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Roughing It at the Ritz of RV Parks : Recreation: At Newport Dunes, where creature comforts are standard gear and Fashion Island is within hiking distance, RVers don't camp, they go 'motor homing.'


NEWPORT BEACH — As Memorial Day weekend gets under way, a steady stream of massive motor coaches flows into Newport Dunes armed with their cellular phones, microwave ovens, televisions, VCRs and satellite dishes.

This is roughing it, Newport Beach style.

At Newport Dunes, a 100-acre, state-of-the-art recreational resort, it's not uncommon to see motor coaches the size of school buses towing a Mercedes or a Jaguar instead of the customary off-road vehicle.

This weekend, the unofficial start of summer and one of the busiest times of year for the resort, each of the park's 405 RV spaces will be filled with vacationers and their expensive toys.

From the park's prime waterfront location just off Pacific Coast Highway overlooking Upper Newport Bay, vacationers can hike to Fashion Island, explore the tourist attractions on Balboa Island, catch a movie at a local multiplex theater or trek to Disneyland.

Some stay weeks and never cook a meal. They go out to dinner or have all of their meals catered by local restaurants.

"You can't call this camping," says Gene Hackett, who came to Newport Dunes from Apple Valley with his wife, Marcy. "We call it motor homing."

Gene loves to show off his fully loaded 36-foot Hawkins Motor Coach. There's a queen-size bed in back, but that's not unusual. Some rigs have king-size mattresses. There are two televisions and a VCR, skylights and a cedar-lined closet. A shower and small tub occupy a surprisingly spacious bath.

"It's like a one-bedroom apartment on wheels," Marcy says.

The large, L-shaped kitchen has Corian counters, a coffee maker and a microwave. Gene opens one of the oak cabinets to show off racks of wine glasses and champagne flutes. No paper cups here. The glasses are ingeniously anchored in foam rubber.

"Everything must be color-coordinated," Marcy says. Place mats, throw rugs, curtains, bedspread, pillows and coffee mugs are "blue, blue and blue."

Their motor home comes with all kinds of gizmos: a TV monitor that allows them to watch for traffic behind the rig; curtains that open and shut with the push of a button, and an indoor thermostat that measures the temperature indoors and out.

"No self-respecting motor homer would go outside to see what the temperature is," Marcy jokes.

A weird kind of subculture surrounds the rigs. There are hundreds of motor coach clubs that travel together from park to park. The dunes has welcomed members of the Road Turtles, Wheels of Faith, the Over-the-Hill Gang and the Kampin' Kangaroos.

The clubs have their own peculiar hierarchy. They typically appoint a wagon master each month who oversees the group's outing, tending to reservations and organizing potlucks and chili cook-offs.

Sally and Jim McClenaghan of Toluca Lake served as wagon masters for the HMC Club on a recent weekend at the dunes that attracted 35 of their more than 250 members. To belong to HMC, one must drive Hawkins Motor Coach--any other rig is considered an S.O.B.: "Some other brand," Jim explains.

Upon pulling into the dunes, the McClenaghans immediately start unloading an impressive cache of liquor from the luggage compartment of their plush 31-foot RV. Inside the coach they've installed a small refrigerator that holds a full keg of beer.

"We've had people put in a two-stool bar" in their coach, Jim says. One member had a bar hookup in the kitchen that dispensed Scotch, bourbon and whiskey with the push of a lever. For many clubs, happy hour is the closest thing to an organized activity.

Like the Hacketts' rig, the McClenaghan-mobile has all of the creature comforts, including two air conditioners, solar panels and a floor safe to hide valuables.

"We were tired of going places and pitching a tent on the asphalt," Sally says. "This is the perfect way to go, and we meet people with the same interests."

Many of those who travel in motor homes are retired and prefer the slow pace of the dunes. They pull into their designated space, set up lawn chairs, sip soda pop or beer under umbrellas and shoot the breeze with passers-by. Visitors walking along the row of coaches get frequent offers of cold drinks.

Bill Carbett of Valley Center, a member of the Escondido Roving Elks, brings a full-sized popcorn machine--the kind seen in movie theaters--and dispenses it in paper bags to passers-by.

"It keeps my friends happy," Carbett says.

"Otherwise, we wouldn't let him come," adds John Mason, a fellow Elk.

Campers meet people from all over the country at Newport Dunes. In the winter, snowbirds come from the East to escape the cold. In summer, vacationers come from hot spots such as Arizona to seek relief in the dunes' ocean breezes.

Word has spread that Newport Dunes has become the Ritz of RV parks since the park reopened July 4, 1989, after a $16-million renovation.

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