The Esalen Institute is known throughout California as the home of California 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 bath house includes a motley collection of mineral-fed hot tubs looking out over the ocean — you can choose the Quiet Side or the 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 bath house 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.
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 $150 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-serve basis at 1 a.m. and ends at 3 a.m. 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, if you don’t approve of meditation or non-Christian 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 open cubbies and 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, fax 831/667-2724, www.esalen.org ) accepts reservations by fax, mail, and phone if necessary. Go to the website for more information.
The Allegria Spa at Ventana (831/667-4222, www.ventanainn.com/spa.asp , daily 9 a.m.–7 p.m., until 8 p.m. in summer, $120/50-minute massage) offers a large menu of spa treatments to both hotel guests and visitors. You’ll love the serene atmosphere of the treatment and waiting areas. Greenery and weathered wood create a unique space that help to put you in a tranquil state of mind, ready for your body to follow your mind into a state of relaxation.
Indulge in a soothing massage, purifying body treatment, or rejuvenating or beautifying facial. Take your spa experience a step further in true Big Sur  fashion with a reiki or craniosacral treatment. Or go for a private New Age reading, a personal yoga or meditation session, or a private guided hike. If you’re a hotel guest, you can choose to have your spa treatment in the comfort of your own room or out on your private deck.
Just across the highway from the Ventana, the Post Ranch Inn and Spa (Hwy. 1, 831/667-2200,, $135/hour massage) is another ultra-high-end resort spa. Massage, body, and facial work focuses on organics and gem and crystal therapies. You can also indulge in private sessions, including Shamanic meetings that focus on indigenous techniques that are said to enhance your life.