It’s not unusual to find campgrounds on a picturesque waterfront property. But throw in a pool, grocery store, gift shop and playground, as well as accommodations that likely include granite accents, marble entryways and home entertainment systems with wi-fi, and you aren’t exactly roughing it.
Harford Countians don’t have to travel far to get there: Pack up your RV and find all those offerings at the Bar Harbor RV Park & Marina in Abingdon.
Today’s RV travel has come a long way from the nostalgic experience that brings to mind the gas-guzzling, bulky vehicles, with earth-tone carpet and all. And the Schaefer family, the driving force behind changes at Bar Harbor responding to that trend, has been there for all of it.
“It’s very popular,” according to owner Elyse Wilkinson, who took over running the property 10 years ago from her parents, Joan and Phil Schaefer. Wilkinson says she started seeing an uptick in business about five years ago. “Now you have to make reservations — especially on weekends. It’s definitely more upscale. Now some of the RVs costs more than homes. They have granite countertops.”
The Schaefer family has owned and managed the 8-acre peninsula property, which is open year-round, since 1963. And on any given day, members of the family will be working various tasks there — from tending to the garden by the pool to handling kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals. The business has survived expansions, new business models, additions to the property and changes in gas prices. Through all the changes during the past half-century, the family says that working together has been one of the biggest keys to their success.
“It’s an amazing feeling to see that it will stay within the family and stay the way it is. It’s great to see the new generation and their new ideas,” Wilkinson says.
About 10 million households own an RV and there are 18,000 public and privately owned campgrounds nationwide, according to a 2011 University of Michigan study commissioned by the RV Industry Association, a Reston, Va.-based national trade association representing RV manufacturers and their component parts suppliers.
“RVs have been popular a long time. [But] it’s never been more popular,” says Kevin Broom, director of media relations for the RV Industry Association.
Advances in designs by the RV industry created lighter, more fuel-efficient models, while also increasing the amount of interior space, which made the vehicles more attractive to consumers.
“That helped,” he says. “There was a lot of ‘see America’ attitude. The millennial generation has [also] gotten interested in the RV lifestyle. They’ll have their bucket list and they want to do it now.”
Steven Phillips, his family and friends have been going to the Bar Harbor RV Park at least twice a year for the past decade.
The Swedesboro, N.J., resident loves the affordability and freedom of RV park experience.
“It’s a very inexpensive way to get away,” says Phillips, who goes to the Abingdon park when the camping season begins in March and then again in October. “I’m not a big person on hotel and motel. This has every convenience you could ask for.”
And surprisingly, he likes the property’s no-frills approach to camping.
“It’s just nice to sit out there. It’s a nice relaxing place,” he says. “We bring our own food and sit around the fire.”
But they still enjoy the luxuries of sleeping in their trailer.
“We’re not sleeping on the ground anymore,” he says with a laugh. “We worked our way up from tents to pop-up trailer to trailer.”
A lot has changed to the property since the Schaefers purchased it, according to the matriarch of the family, Joan.
“This is our baby. We started from scratch,” she says, explaining that she and her husband purchased the property from his uncle shortly after graduating from college. “Things have transitioned very smoothly from one generation to another.”
The property started off as a swimming beach with areas for people to camp. That eventually evolved into a significant portion of traffic coming from seasonal campers. By the late 1970s — and the gas crisis that came along with it — the business model changed once again to more transient motor vehicle customers.
“The campground changed,” she says. “It’s always tough when you start a new business. You pour all your time and energy into it.”
The family has added the pool, a rec room, bathhouse and pier so visitors could also bring their boats.
Now, the park has attracted customers from across the world.
“They are coming from all over the country,” Wilkinson says. “We have a lot of European people. They ship their RVs or they rent. But most of our people are within a two-hour drive. That’s our weekend travelers.”
What else attracts customers? The upscale simplicity of the property, according to Wilkinson.
Costs are $65 to $70 a night for RVs to park on the waterfront of the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the swimming pool, gift and grocery store, and tot lot playground, all 93 of their sites feature full hookups, plus cable TV, wi-fi and pristine bathrooms.
Guests can unwind in the garden near the pool, fish off one of the park’s docks, or rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard for a trip out on the water.
“We don’t have any planned activities,” Wilkinson says. “This is more of a place to relax. That’s our thing.”
According to the RV association, RVs can range from $6,000 for a folding camping trailer to $500,000 for a top of the line motor home.
“Some of the luxuries and amenities that used to be in the high end are now in the more affordable models,” Broom says, explaining that advances in the design of televisions and home entertainment systems have made it more affordable and space-friendly for less expensive models of RVs.
"Livable space is as big or bigger even in the smaller RV footprint,” Broom says.
At Bar Harbor, the family aspect makes a difference for the employees as well as for its customers.
“We enjoy being together,” Joan Schaefer says. “We all enjoy working together. We all kind of think the same. We do have people who are not part of the family who are still family. We joke that you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps. We all enjoy each other’s company.”
Phillips says the family-like experience that the business provides keeps him coming back.
“They make you feel at home. They are very friendly,” he says. “We know everybody by their first name.”