, for about 15 years, camped in pop-ups, while we camped in a tent.  It didn't look that hard to tow or set up.   So one day, after talking to my sister and brother-in-law about traveling to the West Coast together after they retire, we all decided to go to Camping World to check the pop-ups out.

Our old reliable tent.  That's son, Joe, posing for the picture!

A very nice salesman was glad to show us a pop-up but asked if we wanted to see the RV he has and loves.  It is called a hybrid.  It is a small 18 foot towable RV that has full sized beds on both sides of the trailer that pop out like the ones in the pop-up.  We said "Sure!"  He showed us how easy it was to pull the beds down.  Then, he told us, "All you have to do is balance it, hook up the water and electric and you're ready to relax with a cold drink."  He sold us on the hybrid as soon as he told us we could tow it with our van!

We took a quick look at the pop-ups but thought about how much easier the hybrid was to set up.  We decided that if we did get something it would be the Starcraft Launch Outfitter 16RB.  We only had to think about it for a very short time before we went back to Camping World to purchase it.



So now we had an RV and had to figure out how to use it.  It was going to be a little more complicated than pitching a tent.  The nice people at Camping World went over everything we needed to know about how to hitch it up to our van, how we get water into and out of it and how to balance it along with many other things we needed to know.  It was pretty overwhelming and we were wondering if we made a mistake buying it.  We started to feel nervous about actually camping with it but we didn't have a choice of whether we were ready to try camping with it or not because of the 30 day warranty that came with the Launch.   We had to use it to make sure everything was working properly and we had to do it soon.  We decided that we would take a short trip with it at the campground nearest to our home.  

The closest campground was Lake Kissimmee State Park and only a 15 minute drive from our house.  Perfect!  And what made it even more perfect was that it only cost $20.00 a day to camp there.  Then we found out that since we were Florida residents and seniors, it would only cost us $10.00.  We were thinking this kind of traveling might work out very well for us.

We made our reservation for mid-week because all the weekends were booked for months ahead.  We packed up some camping gear, which was not much because everything we still had from camping years ago, was in our NC house.  We made a menu of easy meals, mostly food we could warm up in the microwave or on the stove in the trailer.  We weren't too worried about our supplies because we could just go back down the road to our house and get anything we forgot.

The day of our first trip arrived.  We were packed and felt confident we had everything we needed.  When we brought our trailer home from Camping World, it was already hitched up to our car and ready for us to drive it home.  This was the very first thing we had to figure out all by ourselves.   

Soko pulled the van up a few feet from the front of the RV.  I stood by the trailer hitch.  Soko slowly backed the car towards the trailer hitch.  The car hitch was about 10 inches to the left of the trailer hitch when Soko stopped the car, even though I had been waving my arms like crazy for him to move the car to the right.  He pulls up and tries again and instead is too far to the right now.  This scenario repeated many times.  We started out calmly trying to line up the car and trailer and ended up screaming at each other!   After about 20 - 25 minutes, we finally got the car hooked up to the RV but we were very discouraged about our ability to own this thing!

We drove slowly and carefully to the campground and arrived at our site.   I once again had to direct Soko.  This time to back the trailer into our campsite.  Luckily, it was a big site and it was not a big deal.  That really helped us to start feeling a little better about being able to figure RVing out.  

After we pulled out the beds, leveled the trailer and hooked up the water and electric, we were ready to break open the beers, relax and enjoy our little vacation.  We really do love to camp and, finally, we were feeling very happy with our decision to buy the Launch.


We were also happy to find Lake Kissimmee State Park.  It was quiet and peaceful and a perfect place to camp and enjoy nature.  There were some campers who were there to take their boats out to fish and others, like us, who used the few trails to walk and bike along.  There was a store, that was closed for the season, but you could sit at one of the picnic tables around it and use the internet if you wanted.







We stayed two nights and then it was time to pack up.  Soko unhooked the hoses and electrical cords and took care of packing up everything that was outside while I took care of the inside.  I needed to take some things out of the trailer, make sure that the things we were leaving inside the camper were secure and gave it a quick but good cleaning.  We worked together, like we did two days before, to hitch the trailer to the car.  Surprisingly, we had them hitched together in less than half the time it took us when we first tried it.  We were not sure if we just got lucky or if my directing and Soko's driving improved!

Now for disposing of the gray and black water.  We used the campgrounds bathrooms except for during the night.  We also used their facilities to take showers and their sinks to wash most of our dishes.  We were not sure exactly how much the trailer's water tanks held and we didn't know what would happen if we overfilled them and we didn't want to find out.    

We drove to the dump station and Soko figured out how to hook up the hoses and flush out the water. We found out that the tanks were barely filled after two days of camping which was good to know before our first road trip.

We made it home safely and felt pretty good about our first trial run.

****************

The second trial run we took was to a campground about 30 minutes from our home and down the same road as Lake Kissimmee.  Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo  was where we met up with our son Mike, DIL Chrissy and their friends Bronson and Chloe to celebrate Mike's 30th birthday.


This campground was more expensive than the state park, $60 per night, but it was a fun place with plenty of activities.  A perfect place to party!  We had a great time skeet shooting, grilling, relaxing around the campfire and rooting the bull riders on at the rodeo.  

 




The best thing about this place was that we could walk to all the activities from our campsite.  We definitely would have visited the petting zoo if we had kids with us.  Some other things we could have done, maybe next time, was ride the mechanical bull, horseback riding, zip lining, swim in the pool, eat at one of their restaurants or have a couple of drinks at the bar.  And that's not even half of the activities that are offered here. 




The only real challenge we had on this trip, was that the sites with electricity were all booked for the weekend.  We actually hesitated about making the reservation, but Mike's friends had already booked a cabin, which is one of many choices of accommodations here besides for camping.  You can even choose to go glamping in a tee pee here!


We have never been camping at a campsite without electric but we decided to give it a shot. We are glad that we did because we learned a couple of things from the experience.  We found out that we could run our refrigerator with the propane tank, that is hooked up to the trailer, for longer than we thought.  

Soko heard a click, after 180 hours of having the fridge running on the propane, and thought it was the fridge shutting down but it turns out that the click Soko heard was not the fridge.  When he went to fill the propane tank, after we got back, we found out it was just a little more than 1/4 empty.  We could have run the fridge our entire trip and more.  We were glad we found this out before our first road trip.

Knowing that we wouldn't have electricity, we brought plenty of lanterns and used our propane stove and a grill to cook.  We didn't miss not being able to use the microwave or stove.  The lanterns gave us plenty of light inside and out.  Luckily, we didn't need to use the air conditioning or we might have missed that.  After we got back from this trip, we bought a fan that runs on batteries, as well as electric, just in case we camp without electricity again.  We never would have looked for a fan that was battery operated if we didn't camp without electric.

For our first official road trip, two of the four campgrounds we booked don't have water hook ups.  We only booked them after Soko assured me that we will be able to use our bathroom in the middle of the night.  It seems we have a holding tank for water that we can fill at the campground that will allow us to use the bathroom and wash dishes in our sink.  We are not sure how many times we can use the bathroom or how many dishes we can wash though.  It will be another learning experience for us.

We will let you know how our first road trip goes when we get back!  Wish us luck!

**Comparing the cost of traveling (not counting air fare compared to driving and towing the Launch)

Cost of trailer - $14,000 (rounded up)

Two nights accommodations at Lake Kissimmee                                                 $      20.00
Four nights accommodations at River Ranch                                                             240.00 
Dining out                                                                                                                       0.00
Rental car                                                                                                                        0.00
Total                                                                                                                       $   260.00

Six nights accommodations at hotel (avg. $150 per night)                                   $   900.00
Dining out (3 meals for 2 people = $100 per day)                                                     600.00
Rental car ($50 per day)                                                                                             300.00
Total                                                                                                                       $1,800.00                   
Total savings after our first two trips with the Launch                                          $1,540.00                    
$14,000 - 1,540 =  $12,460 - The Launch will pay for itself very soon!                                                                  

Monday, April 8, 2019

Rome, Italy - The Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica And More




I'm not sure how long a Mediterranean cruise was on our bucket list.  What I do know is that the reason we wanted to go on this cruise was because we wanted to see Rome more than anywhere else in the world.  We dreamed about visiting the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling and St. Peter's Basilica to see the beautiful Pieta, another Michaelangelo masterpiece.   So we found a 12 day cruise that included Rome and as a bonus, Venice which was also high on our bucket list.  Seeing Europe on a cruise allowed us to visit many interesting places in one trip, but it didn't leave us much time to spend in each place.  Besides for visiting Vatican City, we wanted to see the Trevi Fountain and other famous sights that are in Rome and we only had a few precious hours to fit it all in.

Our cruise ship docked in Civitavecchia which was miles away from Rome.  We needed to find the quickest way to get to Rome from there and decided that we would book the excursion, Train Transfer By Roma Express.  This express train would get us to Rome in 50 minutes and it would also include a shuttle ride to the train station which would save us from having to find the station ourselves.  It would also include a guide who would give us tips and other information that would help us find our way around Rome.

One of the things we like about cruising, besides for having a variety of excursions available that are easy to book, is that you have the chance of meeting new people that have very interesting stories to tell.  On our 50 minute train ride to Rome we sat with a couple from St. Louis.  They told us about how they lived in a total of seven states and were currently looking for a new state to live in.  One state they wouldn't return to is California because of their experience of being at the San Francisco - Oakland World Series game during the terrible earthquake of '89.  They do not want to relive the feeling of terror they felt as the stadium swayed back and forth.  I didn't blame them for feeling a little nervous about living there again!

Once we got to Vatican City, we took off to find the hop on, hop off bus that would bring us to four of the most famous sights of Rome.   We thought that would be the easiest and fastest way to get to each sight.  We needed to get back to the Vatican Museum by 1:00, which is the time we reserved in advance online, to enter.  This meant we only had time to take a quick picture and get to the next sight as quick as we could.  It turned out to be easier for us not to use the hop on, hop off bus and just use our legs, and GPS (that we finally figured out how to use) to get us to where we needed to go.  Our advice is to just use the cheaper bus to get you to this area and back if you are pressed for time.



After being stuck in traffic for most of the bus ride, we hopped off when it neared Trevi Fountain and ran.



After taking a few quick pictures and throwing our euro into a dry fountain, it was having it's annual cleaning!, we took off running to the Spanish Steps.



From the Spanish Steps we walked 30 minutes, along with many other tourists, to get to the Colosseum.  If we had more time we would have liked to have gone inside.  We'll have to go back one day I guess!


We are not complaining about the walk to the Colosseum, though, because we actually got to view a section of the Imperial Forum on the way.



After the Colosseum, we wanted to see the Pantheon but we ran out of time.  We didn't want to try to get into the Vatican Museum with a ticket that was expired like we did at the Accademia Gallery in Florence the day before.

We got back to Vatican City, with a few minutes to spare, we headed into the plaza where the Vatican Museum was.  We ran around trying to find the way in.  We were having a hard time finding someone to ask for help.  We finally found someone and he pointed to where we had entered the plaza.  The entrance was down the long block we had just come from, and around the corner.  We jumped on line even though we had tickets already and searched for someone to help us find the express line.  Someone eventually approached us and told us to follow him and he would get us in.  After following him for a very short time, we became suspicious of where he was taking us so we ditched him when he wasn't looking.  We did finally find the express entrance and we were only a couple of minutes late when we did.

We are not art experts so couldn't appreciate most of what was in the museum, but the ceilings were so gorgeous and it was so much fun to enter a room of the building and look up to see if we would be treated to a beautiful sight.  It got us very excited to see the amazing Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Rotunda Room 

The Maps Hall



We were not allowed to take pictures of Michaelangelo's masterpiece but it was a dream come true to see it.  I couldn't believe that we were really there looking at probably the most famous painting found on a ceiling in the entire world.  Especially the Creation Of Adam in the central panel.  This is what I think of, when I am thinking of the Sistine Chapel painting.  The hands of God and Adam reaching towards each other with their fingers almost touching.

We read in Rick Steve's Mediterranean Cruise Ports guide that we could go directly to St. Peter's Basilica from the Sistine Chapel so that was our plan.  We were to find a shortcut exit labeled "Exit for authorized guides and tour groups only."  We found this exit at the far-right corner of the chapel and it brought us out into St. Peter's square.

We passed the Holy Door as we made our way to the basilica.  This door is only open during a holy year which occurs every 25 years.  The last time the door was open was in 2000.  The door, covered by a brick wall inside the basilica, opens after the Pope strikes the wall with a silver hammer.


Then we entered our last stop of the day.  St. Peter's Basilica was the highlight of our day.  We saved the best for last, though we didn't know that it would be.   And we also didn't know how emotional it would be to see Michaelangelo's Pieta.  We have seen pictures of it, the mother, Mary, holding her lifeless son, Jesus, in her arms, but seeing it in person brought it to life and made it so real and so sad.  But after the sadness, was the joy of seeing it right in front of us!



We were in awe of this gorgeous basilica and loved every inch of it.



Something very interesting to check out in the basilica is Pope John XXIII's body laid out in a lighted glass tomb.  Some say that it is a sign of a miracle that his body was completely intact after being buried for 38 years.  Because of the amazing condition of the body, the authorities decided to put it in the church for all to enjoy.  Pope John XXIII himself performed a miracle when he cured an Italian man who had a stomach tumor.



On the way out of the basilica we, passed the Pope's guards.  We were lucky enough that we got there right in time to witness the changing of the guards.



We weren't quite sure where we were supposed to meet our tour guide so we made sure we left the basilica with time to spare.  When we got to where we thought we were supposed to be, we met a lovely older couple from Belfast, Ireland who were as confused as we were as to where we were meeting our group.  They just got back from walking to the sights that we took the bus to see.  We were very impressed.  We told them all about our plans to visit Ireland in a couple of months and they were very happy to let us know what we must see.  They told us about the many vacations and cruises they have taken since they retired.  They took a break, though, when they started feeling their age but realized how short life is when the healthy husband suddenly needed 7 stents put into his heart and this was the reason they were vacationing again and on this Mediterranean cruise.

An English couple approached us as we were talking to the Irish couple.  They were new cruise friends of the Irish couple.  We started a conversation about how a fellow cruiser was left in Pisa the day before.   The English couple told us about their first cruise, this was their second, when they went to Israel.  The ship they were on abruptly took off  2 hours early and left 4 people behind when fighting erupted in Jerusalem and the government told the ship to leave immediately.  I can't even imagine the stress the 4 people experienced that day.  I hope they got out of there ok.

We were almost the group of people our fellow passengers would be talking about that night. We were so involved in our conversation, and standing in the wrong spot, that we nearly missed our group leaving for the train station.

On the train ride back to the ship, we sat with a couple from Australia.  I immediately announced that I might fall asleep on them but then we started talking and we were having such a nice time with them that it would have been fine with us if the bus trip back was even longer than it was.  Having just retired from working as a pre-school assistant for the last 17 years, I was very jealous of the perks teachers are offered in Australia.  The husband and wife were both teachers and mid-way through a 4 month vacation.   I wondered how they could manage to leave their students for 4 months.  I know we were not allowed to take vacation during the school year at our pre-school.  They explained that in Australia, after 10 years, teachers can accumulate time off.  The husband had enough time to take 6 months off and she had 4.  When they started making plans for this hiatus, they booked the Mediterranean cruise first and then planned the rest of their European vacation around it.   We had a great time talking about their vacation and then we told them how Australia was on our bucket list. (Read about Australia and other places on our bucket list here.)  We had never met anyone from Australia before and it was great to have someone answer all our questions.  But I was very disappointed to learn that we would not see koalas running across anyone's lawn.  I had heard that or read that, somewhere, but I guess it was "fake news."  Also, we found out that we need to book a tour through the outback if we want to see any kangaroos.

They were so wonderful about answering all our questions and giving us ideas of what we might want to put on our Things To Do In Australia list.  A couple of days after our visit to Rome, Soko ran into the couple and they gave him this list they prepared for us.


You really can meet some of the nicest, most interesting, people on a cruise!