The hot tub was burbling, the sun close to setting, the ocean below surging. I reclined and let the bubbles seep into my pores, the rays warm my weary shoulders, the repetitive sound of waves against rocks quiet my overheated brain pan.
To my left, another guest enjoying the tub, Phil Semler, had been talking to me about the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the concept of “flow” and “universal flux,” how “everything flows and nothing abides.” I was just about to ask how Heraclitus’ belief system jibes with that of another deep thinker, Jeffrey (“The Dude Abides”) Lebowski, when Semler stood abruptly, sloshing water over the sides, and pointed to the distance.
“Holy crap, did you see that?” he asked.
Below, not 50 feet from the rocky shoreline just south of Año Nuevo State Park, a gray whale had breached, its arching spume creating the faintest of rainbows in the dazzling late-afternoon light. The whale did it again, about 30 seconds later, farther out from the rocks this time, its hulking spine and tail flukes clearly visible. And, in the distance, spume from other migrating whales periodically hovered over the calm Pacific water.
“Can you believe we’re sitting here in a hot tub on a cliff (above the ocean), looking at whales right in front of us?”
What Semler didn’t add in his rhetorical question, mostly because it was just the two of us and we knew full well where we were, was the astonishing fact that we were experiencing this transcendent moment not at some pricy Ritz Carlton resort or some precious seaside bed-and-breakfast, but at a hostel.
Yes, a hostel. That “s” is not a typo.
For a mere $26 a night – OK, plus an extra $8 thrown in for hot-tub use – you can reside at a decommissioned lighthouse at Pigeon Point on the rocky San Mateo County coast, lounge on a secluded beach called Whaler’s Cove as sea lions bob in the surf, and watch the sun set from the aforementioned hot tub.
What’s the catch? There’s always a catch, right?
Well, sure, you will be sleeping in a dormitory on bunk beds with strangers, unless you fork over extra bucks for one of the few private rooms. Regardless, you will be sharing a communal bathroom and shower, and you’ll be making your own meals in a shared kitchen and eating on long, family-style wooden tables. They’ll provide the bedding, but you’ll be asked to change the sheets and make the bed for the next guest.
But, as Heraclitus would advise, go with the flow and embrace the advantages and relative “hardships” of this hostel environment, because you may find the pluses greatly outnumber the minuses. So what if it takes the shower a good 10 minutes to go from cold to tepid? So what if the guy in the bunk above you suffers from sonorous sleep apnea? So what if the mattress is a little lumpy, the toilet needs to be flushed a couple of times to do the job and that plate of leftover asparagus and pastrami in the shared fridge is turning into a science experiment?
If The Dude can abide, so can you.
You might even find you enjoy this more earthy, minimalist form of travel, sans maid service and mints-on-the-pillow frills. For certain, you’ll meet fascinating people, such as native San Franciscan Semler, riding his Surly “Long-Haul Trucker” touring bike down to San Diego, or a forest ranger from Spain on his way to commune with sequoias, or a mother and son from Belgium exploring the West, or a woman from Santa Monica, soon moving to Nicaragua, telling you about her “re-birthing” experience at a nudist hot spring.
For certain, you cannot beat the locations. Hostels, at least the ones dotting California, often are situated in bucolic spots not made available for commercial establishments. Pigeon Point and Point Montara (near Pacifica) afford cliffside views on sites once patrolled by salty lighthouse keepers. At the Marin Headlands hostel, a converted Army building at Fort Barry just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you walk out the door and literally step onto the Coastal Trail, which leads to the Golden Gate Bridge in one direction, Rodeo and Muir beaches in the other direction. At the Point Reyes hostel, a short jaunt on the Muddy Hollow Trail leads to the seclusion of Limatour Beach on Drakes Bay.
Those seeking a bright lights-big city experience can stay at three San Francisco locations (downtown, city center and Fisherman’s Wharf), and Sacramento even has a hostel, the converted Llewellyn Williams mansion on H and 10th streets.
Travelers who haven’t stepped a Birkenstocked foot in a hostel since, say, the Watergate scandal, will quickly be disabused of certain outmoded notions.
First, the age issue. When some people think of hostels, they think scruffy college-aged kids bumming around the country, hand-to-mouth, so many Kerouac adherents looking for kicks on the road. At one time, that may have been a fact, but now’s it’s the hoariest of clichés. In fact, Hosteling International USA has long since dropped the “Youth” from its title, though some older signage still bears the modifier. More than half of Hosteling International’s 46,000 U.S. members are older than age 25, including 10 percent that are 55 and up. The organization reports that many older travelers and families make up the 230,000 annual guests in the eight Northern California hostels.
Another misconception is that all the hostel guests are granola-crunching free spirits who go where the wind (and their VW bus) takes them. In truth, hostel people are as diverse as anyone you’ll find at, say, a Courtyard Marriott.
For example, the night I spent at the Pigeon Point hostel I met a woman, Vivi Labeeuw, who had just retired from a longtime job at the United Nations in New York City; a 40-year-old forest ranger from Empuriabrva, Spain, Marcos Pradas Oncinos; a 37-year-old office worker from the Netherlands, Bertine Markvoort; and a group of eighth-graders and their teachers from Grace Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco.
Families, too, frequent hostels as an alternative to camping. At the Marin Headlands hostel, the Bird family from the Butte County town of Paradise, stayed for a week, and the seeming lack of privacy at hostels didn’t detract couples, such as Brandon Kauffman and Andrea Kauffman-Berry of Philadelphia, from seeking a getaway.
The Kauffmans came to the Bay Area for Andrea’s sister’s law school graduation and decided to make a vacation out of it at the Point Reyes hostel.
“When you look at it, we could vacation for one or two nights (at a Bay Area hotel) or we could spread it out to be a week here,” Andrea said. “It makes a trip viable. Plus, you can’t actually stay here (at Point Reyes) without camping, and that costs like $40.”
Money clearly is an object to many hostelgoers. The Kauffmans first experienced the sticker shock of Bay Area hotel rates when they drove down from Yosemite late last summer and wanted to stay a few days in San Francisco.
“We didn’t realize it was the first day of the America’s Cup racing,” Andrea recalled, “and we thought, ‘This is great. We’ll find something, a Days Inn or something cheap, downtown. I’m sure there’s a hotel room somewhere.’ I called and called and it was $300 for a two-star hotel — not even a Days Inn. We stayed at the Marin hostel and loved it.”
Some hostel people have money to spend on vacation but choose not to “waste” it on lodging. Linda Holich, of Boston, and Ole Christian, of Lillehammer, Norway, had just retreated to the Marin hostel after spending a few nights in pricey Sausalito to attend a wedding.
“We tourists are supposed to be spending money, have big fat credit cards and drive big automobiles and stay in big-city hotels,” Christian said, wryly. “But this is fine.”
Lily Bird, 17, said she enjoys the “hominess” of a hostel – “It’s like being in a house.” Her dad, Fred, takes it a step farther: “For a short time, you have an extended family. The true hostel experience is sleeping in a dorm for 18 other guys.”
Semler, the erstwhile philosophy major who, at 60, is now retired after a career on the marketing side of publishing, says it takes a certain mentality, or worldview, to stay at a hostel. He said that 40 years ago he bummed around overseas staying in hostels he found in a well-thumbed book called “Let’s Go Europe.” Now, he says he normally doesn’t stay at hostels because “I don’t like sharing,” but decided to make the stop on his bike trip to San Diego “out of nostalgia.”
“I’m a minimalist, and minimalism is kind of hip now, I think,” Semler said. “When you’re young, you’re pretty minimal already. I remember going to Europe, seeing these fools with gigantic suitcases, because the mentality of the hostel is bring your little backpack. My wife and I recently went to Southeast Asia, and my backpack weighed only 15 pounds. Minimalist.
“In Lonely Planet, they make a distinction between ‘traveler’ and ‘tourist.’ The tourist is somebody who is somehow not as good as the traveler. The traveler is for some reason more authentic, part of all that minimalism. But it’s probably all bogus, right? But when I was young, I felt I was better than the tourists. I didn’t care about a nice hotel, seemed a waste of money. …
“I’m really into ‘do-it-yourself. I guess a lot of hostel people are. But one thing that gets tiresome: Hostel people, all they do is talk about where they’ve been. They tell you where they’ve been and tell you you should’ve been there then because it’s all spoiled now.”
Julia Franzel, who has worked the front desk at the Pigeon Point hostel for the past two years, said that, in her experience, foreigners are more open to the “sharing” ethos of hosteling.
“Americans aren’t used to hosteling as much because they aren’t as minimalist as other people,” she said. “People will walk in here, and they haven’t done the research, and they find out they have to share a bathroom, and they’ll be mortified, freak out and demand a refund. Now! I tell them, basically, you share things with strangers at hostels. If, instantly, they get repulsed, then I know that they’re in trouble. But we do get people on the fence about it (at the start) and then discover it’s pretty cool.
“(Foreign travelers) have more respect for shared space. They turn the light off. If they come in late, they don’t make a lot of noise. There’s more an understanding of hostel culture. I’m not saying all Americans, but more Americans treat it like their home or a private hotel unit. They’ll leave the lights on, stay up late talking loudly, doing their own thing. For everybody to be comfortable, a hostel has to be utilitarian.”
A hostel also is not the place for introverts. People tend to be chatty, and most foreigners staying are like Oncinos, the Spanish ranger: eager to try out their nascent English language skills. I asked him why he chose to stay at hostels for his monthlong stay in California and Arizona, and Oncinos said he liked the democratic nature of the guests, those from diverse backgrounds.
“Even if it didn’t save money, I’d still rather stay at (a) hostel,” he said. “They put it in the entrance, a sign. No distinction of people of all ages, religions and whether you are kidnapped. I mean handicapped. My English is out of practice. Hostel (is) for every kind of people.”
Later, I stopped by the common room at the Pigeon Point hostel dorm and caught Oncinos chatting with Semler, who, rather than giving a disquisition on Heraclitus, was not at all averse to sharing his tips to help the Spaniard’s English.
“The only two words you need to talk with young people here,” Semler told Oncinos, perhaps only half-joking, “is ‘awesome’ and ‘sucks.’ Everything to Americans is either ‘awesome’ or it ‘sucks.’
“Awesome and sucks. All you need.”
The same two pointed judgments hold true for those who visit hostels – depending, perhaps, on whether you’re a “tourist” or “traveler.”