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January 12, 2003

Santa Cruz County Sentinel


I slipped out of Santa Cruz last month for a three-day getaway to Esalen Institute in Big Sur. I was eager to return to my favorite coastal haunt, which is world famous for its natural sulfur hot springs, year-round workshops, and trademark massage technique.

I knew Esalen would meet my strict criteria for a solo retreat: little planning, minimal driving and no cooking.

I also wanted to explore the new, $5 million bathhouse overlooking the ocean.

After four years of stop-and-go building, the massive construction project was completed this fall, and the baths officially opened last September.

Founded in 1962 by two Stanford scholars, the granddaddy of New Age institutes takes its name from the Esselen, the Native American tribe that once lived there.

Today, Esalen is internationally acclaimed for its 400 annual workshops, which are devoted to exploring the human potential. You’ll find courses in relationships, career, dance, yoga, tai chi, acupressure, massage, Feldenkrais, gestalt, chakra integration and hypnosis, to name a few.

On my third visit to Esalen, I wanted to spend 72 hours on a personal retreat, rather than attend a workshop. That way, I could set my own schedule and leisurely roam the 60-acre property.

This option, termed “room and board,” is generally booked five days in advance of the intended arrival date, and availability is based on whether lodging has been filled by workshop participants.

When I called Esalen, I happened to find space for three weekday nights in a dormitory room with one other woman. The $145-a-day price tag ($170 on the weekend) included my loft space (first come, first serve), access to tubs, specified classes and events and, best of all, three meals harvested from Esalen’s organic garden.

I set off on the relaxing 90-minute drive down Highway 1. After the Carmel Highlands, I always stop at Nepenthe, not to sip drinks on the deck like most tourists, but to buy a handmade journal at the restaurant’s museum-quality gift shop, the Phoenix.

I arrived at the Esalen gatehouse ready to leave work behind and prepared to shed my inhibitions along with my clothes.

Most guests lounge in the buff at the three accessible bodies of water: the pool, the ocean and the famous baths.

I made a beeline for the new baths.

Fed by natural hot springs, the beloved baths are the best known feature of Esalen, a focal point for the community of guests and residents.

In 1998 the El Nino storms destroyed the baths at Esalen, and temporary baths were set up until the new baths were rebuilt on their old site, a rocky ledge perched above the Pacific.

Five minutes from the lodge, down a sloping dirt path, I entered the new, two-story bath house designed by Big Sur resident Mickey Muennig, named one of the century’s outstanding architects by Architectural Digest.

The baths are intended to blend into the landscape and withstand battering coastal winds, waves and earthquakes.

A perpetual fountain decorated with a mosaic provides a warm welcome on the way down the stairs to the dressing room area. There are both silent and quiet areas for bathing.

The heated sandstone floors, wood and sliding glass doors add warmth to the concrete structure. Yet I felt some nostalgia for the more homey old baths and their redwood deck (no longer in use due to permit limitations).

I found seven tubs situated at the source of the 120-degree springs. Each tub is temperature-controlled by its occupants. The stately facility, which can accommodate about 60 people, includes dressing rooms, massage tables, a silent area and sun deck. One tub is equipped for wheelchairs.

The highlight of the new baths is the stunning panoramic view and the proximity to the ocean. I sank deep into the tub and watched the crashing waves and rocky shore only 40 feet below.

Along with the new facility, Esalen has also reinstated their nighttime bath program after a long hiatus.

I indulged in an Esalen massage on an outdoor table by the baths. After a thorough 75-minute rubdown, better than any other massage I ever had, I did not mind parting with $110.

Some visitors may prefer the structure of a workshop, which generally run a weekend or five-days.

I cherished my solitude and watched my three days fall into their own lazy rhythm. My plans to attend yoga (no additional cost) sometimes collapsed under the weight of the comforter in my dark, cozy loft.

Don’t go to Esalen expecting luxurious accommodations. They are rustic at best, and shared accommodations are standard.

Apartment-like buildings include rooms with lofts for two to three, with dorm-style rooms in a communal house. Couples may book a private room.

Camping is not permitted on the grounds, though sometimes budget space is available inside for sleeping bags.

I particularly enjoyed walking the steep path to the rocky beach and meandering through the spectacular flower garden. Some of my best thinking was accomplished while floating in my birthday suit atop a lavender inner tube in the pool.

I never felt unwelcome attention. The only danger was missing one of three plentiful and nutritious meals, harvested from the five-acre farm and served cafeteria-style.

Dining on the patio, I talked with workshop students in Gestalt therapy, zero balancing and Peruvian shamanism.

Esalen’s brochure states that it is “a convergence of mountains and sea, mind and body, East and West, meditation and action” and “a center for alternative education, a forum for transformational practices, a restorative retreat, a worldwide community of seekers.”

But I found you can make your visit whatever you want it to be.

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