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Camping for Wimps

An innovative new lodging on the Northern California coast caters to outdoor lovers who don't want to give up creature comforts

August 08, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

PESCADERO, Calif. — 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.

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