At 1:30 a.m. one Friday night, my fiancé and I found ourselves in a tub with 30 strangers, clothing-optional, overlooking the ocean. No one spoke much, or loudly. It was dark, as most of our light came from the full moon and its reflection on the water. But, looking out at the ink-black sea, it may well have been the greatest view in the world.
An hour earlier, we had emerged from our hotel bed in Big Sur, California, already exhausted from the 16 miles we had hiked that day. We got in our rented convertible and headed 12 miles south.
If I hadn’t mapped our route earlier in the day, we would have missed the stop. No cell signal anywhere. There, on the side of Highway 1, was a sign for the “Esalen Institute – By reservation only.” A couple cars were already parked by the time we arrived.
The Esalen Institute is a New Age retreat, or as my fiancé likes to call it, a nudist colony. (It isn’t.) It’s a place where you might hear “mind-body connection” more than once or find Don Draper after the season finale of Mad Men.
Most nights, from 1 to 3 a.m., Esalen offers 30 spots for public night bathing in its sulphur baths, which have been used by the area’s Native American tribe, Esselen, for over 6,000 years.
The institute itself is located down a steep hill, but that night, we were instructed to stay at the top until all of us had arrived. There were couples, friends, siblings, visitors who came by themselves, a woman in a fur coat.
After hearing the do’s and do not’s — “do” shower before entering the springs, “do not” take photos at any point — we walked down in silence.
Big Sur has a humble magic to it that you have to experience to understand. There is no one monument, no “must-see” vista. It’s 90 miles of rugged California coastline between Carmel and San Simeon, each one offering a different configuration of land and sea.
Of course, we didn’t see any of this on our first day there. Instead, we spent 24 hours inside a cloud, which made it all the more beautiful once the sun burned through early the next morning. By the time we visited Esalen, we understood the appeal of this place.
After 10 minutes of walking, we came up towards the smell of sulphur and a stout square building. Inside were just a changing room, a communal shower, and the springs we all came for, running with water that, for centuries, has rushed out of rock, over the edge, and down this very cliffside. To the right, the “quiet” side; to the left, “silent.”
For the solitary, there were white clawfoot tubs throughout, which you could fill yourself as you would a bathtub at home. For the rest, a series of big tubs lined the edge of a bluff.
Oddly more breathtaking than the sight were the mighty sounds of waves crashing onto the rocks 100 feet below. I swam to the edge and closed my eyes, immediately understanding why this place—at this time of night—is unlike any other.
By 2:45 a.m., our guide had told us on the way in, we were to turn off the faucets behind us and show ourselves out. It felt as though someone was letting us into their home and trusting us with their belongings. I made sure one of the valves was turned shut before walking back up the steps.
We returned to our bed the way we came, down winding roads, unsure what was to the left or right of the car. All we knew was that the air felt crisp and, every mile or so, there were vans parked on the shoulder, probably just hours away from an epic sunrise. We put the top down again and, in our slick skin and robes, sang at the top of our lungs.
Photo by Austin Halpern