Letting it all hang out on Highway 1, man

The Sunday Times
Published: 23rd February 2014



Whatever Rob was doing to me, I wanted it to last for ever. As he adjusted my limbs and circled his fingers in the centre of my palms, he seemed to have at least four hands, all of which were doing something sublime to some part of my reclining body. I could hear the Pacific waves crashing below, feel the sun on my limbs. A faint and delicious breeze played across my skin.

I was in Big Sur, California, staying the weekend at the Esalen Institute, a retreat that opened in 1962 with a mission to bring the East to the West and the spiritual to the physical. I’d signed up for a workshop on “awakening joy” and “living in the present”. I had no problem with the joy bit. My only worry was that the present would soon become the past, and that Rob would move on to somebody else.

I was on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles with a childhood friend, so it was a trip into our past as well as a journey down through the 1960s. Esalen is where a 19-year-old Joan Baez strummed her guitar by the fireside; Aldous Huxley visited, George Harrison dropped in on Ravi Shankar and Timothy Leary dropped in and no doubt dropped out.

We’d driven south in a rented Chevrolet to Santa Cruz, where pelicans patrolled the bay and sea lions and surfers played in the waves, both in sleek black suits. Then on to Monterey and its spectacular aquarium, with dancing jellyfish. Carmel was next, where Clint Eastwood was once the mayor. Its main street, which leads down to the ocean, has a branch of Tiffany. Nothing countercultural about that.

But then things change. Big Sur is mountains and cliffs. You drive along a ribbon of road between the two, right on the edge. The views are, unsurprisingly, breathtaking — condors soar, fog comes and goes like a white animal on the prowl, and you can completely understand why Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac came here to explore their own inner wildness.

We arrived at a forbidding sign — “Esalen Institute. By reservation only” — and nervously gave our names to the gatekeeper. It seemed we were about to enter a spooky movie we hadn’t auditioned for.

There was something else I hadn’t prepared for. “I didn’t mention it before,” said my friend as we drove down the bumpy track, “but you do know that the hot springs here are clothing-optional?”

I got ready to reverse.

“It’ll be fine,” she said breezily.

We parked and dragged our bags to our Premium room, which wasn’t particularly premium, but we spent next to no time there. I grabbed my swimming costume, pointedly.

A wild-haired man, who looked as though he could have been there since the Summer of Love, nodded at us as we walked past.

“Great place!” I said. “Whatever your edge is, it’ll be found here,” he said, before moving on to the meditation centre.

Did I want to find my edge? There was no internet in the rooms. That’s my edge.

The next morning, we attended a Sensory Awareness Chakra Meditation, followed by a “morning dance awake”, which ended up with me lying in a circle with strangers, touching each others’ shoulders, arms or feet so that we were all connected. Someone even caressed my ear and I didn’t mind.

At the breakfast buffet, I found myself warmly greeting all my new acquaintances and gamely eating cheesy grits and chard from the gardens. It reminded me a bit of youth-hostelling.

Other workshops I could have chosen included Yoga and Addiction Recovery, another on learning to hypnotise yourself, and one called Peace Starts at Home: Dialogue as a Way of Life, where bickering couples came to find ways to sort themselves out. Then there was Secrets to Lasting Intimacy: Tantra for Couples. For the less adventurous, there are also weekend workshops on public speaking.

I, however, had another edge to reach: those baths, perched on the cliff, where Henry Miller had once frolicked and Hunter S Thompson had threatened difficult guests with a shotgun. That night, under the cloak of darkness — and towels — while everyone else was at a class, we slipped naked into the sulphurous waters and chatted, leaning on a rail, floating and rolling around in the slippery water under the stars, as we gazed out onto the dark waters beyond. Later, the full moon came out, but by the time everyone had emerged from their workshops, we were fully dressed and drinking ginger tea by the campfire. If this was discovering my inner hippie, it was fine with me.

Up to a point. On Sunday, we escaped to the Post Ranch Inn, up the road. We had lunch at a table with only glass in front of us and the wild ocean beyond. The couple behind us had been on the Peace Starts at Home course, but they were still bickering over their pan-roasted Fogline Farm chicken and Big Sur fish stew with squid-ink bruschetta. Twenty-first-century food certainly beats brown rice and grits. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Visit California (020 7257 6180, visitcalifornia.co.uk). 


A weekend in a sleeping bag costs £243pp, including all food and workshops; Premium rooms are £1,200 for two (00 1 703 342 0500, esalen.org). The set lunch at the Post Ranch Inn starts at £27 (00 1 831 667 2200, postranchinn.com; doubles from £450, B&B).


Airlines flying to both San Francisco and Los Angeles include British Airways, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Returns start at about £670.

Car hire

A week’s rental starts at £122 with Alamo (alamo.co.uk).


Bon Voyage (0800 316 0194, bon-voyage.co.uk) has a week’s fly-drive from San Francisco to LA — with two nights at the Esalen Institute — from £2,015pp, including flights and car hire.