Ah, camping. The scent of the pines, the whisper of the wind, the concerto of chirping insects, the splat of a raindrop on my forehead. What the . . . ?
It's 2 a.m. and I have just been jolted from a deep slumber in a campground in California's Big Sur by a bead of moisture that somehow found its way through a seam in my tent -- the same tent that has, in 15 years of service, repelled every molecule of precipitation that the heavens have thrown at me.
My wife and I have come to this famously scenic stretch of California to outwit the vacation industry. Aside from its rugged coastline, waterfalls, beaches and phenomenal array of trails, Big Sur is noted for a handful of luxuriant inns and spas. The room rates at these places invariably contain one too many digits for our budget, but we want to at least taste the extravagance. Our strategy is to camp and spend the money saved on lodging to avail ourselves of massages and other comforts at the spas and restaurants that welcome non-property guests.
Genius, huh? We own camping gear, love the outdoors and are hitting Big Sur in early May, a historically pleasant time of year. But 10 hours after arriving, our plan looks a little frayed. As I adjust my position to avoid the rain, I realize that my feet are also damp, encased in the saturated goose down of my sleeping bag. Rain is also leaking in from the side. To make matters worse, there's a distinct musty aroma emanating from a cluster of small green dots -- mold spores growing on the synthetic fabric.
The next morning I discover that my camping stove, age 10, is also on strike. As I stand in the rain fiddling with the mouse-size stove parts while my wife disassembles the mold dome, I recall a quote of Henry Miller, the author who made Big Sur his home: "Artists never thrive in colonies. Ants do. What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude -- and now and then a piece of red meat."
Wrestling has never been my bag, and this is looking bleak.
The previous day had started out great. A few miles south of Carmel, we had parked beneath a eucalyptus grove and hiked the Soberanes Canyon trail, in Garrapata State Park. The path climbed through hillsides of chaparral -- from afar, all mottled greens, but up close an explosion of brilliant flowers -- with tall coast redwoods crowding into the drainages.
At a friend's recommendation, we peeled off-trail, following a hint of a footpath into a steep streambed. A creek poured between immense redwoods, with lime-green ferns sprouting abundantly from the banks and a thick rug of clover carpeting the loamy slope. The air in the redwood shadow glowed with arboreal color.
After pitching our tent in the Ventana Campground, which occupies a redwood forest on the 75-acre grounds of the Ventana Inn and Spa, about 28 miles south of Carmel, we had ambled up to the bar at the inn's Cielo restaurant.
Knowing we were paying $28 a night for our campsite, we ordered a $13 hit of Belvenie scotch and an $8 glass of pinot noir. "We can afford it," I told my wife. "Think of all the money we're about to save!"
The bartender, a thin, clean-cut Californian, didn't blink at our appearance -- shorts, running shoes, T-shirts. "We get all kinds of people in here," he said. "Pretty casual for a four-star restaurant."
The bar and dining areas -- with artistic lines of clean, light cedar -- share a high-ceilinged room that comes to point in the center, like a broad teepee, with an exhibition kitchen on one side and a big stone fireplace next to the bar. "This," I declared, "beats the hell out of backgammon at the campsite."
Had I known what discomfort awaited in the tent that night, I would have stuck it out in the bar for another few rounds.
Tents and Indians
Through the incessant rain of the morning, we head north, finding a camping store in the town of Seaside, just outside Carmel, where we buy a new tent and stove for, oh, about the price of a mid-scale hotel room in Big Sur. We lunch on flaky local sea bass at the delightful Il Fornaio restaurant in Carmel. Then, with new gear in hand and columns of sunlight finally dissolving the clouds, we roll back to Big Sur for another shot at camping.
Even on the second pass, the abrupt rise of mountains from sea (the highest of these hills tops 5,000 feet, mere miles inland from the coast) is humbling, and the inaccessibility helps explain Big Sur's rather sparse history. Indians lived here -- the Ohlone, Esselen and Salinan -- in small "tribelets" of up to 250 people, coexisting peacefully well into the 18th century, when Catholic missionaries eviscerated the Indians' culture. Next came tough-skinned homesteaders, like the Pfeiffers, Posts, Andersons and Partingtons, for whom many of Big Sur's canyons, coves and parks are named.
Some homesteaders set up guiding businesses, others thrived in the redwood logging business and, history tells us, most were no doubt happy to eke out a living in this remote coastline, where even today winter storms wash out sections of state Highway 1, effectively cutting off neighbors from each other for weeks at a time.
Construction of Highway 1 was completed in 1937, but electricity did not arrive in Big Sur until the 1950s. In 1933, California legislators began protecting parts of Big Sur and, today, the area includes nine state parks totaling 14,984 acres, plus nearly 2 million more acres of public land in Los Padres National Forest. Still, much of the coast is privately held. (Obey those "No Trespassing" signs!) But thanks to commendably farsighted development restrictions, building along the coast has been limited to mostly low-profile homes, inns and restaurants.
"I've re-coded my RNA, my DNA, rewired my whole brain," Serena Willow is telling us in the lobby of Ventana's spa. "If you saw pictures of me from 10 years ago, you wouldn't recognize the face."
A large woman with radiant red hair, she is manning a thinly veiled temple of retail, with every variety of organic, aromatic, soothing, calming, reinvigorating body oil for sale, along with curative rocks and those supremely comfortable high-end clothes that make Californians look so content. Outside, a small deck cradled by wildflowers affords a king's view of the ocean 1,200 feet below.
"I can see people's energy, their chakra," Williams continues. She gives us plush cotton robes and shows us to the resort's clothing-optional swimming pool and Japanese baths. "Buying a massage gives you access to all this."
As much as I am tempted by the chai-soy-clay wrap treatment that Ventana offers -- really, I am -- I opt for an Esalen-certified massage, so named for the bellwether Esalen Institute, a few miles south (more on that shortly). My wife signs up for a "cranial sacral," essentially a feather-light head rub.
Afterward I return to the L-shaped pool, where a lone, naked German woman is swimming slow laps. Far below, on a sea so still it looks airbrushed, a gray whale breaches. It is an altogether California moment and, seeing no reason Germans and whales should have all the fun, I drop my robe and slide into the pool.
The massages run us $120 each, but knowing what the other guests are paying for their rooms -- $356 a night and up, spa treatments not included -- I can't help thinking we are still ahead. Besides, who can argue with 50 minutes of restful attention to knotty muscles, with a gentle breeze carrying the stress away through open windows, high above the Pacific Ocean?
We bank down the road a mile to Big Sur's most famous cocktail hour, on the deck at Nepenthe. My college buddy Rob, a Bay Area resident, has recommended the place and, to ensure we make the most of it, he's driven down to meet us for part of the weekend. Nepenthe is a Big Sur institution, with food and drink prices to match the soaring view. Not that we, the high-rolling tent dwellers, even blink at the bill (north of $50 for six cocktails and a basket of french fries).
An expansive live oak clings to the grassy hill that slopes west for a few yards before diving to the ocean below. Ridgelines stack to the south. And from the tree, a steller's jay, sporting nature's sleekest electric blue, executes a series of daring dives, inching ever closer to our fries.
Sunset draws a muted applause from the cocktailers, and we retreat to Nepenthe's upper patio, where a recessed stone, half-moon bench faces a huge fire pit. I could sit here all night, and it is becoming clear that, moldy tents notwithstanding, the hardest thing about camping in Big Sur is actually roughing it.
So we don't even try. Rob leads us down the road to Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, an earthy little place lifted straight from the shire, with dark wood and tilted floors. We arrive at 8:43 for our 8:30 dinner reservation.
"Oh my," says the hostess, worriedly. "He [the chef] just told me he was cutting off dinners." She hurries to the back while I contemplate the nutritional gap between ahi tuna and freeze-dried camp food.
But she returns smiling and leads us to our table, which sits directly beneath a portrait of the inn's namesake, Helmuth Deetjen, a Norwegian fugitive who came to Big Sur in the 1930s with a wife he had met in Carmel.
The two began housing travelers from the outset, with a reputed warmth that seems to belie the image of the man hovering over us. He glares down in a black beret, clutching a pipe, with one eyebrow arched: "You are late. Only bread for you!"
But even he seems to soften up when the baby organic green salad, pork tenderloins with Bing cherries and seared tuna hit the table, and I think I detect a faint Scandinavian smile when one of the inn's house cats wanders through the dining room. (Of course, Herr Deetjen might be grinning at the swelling till: Dinner for three, with wine, runs us around $180.)
Two hours later we crawl into the new tent, beneath the redwoods and mere feet from a rushing creek, and slide into a sleep that no hotel bed could top.
Follow That Trail
"I want to find this," Rob says the next morning, pointing to a picture in his guidebook. It's a black-and-white shot of a trail slithering through wildflowers with an unobstructed view of the coastline hundreds of feet below.
In a normal vacation world, the dream shot would no longer exist, or would be too crowded or too far away or otherwise unattainable right now. But in Big Sur, it is just down the road.
The Vicente Flat Trail rises steadily above Highway 1. Within minutes we are stopping to click off panorama shots and, by the time we reach the day-hike apex of 2,000 feet, I have peeled through an entire roll of film. A cool breeze tempers the sun, the mountains breathe gently, the earth brings forth a rich, varied garden of . . . wait a sec! That's poison oak. And so is that, and that, and . . . uh oh.
Yes, even paradise has its price, and we are flirting with the itchiest of payouts. I had seen the wicked plant on prior hikes, but here it runs wild, blending in with the pretty, innocent flowers like an identity thief waiting for us to wander into his trap. (Alas, despite our vigilance, my wife and I would carry an irritating reminder of the trip for two weeks after arriving home.)
The trail continues inland for miles and is a popular backpackers' gateway to the Ventana wilderness, but that's more than we are biting off today. The walk down, dare I say, is worth the poison oak exposure. The coast unfurls to the south, pockets of mist lingering among the rocks, as wildflowers give way to brief, cool redwood groves that hug the hillsides, concealing the micro-ecosystems of a deeper forest.
Take Your Minerals
"You can't use your massage as an excuse to hang out here all day," a reservationist admonishes when I call to book sessions at the Esalen Institute.
Perhaps the most venerable of Big Sur establishments, Esalen offers day guests a great deal: Sign up for a 75-minute, $150 massage and you can show up one hour early to soak in the institute's famous mineral springs and stay an hour late for more soaking or lunch (a $10 vegetarian buffet) -- or, as we did, both. "That's one hour on either end," the clerk emphasizes (apparently, day guests have a habit of lingering at Esalen).
Founded as the Big Sur Hot Springs in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, buddies from Stanford University's graduate psychology program, the retreat became known first for the mineral springs that gurgled from the cliffs and, soon thereafter, for the drug-addled, free-love behavior of the hippies who streamed down from the Bay Area to soak by the sea.
But Murphy and Price had higher ambitions. They drew leading thinkers to conduct seminars at Esalen -- historian Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, psychologist Carl Rogers, behaviorist B.F. Skinner -- and the institute soon built an erudite following.
Esalen held experimental workshops in what Aldous Huxley called "the non-verbal humanities," focusing on the body, senses and emotions. Today the institute hosts colloquia on topics as varied as sports psychology, shamanism, economics, race relations, African dance and couples therapy. More importantly to the average Big Sur vacationer, Esalen still opens its baths to the public, for free, from midnight to 3 a.m. nightly.
We arrive at the clothing-optional baths at 10 a.m., undress in the coed changing room, rinse in the coed shower and sink into one of seven communal concrete-and-stone baths that occupy a terrace 50 feet above the ocean. (These replaced baths that were destroyed in the El Nino storms of 1998.) A handful of individual claw-foot tubs also share the terrace.
To the south, in a cove carved from the muscular coastal mountains, sea otters and birds fish the kelp beds. To the north, a verdant hillside rises abruptly toward Esalen's wooden lodge.
My wife's masseuse arrives first, a woman named Brita who has worked at Esalen since the 1960s. "You'll be looking for Eileen," she tells me. "Dark hair, strong . . . she's from New York. She's still got a little of that in her walk." Something about the setting, Esalen's vibes and marinating in minerals makes me totally at ease standing around naked chatting with complete strangers.
Eileen appears, Manhattan strut and all, and leads me to a massage room built like a high-ceilinged concrete bunker, except for the entire wall of thick, sliding glass panels that opens to the Pacific.
I lie there, listening to the waves as Eileen turns my muscles into pudding, and think, "I have to get out camping more often."
John Briley last wrote for Travel about surfing in Panama.