A visit to the Esalen Institute hot springs was high on our must-try list as we were planning the Pacific Coast Highway leg of our American road trip. The institute is situated in Big Sur, a region of stunning natural beauty just south of Carmel (a wealthy seaside town that once had Clint Eastwood for a mayor). It is roughly a 3-hour drive south from San Francisco and 5 hours north of Los Angeles.
While Big Sur is a fairly popular tourist destination, it doesn’t come with a ton of accommodation options. This often translates to ‘no vacancy’ and tariffs being fairly high for what you get. We were on the road for seven weeks and wanted to keep our daily spending in check, so instead of a hotel we opted to camp at the Limekiln State Campground 20 minutes’ drive south of the Esalen.
The Esalen Institute is built on the site of natural hot springs right by a cliff’s edge facing the Pacific Ocean. Carbon dating indicates human presence as early as 2600 BC and the first tourist resort was established at the site in the late 19th century. The Esalen Institute was established in 1962 and it describes itself as “a nonprofit organization devoted to activities such as personal growth, meditation, massage, Gestalt, yoga, psychology, ecology, spirituality and organic food.”
Bathing at the Esalen Institute hot springs is an experience like no other. For visitors, such as us, the only option to enjoy the hot springs was the night-time bathing between 1am and 3am. It might seem really inconvenient but the unusual time slot only adds to the wonderful mystique of the experience. A quick snooze beforehand will give you enough of a boost till you get to the Esalen (and experiencing the hot springs will do the rest). Just don’t forget to set an alarm!
The adventure starts right on arrival. A group of us night bathers gathered at the dimly lit parking lot, ready to be shown through the complex. There was a friendly but nervous murmur of anticipation in the air as we waited for everyone who had booked to arrive. Shortly after, a guide explained the bathing etiquette of “no alcohol, no drugs, no hanky-panky” and urged us to keep our voices low as we wandered past the cabins where people on resident courses were sleeping. As the guide’s lone flashlight lit our path, it felt like we were part of a cult about to perform a full moon ritual of sorts.
When you arrive at the hot springs by the cliff’s edge, the view of the Pacific Ocean crashing to the rocks below simply takes your breath away. The spa is divided into two halves, a Quiet and a Silent side, and each has a (mixed) changing room. The spa is clothing optional and on our visit most folks seemed to go au naturel. However, the lighting is quite subdued, so there’s no need to worry about being on display.
Between the two sides lies the shower room with floor to ceiling windows facing the ocean. Just imagine having a monsoon shower with a view of the moonlit sky and the waves crashing below – it really is one of those moments in life that can leave you speechless.
There are several indoor and outdoor tubs and the group dispersed quite quickly across them. With conversation kept to minimal we picked a pool and surrendered ourselves to the bliss. What followed were a few dream-like hours. Most I can remember thinking is that “if this isn’t heaven, then I don’t know what is” as I floated weightless in the water, watching shooting stars whizz across the sky.
We left the spa sometime after 3am. As we drove along the ocean back to our campsite, we sat in silence, savouring the experience and the complete and utter sense of relaxation. It is said that the hot springs have healing properties for the body and I must admit that they are definitely food for the soul.
- The entry is $25 per person and you need to book in advance (credit cards only) by calling 831-667-3047.
- The institute limits the visitors to 20 each night so don’t leave booking till last-minute!
- The clothing optional spa is open to both women and men, and towels are provided.
- Directions to The Esalen Institute.