BIG SUR Over the past few days, while "roughing it" on the rugged Central Coast, I have slept between high-thread-count sheets made toasty by a heated mattress, cringed as my bloated carcass was kneaded like a blob of sourdough by a sadistic redheaded masseuse named Nora, gazed at a coniferous hillside while submerged in the amniotic warmth of a hot tub, and seen a dazzling ocean view from a bed inside a yurt.
I also have eaten a $22 Caesar salad,with free-range chicken, at a campground. I have hiked on private trails where ticks wouldn't dare alight on your epidermis. I have been basted, scalp to toenails, with medicinal oils purported to promote healing. I have lingered under a hot, pulsating shower, all lathered up with a loofah and artisan peppermint-and-grapefruit soap.
Yeah, it's been a nice time.
But, tell me, have I really been camping?
"No, not at all," said traveler Molly Lindgren, cradling a coffee cup outside her yurt at Treebones Resort, equidistant between Hearst Castle to the south and Big Sur proper to the north. "And that's a good thing. I hate camping. I did it as a child and loved it back then. But now, I don't want to be bothered. The great thing here is, you're in this yurt, it's totally in nature, but comfortable. You're not roughing it so much."
What I've been doing, snooty as it sounds, is "glamping."
That's the smashed-together term meaning "glamorous camping," a high-end activity for those seeking to commune with nature without struggling with troublesome tent poles, without sleeping on the cold, unforgiving ground, while substituting organic, locally grown cuisine for reheated beans and franks, and happily trading up from s'mores to tiramisu.
Trend for the trendy
Once an exclusive trend catering only to 1 percenters, glamping now is going mainstream. No glamping trade group exists, and the Outdoor Industry Association says it does not chart "luxury camping" statistics, perhaps because glampers don't need to purchase even such basic camping gear as sleeping bags and flashlights.
But the phenomenon's presence is being felt. GlampingHub.com lists more than 100 high-end facilities in the United States, and even the staid KOA has added a touch of glamp at some sites with ready-made tepees, tricked-out Airstreams and fancy tent-cabins.
"Parks and campgrounds are realizing luxury camping appeals to people who want to be outdoors but maybe sleep in a bed," said Jeff Crider, spokesman for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. "It used to be campers were lucky if they had flush toilets as opposed to pit toilets. Now there are a lot more amenities."
Though more pricey than simply pitching your tent and firing up the ol' propane stove, this no-hassle version of sleeping under the stars (technically, you can still see them through the yurt's skylight), seemingly has opened up camping to a demographic willing to spend $110 to $300 a night for a ready-made sleeping structure with real beds and other hotellike amenities.
Two of the most upscale Northern California glampsites Costanoa south of Pescadero and Big Sur's Treebones were among the first established in the country. Now, though, even some state and county parks such as Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Mt. Madonna County Park in Santa Clara County, offer tent cabins or yurts alongside traditional RV hookups and tent sites.
How popular are the five yurts available for rent at Mt. Madonna?
"From Memorial Day weekend on through Labor Day, they'll be full every day," said Audrey Marshall, site host at the campground. "I recommend reserving it at least six months in advance."
John Handy, who opened Treebones in 2004 after two decades as a senior vice president for design at Mattel Inc., says people are drawn to sites such as his because they like to be pampered but also care about eco-tourism i.e., not trashing nature.
"They want the experience of going somewhere and being close to nature, but they don't want the dirt, the mess and the cooking and the work that goes with it because, you know, they are on vacation," he said. "They want a lighter footprint in nature. And eating organic food and having it taste good, that's part of the experience, too. Going into a nice shower facility or the pool and jacuzzi. It's close to nature without the struggle. I can see why it takes off."
If there are, indeed, lots of happy glampers out there, why do they seem so sheepish when admitting they want to avoid that rugged, gritty outdoor experience?
Mikki Michaud, a Santa Cruz woman who spent a "girls getaway" weekend at Costanoa with three friends, actually blushed when asked if her stay in an accommodation with a queen-sized bed and a fireplace qualified as camping.
"We do camp for real," she said, laughing. "But this? This is luxurio!"
But her friend, Purea Koenig, added: "Some people might consider what we did 'camping,' and is there anything wrong with that?"
At Costanoa, less than a mile from the beach near Año Nuevo State Park, it can sometimes seem like a Ritz Carlton had been plopped down next to RV hookups. The spacious tent camps are half-wood-framed, half-canvas, with windows and doors and wood flooring.
Inside are queen beds with mattresses offering four heat settings, his-and-hers terry robes, individually wrapped fine soap and miniature shampoo bottles, two bedside tables and a lamp, and two overhead reading lights.
What, no evening turndown service?
"This," said guest Joe Fox of Pleasanton, "is a big step above camping."
"It's really more like a hotel with better outdoor access," wife Amy added.
"Hey," Joe shot back, "you've got to walk to the showers. That gives you a 'camp' feel."
Another guest, Sue Rahmer of Martinez, looked up from her sunbathing long enough to shake her head: "If you have a real bed, it's not camping."
Then again, Toni Egan of Davis goes by this rule of thumb while at Costanoa: "When you have to leave the tent to go to the bathroom, it's definitely camping!"
Yup, roughing it, glamping-style, means having to endure the hardship of leaving one's tent to embark on a journey to the restrooms or showers. No need to wield a flashlight at Costanoa, though the crushed-granite pathways are illuminated by sconces.
At the facilities, less than 50 feet away, the floors are heated and the brushed-metal sinks gleam. Costanoa's showers are outdoors the ones at Treebones, Mt. Madonna and Big Sur Campground and Cabins are indoors but fret not, you can hop back into the dry sauna to warm up.
At Big Basin, one of the few state parks offering glamping, it's not quite as swanky as at Costanoa or Treebones, but still opulent compared with being one of the huddled masses shivering in a sleeping bag. The 12-by-14-foot cabins feature platform beds with mattress pads and a wood stove inside for warmth.
Marilyn Eckels, the site host, provides glampers with a "deluxe" package including fitted sheets and comforter, a lantern, towels, sparkling apple juice and an amenity basket.
"It's basically a hotel room, minus electricity," Eckels said.
How about a mint on the pillow?
"Well, I have done that before," she said with a giggle. "We have a surprise package that I put together, something the customers don't think they'll be getting. We set it out for them and everything's there. They just have to show up."
Perhaps one reason camping industry groups fail to chart the growth of glamping is because glampers tend not to buy outdoor equipment other than clothes. A 2011 survey by the National Sporting Goods Association showed that 44.7 million Americans had gone camping, down 8 percent from the previous year.
Have those people switched to glamping, perhaps?
Let the Fox family serve as anecdotal evidence.
"Jack and I do camp," Joe said. "We go up to the Sierras."
Added young Jack, his son: "He sets up the tent while I sit there bored. But this (Costanoa) is fun."
Yurts: funny name, serious luxury
There also is much fun to be had in a yurt.
Many four-star hotels don't have rooms as nice as the yurts at Treebones. Constructed on platforms, the 16 circular, fabric structures with wood-lattice frames and pine floors are perched in the hills just east of Highway 1. There is electricity (though no radios, stereos or TVs are allowed), a gas fireplace and a sink with hot water.
"You open the yurt's double doors and the beds face the ocean," Lindgren said. "You just lie there with twilight overhead just looking out at the ocean, hearing it, and you can relax. And I need to relax. I'm from Los Angeles."
But why yurts, of all things?
Treebones' Handy said they "leave a lighter footprint" on the environment than traditional campgrounds and are more higher-end than tent cabins. Indeed, except for the swimming pool, jacuzzi and lodge housing the restaurant with a sushi bar, the resort blends into the landscape of the surrounding hillside.
"We wanted something unusual, indigenous, close to nature, comfortable," he said. "In the late '80s and early '90s, we looked at sculptural tents. But the doors were zipper doors. And they were still tents, you know, with tentlike features. We knew that guests, they didn't necessarily want to zip it, you know. It wasn't quite right.
"It wasn't until my mom was in Oregon at Bandon State (Natural Area), where they had these 14-foot-diameter yurts with plywood floors. She told me about it, I checked it out. The structures were amazing."
Treebones' $219-per-night rate may seem pricey, but actually it's affordable compared with ultra-glamp sites, such as the Resort at PawsUp near Missoula, Mont., where "tents" run from $1,025 to $1,926 a night. (The price includes three meals a day, yoga and fitness center use, and chauffeur services.)
'Mere dust and hotels'
Given such opulence, a camping purist might feel compelled to ask: Are glampers paying to be a part of nature or apart from nature?
I mulled this question on my last evening of glamping, lounging on a porch just above the rushing Big Sur River. In my hands, open in front of me like a hymnal, was a book of John Muir's letters and journals.
In an epistle to his wife, Louie, in 1888, Muir mused: "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter. In such places standing alone on the mountain-top, it is easy to realize that whatever special nests we make leaves and moss like the marmots and birds, or tents or piled stone we all dwell in a house of one room the world with the firmament for its roof."
But, remember, Muir's provisions included only lumps of bread in his cloak and a notebook looped around his roped belt. Had he gone glamping, donned a comfy terry robe, spent an hour with Nora the masseuse and nibbled at the sushi bar, he might have softened his stance.
Maybe he would've hewed more to the thinking of modern humorist Dave Barry, who dismissed camping as "nature's way of promoting the motel industry."
FEATURED 'GLAMPING' SITES
Costanoa Lodge (south of Pescadero): www.costanoa.com; (650) 879-1100. Rates: tent cabins $89-$99; cabins: $159-$169; lodge: $159-$215
Treebones Resort (Big Sur coast): www.treebonesresort.com; (877) 424-4787. Rates: yurts, from $189 to $219 (two people). Big Basin State Park (Santa Cruz Mountains): www.bigbasintentcabins.com; (831) 338-4745, ext. 10. Rates: $75 per night (plus $8 reservation fee)
Big Sur Campground and Cabins: www.bigsurcamp.com; (831) 667-2322. Rates: tent cabins: $110; cabins: $180-$390
Mt. Madonna (Santa Clara County): www.sccgov.org/sites/parks/ Camp%20Here/Pages/Yurts-Here.aspx; (408) 355-2201. Rates: yurts, $50-$90
www.recreation.gov (government-run campgrounds)
www.camp-california.com (for privately owned campgrounds)