More a retreat center than a decadent spa, the storied Esalen Institute—perched above the rugged oceanside bluffs of Big Sur—has been calling to visitors looking for an escape from the everyday world for more than 50 years. The list of those who have spent time here reads like a who’s who—Bob Dylan, Ansel Adams, Deepak Chopra—and speaks to the healing powers of the center’s varied seminars.
Esalen’s spiritual and creative offerings include workshops, more than 500 of them annually, for personal and social transformation. Sign up to learn about topics ranging from yoga and meditation (the institute was instrumental in the eventual broad acceptance of both in the U.S.) to songwriting, couples’ communication, and shamanic cosmology.
A little too “out there” for you? Guests are welcome to stay as a personal retreat without booking a workshop. Opt for this, and you’re free to wander throughout the property’s beautiful 27 acres, book a massage, lounge in the site’s cliff-hugging soaking tubs heated by natural hot springs, and enjoy meals featuring ingredients from the onsite garden. The hot springs have been an attraction since the 1880s, and enjoyed by the native Esselen for many millennia before that.
If you’re staying elsewhere, you can still book a soak (advance reservations are required)—just know that bathing suits are optional and you’ll need to be a bit of a night owl: they are only open to nonguests from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. But pulling a partial all-nighter is worth it. Coming down the hill, you will see an outdoor massage deck and living roof planted in native coastal grasses. There are several indoor and outdoor baths, plus private clawfoot tubs, all set to a soundscape of crashing waves.
Esalen sits on a remote stretch of land about 12 miles south of Big Sur, and driving the gorgeous Highway 1 to get there is an added bonus of the whole experience. If you’re not driving, however, the institute does offer shuttle service from airports in Monterey, San Jose, and San Francisco on Fridays and Saturdays.