Camping for Wimps


There's nothing like a camping trip to salve the psyche--a chance to hike yourself into happy exhaustion, then lie back on an Adirondack chair as the orange sun slips into the sea. The night wind might be biting, and your backpack may hold meager supplies--or perhaps you have no backpack at all--but you have no worries. You know the deli across the meadow is well stocked with pasta salad, Brie and the latest issue of Architectural Digest. You know a log is burning on the fireplace over by the sauna and the showers. You know that inside your tidy white tent waits a queen bed with electric blanket. And if that's not enough, you could always sign up for one of those $40 post-hike foot massages in self-heating French seaweed mud.

What's that? This doesn't sound like your last camping trip? Well, look what's popped up about 350 miles north of Los Angeles at a new refuge called the Costanoa Coastal Lodge & Camp.

Aimed at the well-heeled tenderfoot and run by a hip city hotelier, Costanoa is designed to marry the old-fashioned outdoor wonders of the Northern California coast with the comforts that so many baby boomers prize. It opened its lodge rooms in mid-June, its tents in the first week of July. My wife, Mary Frances, and I checked in unannounced 11 days ago.

Between hikes under the redwoods and mountain-bike sojourns on back roads, Costanoa expects its guests to tuck into the fancy food in its General Store (18 different cheeses, six flavors of jerky, eight types of trail mix) and perhaps slink one night into the Community Room to catch a video on the 40-inch television near the big fireplace. And because this campground is also positioning itself as a small-scale conference center, you may find a few campers slipping into the lodge conference room each morning to nail down marketing targets for the next fiscal year with fellow executives.

During our two-night midweek visit, in fact, a gaggle of staffers from a Marin County software company were there. We'd see them filing in as we lingered at a picnic table outside the deli with our free coffee, orange juice, scones, muffins and fruit, and one night I found myself seated next to one of them after dinner.

"We told people in the office we were going camping," he confessed. "We didn't not tell the truth. But we didn't tell the whole truth, either." Then we turned back to watching the big-screen television.

The idea of joining wilderness and luxury is far from new. That's how Theodore Roosevelt and friends (and their porters) went camping in Yellowstone a century ago, and that's what the promoters of Yosemite Valley had in mind when they opened the Ahwahnee Hotel in 1927. (Though few would call them luxurious, Yosemite's Curry Village has also offered hundreds of canvas tent-cabins since the 1890s.) But the concept has taken on new currency in the last few years thanks to advancing technology, a society full of travelers with more money than time, and an aging crop of American baby boomers. Those boomers may not all say it out loud, but millions of them have been quietly itching for a way to approach nature without having to sleep on hard ground or rustle up oatmeal at dawn on a propane stove.

That's the thinking, anyway, behind such enterprises as the Camps at Molokai Ranch, Hawaii (where 100 "tentalow units" and yurts have been renting for the last 2 1/2 years at $128-$148 per person, per night); the Fossil Rim Foothills Safari Camp near Glen Rose, Texas ($150 nightly for tents with private baths); and several projects developed on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands--Maho Bay Camps (114 tents featuring Simmons Beauty-rest mattresses) and Concordia Eco-Tents (11 tents, some with solar-powered refrigerators), among others.

The man behind Costanoa is Chip Conley, 38, a 1984 Stanford MBA who since 1987 has been building an empire of fashionable Bay Area hotels. Starting with a bedraggled motel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district--which he refashioned into the trendy Phoenix Hotel--Conley's Joie de Vivre chain has grown to include 15 Bay Area hotels and inns, and now Costanoa (whose name is taken from the Spanish term for the area's indigenous Ohlone people).

"If people are coming expecting a traditional resort experience, they'll be disappointed. That's just not what we are," said Conley in a phone interview after we'd returned from our visit. "The people who are the happiest are the people who go out and do their own thing, and don't want all the regimentation of a resort." (Costanoa has no swimming pool or sit-down restaurant.)

Costanoa's 39-acre site is 55 miles south of San Francisco, about 45 miles from the most convenient airport, San Jose, and 25 miles north of Santa Cruz. The property sits just inland from Highway 1, sheltered from traffic sounds by a meadow, fringed by a line of tall eucalyptus, neighbored by Big Basin Redwoods and Butano state parks. Two miles south, Ano Nuevo State Reserve fills each winter with calving elephant seals.

Guests in Costanoa's upscale tents need not bring a sleeping bag or towels. The 24 deluxe tents and 32 "tents romantics," $85 nightly, are about as comfortable as a tent can be. Built on wooden platforms, they have shaded windows, bedside lamps, dual-control electric blankets and four-poster beds in some units. Vases are on order, the better to accommodate handpicked wildflowers.

Thirty-one standard tents, each with one double and one twin bed, are $55 per night (prices include daily maid service and continental breakfast). And there are plans to eventually add 70 economy tents (bring your own linens and towels; no maid service) at $45 a night. Each will sleep up to four people and include continental breakfast. But until those open, the cheapest spots at Costanoa are the 20 bare campsites (with hookups) reserved for guests who bring their own tents (or, in winter, for RVers), at $40 nightly, breakfast included.

For guests who'd rather dispense with the whole camping charade and just sleep between solid walls, Costanoa has further choices. There are six modern wood cabins, each housing two units ($125 a night per room). Each room features a fireplace, refrigerator and water cooler, but none has a private bathroom, an eccentricity that the owners attribute to state Coastal Commission restrictions on their septic system. The cabins share the same common "comfort stations" that the tent-dwellers use: toilets, indoor-outdoor showers, sinks, saunas and fireplace, all strikingly handsome and cleverly combined.

The fanciest accommodations on the site are the 40 lodge rooms ($175 nightly), each with private bath, some with fireplaces, all done up in an elegant, quasi-rustic style that, like the rest of the resort, is rich in wood, khaki hues and galvanized steel fittings meant to echo farmhouse details.

Beyond the overnight accommodations, Costanoa's spa services include facials, massages, aromatherapy and other treatments, at costs from $30-$130.

The biggest fault we found is a common one in new hotels: Despite my repeated questions, the reservations clerk understated the amount of unfinished work and unavailable services at the site. He said merely that the hot tub was not yet open, the liquor license was not yet in place, some tents were yet to be raised. Nothing about the delay of room service to the high-end tents, staff uncertainty over which tents were customer-ready and which weren't, or the blacktop still being poured between the parking lot and our tent village.

Checking in, we were first directed to a "tent romantic" that had no window covers. (With neighboring tents about 15 feet away, this put the romance in peril.) The desk clerks were quick to apologize and reassign us when we raised the issue, although it seemed odd that we had to scout out a fully equipped tent ourselves. At any rate, these were opening problems, unlikely to recur, and management had acknowledged the unfinished work by dropping prices by $20 a night to current levels.

Two other cautions: A windy night brought squeaks and groans from the pine frame of our tent, a sound louder than the flapping canvas and enough to wake Mary Frances, a light sleeper, a few times. (That might be a ridiculous complaint in a traditional campground, but not so ridiculous at an $85-a-night inn.) Also, of course, shared bathrooms mean the occasional 25-yard trek to the toilet in the wee hours. (Hence small flashlights are attached to Costanoa's tent keys.)

Yet I came away from Costanoa with an unusually good feeling about the attitude and training of the staff. One staffer at the front desk, Janice, learned in an offhand conversation that my wife was a big fan of the now-deceased television series "Northern Exposure." The next day Janice dipped into her home video collection for three "Northern Exposure" episodes, including the pilot. Just after sunset that night, we watched two of them on the 40-inch television while sipping fancy tea from the General Store. Yes, ironists, that is correct: We sat in a faux lodge watching faux Alaska while dusk settled on the California coast. It was wonderful.

This stretch of the coast is little known for many Southern Californians and even some San Franciscans. But it's rich in outdoor resources. Several lonely beaches lie within a convenient drive. The gusty winds at Waddell Beach are famous among windsurfers. We liked the intimate scale of Bean Hollow State Beach, about a 10-minute drive north of Costanoa.

No sensible guest will run out of things to do. The Costanoa people have put by each bed their own 30-page guidebook to nearby hiking, mountain biking and beach-going, along with further tidbits on neighboring towns, farm tours, romantic spots and scenic drives.

In our brief stay, we wedged in a lot. First we headed up to Sea Horse Ranch in Half Moon Bay, 20 miles north, for a 90-minute horseback ride along the coast. (The price was $40 per person, but we got to do it without a guide on a pair of high-spirited horses, which made it all a bit of an adventure.)

Later, at Phipps Ranch outside Pescadero, about 10 miles from Costanoa, we admired the goats, pigs and caged birds of many colors. But instead of picking olallieberries ourselves, as visitors are invited to do, we watched two dozen children from a day camp do so, which left us just as amused but with clean hands. In downtown Pescadero (which fills all of three blocks), we dropped by Duarte's and ordered the highly recommended cream of artichoke soup (very tasty; $5) and some very good crab and shrimp cakes. In the old whaling town of Davenport just above Santa Cruz, we browsed the folk art in the Davenport Cash Store, strolled on the bluffs over the sea, then grabbed burgers at the Whale City Bakery, Bar & Grill.

The next day, we made the 3.2-mile round-trip hike out to the elephant seals' favorite resting spot at Ano Nuevo and found a few dozen of the beasts lolling and molting on the beach, bits of their old skin peppering the sand and a stench in the air that made picnicking out of the question. At the Wilder Ranch, a guide named Sierra took us through the old ranch house and explained how a turn-of-the-century dairy operation worked.

Although we didn't have time to sample any of the several mountain-bike routes near Costanoa, the lodge rents out a dozen bikes at $7 per hour. I did rise early one morning to make the 15-minute walk from the campground to Franklin Point beach. The path includes an unprotected crossing of Highway 1, and a sign warns of poison oak along the trail's edge, but the reward was an expanse of wild, grassy dunes and a dramatic view of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

Still, it's the stylish new take on the old campground idea that gives Costanoa its novel atmosphere. Even if you're billeted in one of the canvas tents, you're likely to get screened windows and a deadbolt on your door. Those green Adirondack chairs outside each tent door? Recycled from plastic milk jugs. Lewis and Clark, meet Smith & Hawken.

There are barbecue grills and picnic tables for campers, and a fenced play area for kids. As for the deli, consider our first meal at Costanoa: tortellini with prosciutto, feta and peppers, Gruyere cheese, Martinelli's cider, a veggie burger and a salad of snow peas, pecans and Parmesan cheese. The veggie burger was a bit undercooked, and because a blender was broken there were no smoothies, but hey, if John Wesley Powell could get past his inconveniences exploring the Grand Canyon, we can get past these.

Bear in mind that Costanoa isn't finished yet. In late August, management hopes to open an eight-person hot tub that adjoins the lodge and overlooks a forested slope. The deli is expected to get its beer-and-wine license at about the same time. The fancier tents will be getting canopies in coming days. Also, it will be September before Costanoa's staff can deliver one of the frills that grabbed my imagination in the first place: room service to your tent.

On the whole, Costanoa is a comfortable, handsome place not quite like any other. Of course, many campers and others will shower Costanoa with disdain. (If you'd rather put up your own tent and bring your own sleeping bag, you might consider one of the area's state parks at a fraction of the cost. There's a popular hostel at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse too.)

But in my book, a few nights of quasi-wilderness beats no wilderness at all, which may be the alternative for many couples and families who are short on time and gear. I wouldn't be surprised if Costanoa is followed soon by a Southern California desert copycat. Worse things could happen. In the meantime, I've realized we could do with an electric blanket at home.



Camp Tenderfoot

Getting there: Costanoa lies about 25 miles north of Santa Cruz, 55 miles south of San Francisco. The drive from Los Angeles takes about eight hours. By air, fly to San Jose, where you can rent a car and make the one-hour (45-mile) drive to Pescadero. Southwest, United and Reno Air have nonstop service from LAX starting at $87 round trip.

Where to stay: Costanoa Coastal Lodge & Camp, 2001 Rossi Rd. at Highway 1, Pescadero; telephone (800) 738- 7477 or (650) 879-1100, fax (650) 879-2275, Internet http: // Rates: Tents are $55 and $85 nightly, cabin rooms $125, lodge rooms $175.

Where to eat: Costanoa's General Store has a wide array of prepared foods and deli items. Sample prices: a tri-tip sandwich combo, $7.50; a tofu burger, $6.25; a pound of chicken prosciutto tortellini, $6.50. Duarte's Tavern, 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, tel. (650) 879-0464, specializes in seafood and cream of artichoke soup; most dinner entrees $13 to $16. For burgers and ice cream , the Whale City Bakery, Bar & Grill, 490 Highway 1 in Davenport; tel. (831) 423-9803; entrees up to $9.

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