Your Best Wellness Weekend Getaway Ever: The Esalen Institute
Food & Wine
Synchronicity' is a word you may encounter at the Esalen Institute. Founded in the ‘60s, Esalen is the original retreat center, and played a key role in forming just about any type of therapeutic activity you might have heard of. Their workshops in personal growth, meditation, massage, Gestalt Practice, yoga, psychology, ecology, spirituality, and organic food are attended by the young and old, the rich and famous and the humble hippy. I was lucky enough to read about it, hear about it from a friend, and book a spot there just 1 week in advance. It turned out to be transformative. Thank you, synchronicity.
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Where to stay
Where holistic wisdom meets coastal serenity, providing a transformative retreat on the cliffs of Big Sur, California.
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Imagine soaking up the last bits of sunlight from natural hot springs overlooking the sea, as a kaleidoscope of colors light up the sky. The flower in your hair is a little reminder of the bathing ritual ceremony that sounded a bit too “woo woo” a few days ago, but which felt completely natural today.
Later, you’ll attend a workshop where people of all ages and aesthetics are gathered to practice yoga, or learn storytelling through songwriting, or indulge with their sweetie in a lesson on massage techniques. Or maybe that organized group stuff isn’t your vibe and you’ll spend an hour in the quirky Art Barn, crafting like a kid.
Either way, you’ll come back to the Lodge for a bountiful dinner of healthy, local foods and a salad bar that could be its own meal. The vibe is casual, friendly, open, and any “first day at school cafeteria” anxiety is quickly put to rest by warm smiles and big tables. You’ll walk home under a thousand sparkling stars in complete silence, and fall asleep effortlessly.
This was my first experience at the Esalen Institute. And from chatting around with other visitors, I gathered that their experiences were similar to mine, with the exception of one returnee who had trouble falling asleep because he was too excited about what lay in store the next day.
The Esalen Institute is located just south of Big Sur, a scenic four hours from San Francisco or Los Angeles: far enough to feel like you’ve really gotten away, but close enough for a weekend getaway.
The Institute was founded in the 1960s by all the hippies you might’ve heard of. It’s kind of “The” spot when it comes to retreats and exploring human potential through experience, education, and research. Everything is top-of-the-line, from the facilities and the facilitators, to the views and the vibes.
This nonprofit offers something at every price point. Accommodations range from a humble sleeping bag on the floor, up to deluxe to private cabins, with shared rooms in between. The delicious food is all included, so your every need is taken care of in paradise. (And yes, you can also buy wine and beer on site or an espresso beverage, if desired.)
It’s the perfect mix of structure and choose-your-own-adventure. On any given day, there will be workshops, places to read and relax, poolside lounging, naked bathing, music playing, campfire singing, and the list goes on.
Need to Know
You’ll be well taken care of, but to have the *perfect* stay, I would certainly recommend a few items:
An analog watch: It would be soooo nice not to have to use your phone for a whole weekend, right? Too bad it’s the only way I had to tell time, and so I whipped it out 20 times a day.
A robe for getting to / from the clothing-optional hot spring pools.
A sarong or other light towel to lay on the deck chairs or cover up with (see again: clothing optional).
Sunglasses and a hat, especially during “Indian summer” (Sept-November).
Ear plugs (if staying in shared accommodations).
A small bag for carrying around your keys, journal, water, camera, etc.
A book. There’s a fabulous book store, though with long hours.
A musical instrument, if you are so inclined. There’s a piano and guitars available on site.
Body lotion for after the hot springs.
A thermos to bring hot coffee / tea to sip through your four workshops.
An intention: as soon as you arrive, you’ll have some down time to wander the grounds. This is a great opportunity to find a beautiful seat (views are everywhere) and reflect on why you’re here and what you want to get out of it. For bonus points, you can find the meditation hut and set your intention there.
Reading through this list, I’m reminded of just how easy life was at Esalen. I was never in a rush, never had to plan a meal or activity. I could just *be*. The heart-opening experiences I had in workshops are something I still carry with me and hope to for a long time. But it couldn’t hurt to immerse myself in the wonder of human potential again… I might just start planning my next trip right now.
This trip report is part of our ongoing series on travel to California. In need of further inspiration? Check out ’s guide, Wine & Wellness: 3-Day Itinerary for Winters, California.
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