Silhouette of a statue of shiva with the ocean visible outside the window.

In addition to its many workshops, Esalen holds an annual yoga festival. Photo © Brad Coy, licensed Creative Commons Attribution

map of Big Sur

Big Sur

The Esalen Institute is known throughout California as the home of Esalen massage technique, a forerunner and cutting-edge player in ecological living, and a space to retreat from the world and build a new and better sense of self. Visitors journey from all over the state and beyond to sink into the haven that’s sometimes called “The New Age Harvard.”

One of the biggest draws of the Institute sits down a rocky path right on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. The bathhouse includes a motley collection of mineral-fed hot tubs looking out over the ocean — you can choose the Quiet Side or the indoors Silent Side to sink into the water and contemplate the Pacific Ocean’s limitless expanse, meditate on a perfect sunset or arrangement of stars, or (on the Quiet Side) get to know your fellow bathers.

Who will be naked. Regardless of gender, marital status, or the presence of others.

Esalen’s bathhouse area is “clothing optional”; its philosophy puts the essence of nature above the sovereignty of humanity, and it encourages openness and sharing among its guests — to the point of chatting nude with total strangers in a smallish hot tub. You’ll also find a distinct lack of attendants to help you find your way around. Once you’ve parked and been given directions, it’s up to you to find your way down to the cliffs. You’ll have to find your own towel, ferret out a cubby for your clothes in the changing rooms, grab a shower, then wander out to find your favorite of the hot tubs. Be sure you go all the way outside past the individual clawfoot tubs to the glorious shallow cement tubs that sit right out on the edge of the cliff with the surf crashing just below.

A round stone tub and pillar holding towels looking right over a misty oceanscape.

The round tub at Esalen Hot Springs perched right above the ocean. Photo © Lewisha Jones, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In addition to the nudity and new-age culture of Esalen, you’ll learn that this isn’t a day spa. You’ll need to make an appointment for a massage (at $165 a pop), which grants you access to the hot tubs for an hour before and an hour after your 75-minute treatment session. If you just want to sit in the mineral water, you’ll need to stay up late. Very late. Inexpensive ($20) open access to the Esalen tubs begins on a first-come, first-served basis at 1am and ends at 3am. Many locals consider the sleep deprivation well worth it to get the chance to enjoy the healing mineral waters and the stunning astronomical shows.

If you’re not comfortable with your own nudity or that of others, you don’t approve of the all-inclusive spiritual philosophy, or you find it impossible to lower your voice or stop talking for more than 10 minutes, Esalen is not for you. If you’ve never done anything like this before, think hard about how you’ll really feel once you’re in the changing area with its naked hippies wandering about.

But if this description of a California experience sounds just fabulous to you, make your reservations now! The Esalen Institute (55000 Hwy. 1, 831/667-3000) accepts reservations by phone if necessary. Go to the website for more information.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California .