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DISCOVERY

In Hot Water, and It's Heavenly : San Juan Hot Springs Provides Solitude, Even Nuptials

November 26, 1987|PATRICK MOTT | For The Times and

What's the price for an hour in heaven? In Orange County, it's $7.50. After 6 p.m., it goes up a dollar.

Paradise goes for the same price. So does Nirvana. Valhalla goes for a dollar more, though, because it has a better view.

The hot tubs at San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs, variously named for paradisiacal places or for states of bliss, may not be guarded by pearly gates, but the water is hot and soft and the springs are rural and secluded--and that's enough of a slice of heaven for the nearly 400 dedicated soakers who weekly make the trip for a dip.

That's the estimated number of people who each week drive the 12 1/2 miles east on Ortega Highway from the Interstate 5 exit, to the very edge of Orange County, to visit the springs that some say eased the muscle aches of Father Junipero Serra.

Sulfur-tinged water, steaming at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, has been bubbling up from the hillsides above the small resort for longer than anyone can remember, says Carole Long, one of the resort's permanent employees. By the time it trickles through man-made pipes down the hillside to the network of 25 tubs, it has cooled to 104 to 106 degrees--perfect, Long says, for loosening tired muscles and an occasional tongue.

"We have guys calling up asking for reservations who say they want to propose to their girls out here," she says.

On at least two occasions, says Bob D'Alfonso, the resort's manager, such proposals paid off. Since the springs reopened for business about five years ago, he says, two weddings have been held there, one of them actually in a hot tub.

There has been a resort of one sort or another at the hot springs since 1886, D'Alfonso says. During the 1930s, it was touted in one brochure as a fountain of youth.

"In the early '70s, though, a lot of squatters came in and just trashed the place," D'Alfonso says. "It wasn't until about five years ago that it returned to being a real nice place."

It was then, D'Alfonso says, that Russell Kiessig, who also owns a mineral springs resort in San Luis Obispo, took over the Capistrano resort. Since then, he says, many of the redwood tubs have been reconditioned, and a few acrylic and cement and tile tubs have been added. The facility now offers shower facilities, a large swimming pool, and tent and RV campsites nearby.

During the day, when there is enough light to see the trail up the hill, visitors can walk to the springs themselves.

"There are about 50 wells up here," D'Alfonso says, "but we only tap into about seven of them. We're finding them all the time. We'll find a muddy spot and dig, and there'll be another one."

The wells not only feed the tubs but the showers as well. "And it's naturally soft water," he says. "It makes your skin feel really soft when you get out."

While the springs are open 24 hours a day, most visitors show up in the evenings, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays, D'Alfonso says. Reservations are advisable at peak hours.

Perhaps the two most popular tubs are Serendipity and Valhalla, Long says. They're spacious, secluded and offer a good view of the creek that runs past the resort. They're also more expensive at $10 per person per hour at any time of day.

The tubs named Heaven and Atlantis are also in demand, she says, because they're designed to hold up to 11 people.

It's against resort rules to bring alcoholic beverages into the tub areas, Long says, but "if somebody comes in here with a cooler, we're not going to inspect it. If someone shows up already three sheets to the wind, we won't allow it, but we pretty much leave people to their own devices. We're pretty laid back about what goes on."

The resort's specialty, she says, is simply "individual tubs in secluded settings." Such seclusion--each tub is surrounded by foliage and a fence--is appreciated, she says, by those without bathing suits.

Finally, the resort even offers friendly company for those who feel there aren't enough bodies in their tub. Rubber ducks are for sale in the office for $1.

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO HOT SPRINGS AT A GLANCE

Facilities: 25 hot tubs, 12 tent campsites and 5 RV campsites, showers, swimming pool.

Hours: Open 24 hours.

Prices: Hot tub rates are $7.50 per person per hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., $8.50 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The two creekside tubs are $10 at all times. Special tub rates are offered for groups, students, seniors and campers. Swimming pool rates are $3 per person per day, $2 for those using other resort facilities. Swimmers under 3 admitted free. Camping rates are $4.25 per person per night (children under 18, open campfires and pets are not allowed). Picnicking rates are $3 per person over age 12, $2 per person ages 3-12, children 3 or under free. Hiking and cycling permits are $3.

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