Why RV Travel is the Best Way to Taste America

Jesse & Rachael Lyons sitting in camp chairs and cheers each other with drinks in their hands.

It was Christmas 2017 and we were fighting a snow flurry and post-holiday blues. Rachael and I were driving back to our apartment in Boston, cutting our time in Maine short because we had run out of vacation days when Rachael had a wild idea: If we worked where we traveled, we wouldn’t need vacation days anymore. At that moment, we decided to pull over for a bite to eat at Allison’s, a cozy seafood pub in Kennebunkport. Over steaming bowls of creamy New England clam chowder, Rachael and I began to discuss our lives as long-term RVers.

Food is the soul of most experiences, memories and places. That’s why we love eating, and that’s why New England clam chowder will always be linked to that very first spark of our RV journey. Even before moving into an RV, we had always oriented our travel destinations around restaurants and dishes we wanted to try. But once we decided to travel the United States in a Keystone Cougar fifth wheel, our imaginations went wild. I immediately began making lists of top barbecue joints, while Rachael dreamt of fresh seafood from coast to coast. Our friends and family—well aware of our enthusiasm for food and beer—eagerly emailed us recommendations for their favorite restaurants and breweries across the country. Now, two years into our extended RV travel journey, we have visited 13 states, 56 breweries and over 250 different restaurants, food trucks, bars and markets.

After embarking on our long-term RV journey, we quickly learned that America’s cuisines are as vast and diverse as its landscapes. Our travels kicked off in the deep South, where we stuffed our stomachs with crispy fried chicken and fluffy biscuits. Tropical fruit stands in Florida inspired endless pina colada variations around the campfire. We double-fisted beignets and hurricanes as we wandered Frenchman Street in New Orleans. In Texas, we learned how to spot the best roadside barbecue shacks and trailers. We chatted with winemakers over full glasses in California vineyards. In Oregon, we picked up fresh catches from oceanside fish markets. Even across various national parks we found a love for the restaurants, bars and lounges in their historic hotels. A classic Manhattan never tasted so good than when it’s sipped in the shadow of Yosemite’s El Capitan.

We do sometimes treat ourselves to high end restaurants, and are undoubtedly rewarded with magnificent flavors. However, we find that the heart of a place is in the local food stalls, markets, breweries and diners. That’s where we find the true vibe of the community. Some of our most memorable meals have taken place in authentic and slightly gritty hidden gems—like a four table Jamaican restaurant in a strip mall in Homestead, Florida, or a boudin purveyor in Lafayette, Louisiana. Vacation travel attracted us to the big cities and popular restaurants, but RV travel brought us to the memorable small towns and all of the eateries dotting the highways in between.

Whenever we plan a trip, food is always the top priority. We use travel and food guide books to start creating our delectable bucket list. Next, we put a call out to our friends and social media for eatery endorsements. And lastly, some supplemental research on local blogs and Google reviews round out our final list of restaurants to visit. In some cities, we start our exploration with a food tour. One of our favorite tours was Doctor Gumbo’s in New Orleans. If you’re visiting a city that is known for its food or iconic dining, then we highly recommend starting your visit with a food tour. Not only will a good food tour weave the city’s history with its cuisine, but it will likely take you off the beaten path and teach you how to find really authentic eateries.

As beer lovers, we check out breweries everywhere we go. We make a point to sit at the bar because, in our experience, the bartenders tend to be chattier face-to-face and will usually recommend fantastic spots that you won’t find in guide books. Breweries are also where we feel a real sense of community, surrounded by locals toasting the end of a workday, discussing the latest town gossip and laughing with friends.

Farmers markets are another great way to orient yourself with the flavors of your destination.  While we do like to visit big box stores, we try to start our grocery shopping with local meat, seafood, cheeses and vegetables. This allows us to meal plan our home cooking around local ingredients, like pan fried cod in Oregon or Hatch chile enchiladas in New Mexico.

Hauling your home kitchen is one of the unique benefits of RV travel. Unlike hotels or even home rentals, having our entire pantry and all of our cookware allows us to create delicious meals during our travels. Our enthusiasm for eating is almost entirely matched by our passion for cooking. We’re often asked how to cook in a tiny kitchen and, honestly, with a little planning, you can make almost any dish in an RV. We pushed our fifth wheel’s oven and stove top to the max by making a full Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings. After that, making dinner has been a breeze! Staying in campgrounds has allowed us to enjoy more outdoor cooking on grills, griddles and open flames. Afterall, most meals taste better al fresco, especially when we are lucky enough to have epic campsite views.

Every time we try a new dish or flavor, we bring a piece of it along with us in the form of an ingredient or inspiration. Every food truck, white tablecloth restaurant, fruit stand, campfire burger and highway diner we encounter on the road stays with us. While food is a memorable part of most people’s travels, only RVing has allowed us to experience the full flavor of our adventures.

For anyone traveling long-term in an RV or planning a short trip, here are our recommendations for finding—and cooking—some of the best meals on the road

  1. Budget for a food tour. If you’re willing to splurge a bit, start your visit with a food tour. It’s a delicious way to gain authentic, local knowledge that will surely enrich the rest of your trip. Plus, you always come away from a tour with plenty of suggestions of where to eat next.

  2. Locals really do know best. Recommendations from locals will beat guide books and online reviews every time. Reach out to a friend who has lived in that location, or chat up a bartender when you arrive.

  3. Break up long drives with good food. Plan your travel days to include a special food destination. Long drives can be tough, but stopping for lunch at a fantastic eatery can make the day memorable. If you have a large RV, scope out potential places to park in advance using the map’s satellite view. More often than not there’s a big parking lot or street parking a short walk away.

  4. Scope out farmer’s markets. Get inspired by the ingredients at farmers markets, small grocers and roadside stands, and go local. Sometimes shopping is one of our favorite experiences of the trip because we really get to explore what that region has to offer.

  5. Al fresco is the bestco. Take advantage of cooking outdoors when at your campsite. Make a grill or griddle an essential part of your cooking gear. Cast iron is an easy method of campfire cooking.

  6. Avoid fridge jenga. When you have limited pantry or fridge space in an RV, meal planning is more important than ever. Avoid fridge jenga by choosing recipes with overlapping ingredients.

Racheal and Jesse travel in a Keystone Cougar fifth wheel.

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