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Roughing it retro style

OSCAR SCHERER STATE PARK

In my family growing up, there were two types of people: those who slept in tents, and those who slept in trailers. We operated on a strict class system. Kids (peasants) stayed outside, while my parents (the royal couple) had exclusive rights to our family's small travel trailer. With one exception. If you were too young to walk, you got to sleep inside. So for a few weeks in the summer of 1961, they called me the Prince of Lake George. While my seven brothers and sisters suffered in squalor, I lived the life of luxury, or at least, that's how I imagine it. But of course, I have no idea. I was 8 months old and barely able to stand, let alone talk. So in the summer of 1962, I was banished to the tent with rest of my siblings, and that is where I stayed for the last 48 years. Until last week.

The silver palace

Airstream travel trailers haven't changed much in more than 75 years. Much of this recreational vehicle's across-the-generations appeal is its old-school design. On the outside, the company's original 1931 model doesn't look that much different than one built in 2001.

In the past eight decades, the company has only had five design changes. The last one came in 1996, when the manufacturer widened the trailer from 96 to 101 inches.

Most folks can identify an Airstream by sight. There is no mistaking the familiar silver "airplane fuselage on wheels" as it rolls down the highway. Roughly 100,000 have been built over the years, and 60 percent of those are still on the road.

"We always loved the way they looked," said Nikki Couture, who with her husband, Stephen, now rent vintage Airstreams for those who want a classic camping trip. "They are a real classic."

The Coutures bought a 1956 Airstream Safari for $3,500 then spent another $15,000 restoring it to its original glory. Their company, Silver Bullet Retreats, will deliver and set up an Airstream at one of several Tampa Bay area state parks for less than it would cost to stay in most hotels.

A land yacht

My kids are used to roughing it. From the time they were babies, I've had them camping all over Florida — but always in tents.

The Airstream, with its hardwood floors, canvas awning and khaki cloth curtains, made them feel like they were indeed on safari, though we were only in Oscar Scherer State Park near Venice.

"One rule," I explained. "Take your shoes off inside. I want this to last another 50 years."

The Airstream has a stove, refrigerator and electric lights. When the temperature dropped on one of the coldest nights of the year, they were toasty warm in bed. In the morning, I had to bribe them with hot chocolate to get out of bed.

After two nights in our land yacht, my kids did not want to go home. If there is a downside, I think it will difficult to coax them into a tent again now that they have had a taste of a vintage Airstream.

FAST FACTS

If you go

Oscar Scherer State Park, Venice

This is one of the best places in the state to see the elusive Florida scrub jay. Hike 15 miles of trails through the pine flatwoods or rent a canoe or kayak and paddle South Creek, a tannic stream that flows into the gulf.

Fish the creek or Lake Osprey, which is also open to swimming. Like most state parks, the full-service campground is clean and well-maintained. The park's nature center is a great place to introduce youngsters to the ecology of this unique area.

Sample RV life: 2010 Florida RV SuperShow

What: More than 1,100 recreational vehicles will be on display, with more than 350 booths representing campgrounds, finance and insurance companies, supplies and accessories also on hand.

Where: Florida State Fairgrounds, Interstate 4 and U.S. Highway 301, Tampa

When: Jan. 13-17

Hours: Wed.-Sat., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adults $8 (two-day pass); children under 16, free

Discounts: Jan. 13 is senior citizens day ($1 off)

For information, go to www.frvta.org.

Silver Bullet Retreats

A vintage RV rental company, based in Tampa

Rates: $125 per night (two-night minimum), $750 per week, or $2,500 per month. There is also a one-time fee of $125 to deliver, set up, return and clean the Airstream. There are nominal additional fees per mile for campgrounds located more than 30 miles from Tampa.

Damage deposit: There is a $200 deposit, refundable if the Airstream is returned without damage.

Cancellation policy: The deposit to secure a camper is fully refundable with two week's notice. Only a 50 percent deposit will be returned with one week's notice.

Pets and smoking: Not allowed.

For reservations: www.silverbulletretreats.com

Destinations

Recommended camping by Silver Bullet Retreats:

Fort De Soto County Park, www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_Desoto.htm

Hillsborough River State Park, www.floridastateparks.org/

hillsboroughriver

Lake Manatee State Park, www.floridastateparks.org/lakemanatee

Little Manatee River State Park, www.floridastateparks.org/

littlemanateeriver

Alafia River State Park, www.

floridastateparks.org/alafiariver

Additional destinations with a

surcharge for distance:

Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground ($50), http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/campsites-at-fort-wilderness-resort

Lake Kissimmee State Park ($50), www.floridastateparks.org/

lakekissimmee

Myakka River State Park ($40), www.floridastateparks.org/

myakkariver

Oscar Scherer State Park ($40), www.floridastateparks.org/

oscarScherer

Roughing it retro style 12/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 3:31am]

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