The place does well, however, at setting a mood of relaxed indolence. You can imagine remembering that beer is not America's number one breakfast drink. In less than a day I am wearing shorts, have eliminated socks, and reluctantly slip on my Topsiders, having forgotten shower clogs. I feel overdressed in a Tommy Bahama shirt but T-shirts seem just right. The garden below, dense with palms and plantings, reminds me of what poet Wallace Stevens called Florida's "venereal soil"--- leave anything alone and something will be growing.
Exploring Fort Myers you quickly get a sense of quiet housing fecundity. This is more than just a fertile area for plants. Here, the concept of shelter is mutating. Shelter is developing new forms. Not far from the traditional single-family homes on dry lots, you can find houses with docks on canals, marinas with a multitude of boats, condominium developments and "dockominiums." Then there are the mobile home parks. In one, Bayside Estates, I drive through block after block of neatly landscaped small manufactured homes. Immediately behind each home there is a dock--- the entire development is a network of canals.
And did I mention RV parks?
Scattered here and there, in the peculiar randomness of Florida, are the recreation vehicle parks that offer informal communities, informal living, and the least expensive way to have a house "at the beach."
Indeed, if you go to www.redcoconut.com and click on "Sales and Rentals" you'll find an offer of a 35' fifth wheel (a type of RV) with a screened in lanai, etc. seeking offers at $19,500. Other properties, "just steps from the beach" are offered at $10,000 to $55,000.
You'll find Red Coconut R.V. Resort by crossing the bridge to Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island and bearing left. A long narrow barrier island, it is filled with the casual beach house construction of the 50's and 60's, tourist shops, and motels. The Red Coconut R.V. Resort bridges the single main road down the island. A narrow piece of beachfront land provides spaces for 50 RVs. It is literally steps to white Gulf sand. More spaces are across the street--- none more than a block from the water.
What does it cost to stay here?
By RV standards the amount is hysterical. Primo waterside winter spaces--- the ones where your windows would look directly out to the water--- cost $372 a week. But you can rent park side spaces for $765 a month in winter (December through March) and $590 monthly for summer. Utilities are additional. Own an RV free and clear and you can live, year round, within a block of the beach for less than many wealthy retirees pay in real estate taxes or golf club dues--- and they're still miles from the beach.
"Oh, we stayed there when we first came down," Karen Roberts told me. "But the traffic on and off the island was too much for us so we moved here. Now, if we want to go to the beach we ride our bikes."
Ms. Roberts is one of the managers at Fort Myers Beach RV Resort. Located about two miles down the road and 'off island' it is a large park with lines of RV's, models with names like "Mallard" and "Cardinal." Sprinkled liberally among the trailers, fifth wheels, and occasional buses, there are "Park Models," small cabin-like structures that are self-contained one-bedroom apartments. Brought to an RV park, they seldom move.
"Most people start as campers, with an RV. Then they purchase Park Models," Ms. Roberts explained. She went on to tell me that people get attached to a particular park and return every year to visit with friends they have made on previous trips. After a while, the friendships are more important than RV travel and some of the campers buy a Park Model and settle in with an annual contract.
The cost, at most parks, is about $200 a month.
What we're talking about here might be called 'Extreme Downsizing'--- if you're not an RV-er--- because whether you live in a trailer, 5th wheel, Class A vehicle, or a Park Model, you'll be living in an area of about 400 square feet, or less. The space is usually arranged to provide the equivalent of a bedroom, a bath, kitchen, dining area, and living area.
Like everything else in America, "prices vary." You can buy a small used trailer for less than $5,000. And you can buy a plush motor home for $150,000, $200,000, or more. Whatever you spend on your unit, adopting the RV lifestyle is a direct ticket to an easy way to live inexpensively.
On a visit to Sunburst RV Park, winter resident Dave Banker, told me he and his wife seemed to have more money retired than they had while they were working. Former teachers in New Jersey, Dave and his wife Theora, divide their time between a Park Model in Connecticut and a Park Model at Sunburst.
"We feel like we're playing hooky when we're down here," Theora said. "We're outside and we see people all the time… This is extended family here."
Listening, it doesn't take long to figure out that no money is wasted on status competition or brand upgrading here. If it isn't easy and fun to do, it probably won't happen. Theora is looking forward to the next meeting of "the Red Hat Society," a group of women who have lunch regularly to compare silly hats.
Is there some bottom line figure on what an RV lifestyle might cost?
Yes, no, and maybe. Looking at the range of RVs in this park and others, you have to know that RV living is a lifestyle choice first. How the finances are managed is a secondary issue, unique to each person or couple. But putting the lifestyle first gives RV-ers a fantastic advantage: without effort, they abandon the trash of status competition.
The result is a simpler life in a mobile village.
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