Where to become ONE with the wellness? Why, the OG magical marvel that is Esalen Institute, on the California coast, of course.
BIG SUR, California – It feels like when it’s a matter of finding yourself, sanity, destiny, or even just a teeny break from the current reality, prevailing conventional wisdom is and has always been to HEAD WEST. Noting and ignoring the glaring exception of every settler in my party every time I played The Oregon Trail, I embraced this as really good advice. Worst case, I thought, that coast is real, real pretty and stunning natural beauty is one of life’s great healers, right?
Okay, if my goal was some kind of Personal Western Renewal, how did I get there, metaphorically and literally? A loving, wise friend who’s been everywhere, metaphorically and literally, thought that staying OG with a pilgrimage to the GOAT, the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, was gonna do me right. I was only vaguely aware of it as the place where Mad Men’s Don Draper had that big beautiful “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” awakening, but it looked relaxing and if I came out renewed and with a billion-dollar idea, all the better.
Here in Real Life, Esalen Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization known for its awe-inspiring natural beauty, intentional community, transformative massage technique, and clothing-optional hot spring baths. As far as I can tell, throughout its 60-plus year history there have been a lot of different ways for people to experience all the things at any given moment; these days you can check in for a workshop, experience what they call a self-guided exploration, or get a day pass to the grounds, baths, lunch, and whatever open classes they’ve got going on at that time. You need to reserve even the day pass well in advance and can’t just show up to have a look around. Bohemian as you may be, the stars will only align once you sort out your Esalen stay. Work backward to getting in and out from there. I’m fresh off this with (spoiler alert!) a head full of renewal and I think I figured out a GOOD WAY to do it.
Everything in life is relative, of course, but as airport experiences go, SFO, especially the redeveloped, ultramodern Harvey Milk Terminal (which a quick search just told me won an award for its “health and wellness” rating!) is pretty darn peaceful and conducive to healing. When you land there it’s like, ah yes, I’m in the right place for all the wellness. I rented a car and headed south, stopping at the Palo Alto branch of Bay Area Middle Eastern mainstay Oren’s Hummus, which seems to be consistently beloved and was super yum and comforting for a lunch and round of tech-bro/NorCal academic/parade of Patagonia people-watching.
The drive from SFO to Esalen down State Route 1 is truly one of the world’s greatest ones, a meandering three hours with jaw-droppers around every corner. But you gotta ease into these things, even if you, like me, are morally and stylistically opposed to calling anything but a weeks-long mountain climb taken by an actual Sherpa a journey. To that end, if you are coming from far or even medium I recommend spending a first night en route, and the ideal place to do that is a real Zen den of a hotel/resort in Mountain View called The Ameswell. It’s extra-conveniently right off the highway and close to both a NASA research center and all those tech titan campuses, but you feel a world away, a really quiet and soothing one, as soon as you pull in.
Gorgeously, thoughtfully, sustainably designed and run by people who really mean all those words, The Ameswell seems as appropriate a setting for selling that AI company you came up with real quick before committing to wellness as for a weary seeker to stumble in, lie down, and munch an ARTISANAL bar pie. Pretty outdoor expanses with a pool, lawn games and picnic tables, coffee and work nooks galore, and a jammin’ but still tranquil restaurant called Roger bring on a real community vibe, or a nice setting within which to keep to yourself. Committed to being carbon neutral in a year, the hotel air is super-filtered, and the offerings are on theme: yoga, Mirror by Lululemon in some rooms, and a really nice gym…way to get this spiritual awakening off to a banging start!
I woke up feeling like the number of dollars I’d have made if I had actually gone full Silicon Valley exit the night before AND/OR like someone properly eased into a renewal-seeking journey quest, and totally EMPOWERED by the excellent La Colombe on offer at the all-day café. I hit the road. What. A. Drive. Even if you don’t like to drive, you will like this drive. This drive has it all: California farmland, redwood forests, cliffs, the mighty Pacific, an easy place to stop at a tasteful 7-11 for the bathroom, and a LOCALLY SOURCED kombucha or something…and then you get to Big Sur.
Here’s what to know about that. Nature abounds — and THIS nature is the kind made by your Higher Power on its very best day. Plus thoughtful human-made bridges and scenic overlook pull-offs. Yes, you must stop at Big Sur Bakery because everything they make is scrumptious and it is just so of the place and even the bathrooms are crawling with some intoxicating flowers and sage and magical things. It’s totally closed Tuesday, and Mondays it’s just the bakery where things sell out really fast but it’s still worth a stop for a bag of granola. Even though all meals are included at Esalen, you will want to stock up on treats for your room for when you don’t feel like eating communally or you just want to have a little cookie before bed. Do not sleep on the bakery’s splendid shop next door, Mother, for candles and things that smell like the beachy-woodsy air. But alert! If you’re coming from the north you must pass the sign that says Big Sur Bakery and then park in that next lot right in front of it–if you use logic and park in the first lot by sign by mistake an angry little man might yell at you.
You’ll pass the fantastically weird and welcoming The Henry Miller Memorial Library, a beloved arts institution that was once the home of the American novelist’s best friend, but save that stop for the way out when you have room in your head to think about Anaïs Nin taking baths in that tub and to chuckle over a commemorative Hippie Sven mug your 11-year-old son will totally dig. If Big Sur Bakery is closed you can have lunch at Nepenthe or breakfast at the just as lovely Café Kevah — they’re both more of a production but totally better than a sharp stick in the eye.
Eventually you will get to Esalen! It feels like no matter what brings a person there for the first time or what they want to happen while they’re there, everyone arrives with more preconceptions than they’d admit. Here are the things: the setting is just so dang, naturally beautiful and peaceful and soul-cleansing, it really doesn’t matter what else happens.
If told, when you’re planning your stay, that rooms are sold out and all that remain are sleeping bag spaces or bunk beds and you are a person who has to pause to consider whether you would like that, DO NOT do it. My premium queen room came to me after some time on the waitlist. It was spartan in every way and magnificent because the back door opened onto a private brick patio overlooking the sea, complete with some majestic redwoods. Remind yourself that they never said anything about luxury — no one cleans your room or empties your trash, but being enveloped by their brand of nature is luxury on another level.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included in your stay, are served communally in the lovely indoor/outdoor dining lodge, and are pretty tasty. To me, meals were just the right earthly victuals to fuel this inner search. Of course there are always good, hearty vegan options but we should have a word about coffee. There is a bar where you can buy beer and wine at dinner and where it was rumored someone would make you an espresso beverage after 8:30 a.m. While I was there, the latter part of that was a particularly cruel myth, so whatever happens know there is 24-hour access to hot water for black tea and they put out the big urn of brewed coffee at 7:30 a.m. You can engage with others as much or as little as you want — people get it if you just want to peacefully enjoy some overnight oats by yourself, staring out at the waves pounding the cliffs and at sea lions doing whatever the eff they want because they can.
The most important bit of prep to check off as soon as you book is to schedule at least one massage. They are silent except for the rhythmic crashing of the waves, they are exquisite, they are transcendent, and they sell out fast. The view from the baths is second to none and they are soothing as sulphur-y — as hot springs are, but public nudity in America is always going to be a teensy bit awkward. The people you’d think would be the chillest have this sort of aggressive “I defy you to look at my sagging gray naked body” vibe but knowing all this up front makes it easier to ignore and if you hit the baths at peak mealtime you’re likely to get the place to yourself. And that is soothing at its finest.
The staff in the office and around the grounds are generally working to live at Esalen for some amount of time and, like the entirety of humanity, contain elements of both glorious sunshine and death rays. Though you will get what you need, you can’t always get what you want at the smartly curated gift shop, so come prepared with extra food/bev/snacks, medicines, remedies, toiletries. And a good old-fashioned alarm clock, because I want you to not use your phone as one. There’s WiFi in the lodge but I highly, highly recommend taking advantage of that rare opportunity to put your phone in a drawer and just live in the present for as long as you can. For me, that was the greatest healer of all.
How you feel about Esalen’s programming depends on who you are and where you’re at. A class involving movement, breath work, and some light screaming was poetry in motion to me. The writing workshop I’d come for felt like a chore and like absorbing too many crusty other people’s downer energy, so I dropped out and just CREATED in the Art Barn, which is open round the clock and has a stellar array of supplies and old magazines and anything you’d need to CREATE. I also sat by the MAGNIFICENT WATERFALL and cried for hours on end. But then I felt so free and like I could finally let go, turn it over, and move on.
The verdict? Next time I would probably choose a workshop that’s as woo woo as they come, like forest baths 101 or realigning chakras with somatic overnight oats or something. Or if I were still all up in my own head I would check in and plan on not speaking much and just turn myself over to nature. I would definitely ease out of the whole exploration and into a smooth reality re-entry by again checking into the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. It’s just lovely.
You need to allow yourself about two hours to get the rest of the way to SFO the next morning but driving from Esalen to Monterey felt like a manageable chunk of the drive on the heels of the BIG HEAL. Back on the author tip, this is Steinbeck’s Cannery Row writ large / redeveloped for our modern relaxation. Overall, the hotel shares an old-school west coast glamor vibe, the gym and spa and aromatherapeutic bath experience are splendid and there are two rooftop hot tubs for a soak. Their stunning, subtle and sumptuous Coastal Kitchen offers a tasting menu at dinner and must surely be the greatest restaurant experience in all of Monterey. Chef Michael Rotondo and sommelier Conrad Reddick are earnest and adorable and really, really, really talented and the deliciousness and elegance and care with which I was enveloped made a) all the healing really sink in and stick and b) the REAL WORLD — complete with its canneries and ad campaigns and highways — not seem so scary. Of course they had no earthly idea of the spiritual and metaphysical and OTHERWORLDLY journey expedition I had just undertaken but it felt like they’d been waiting to receive me gently from it.
The Ameswell Hotel
800 Moffett Blvd.
Mountain View, CA 94043
Big Sur Bakery
47540 California 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
55000 Highway 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
The Henry Miller Memorial Library
Big Sur, CA 93920
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
400 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940