“The West is the best. Get here, and we’ll do the rest” – The Doors
There’s no rush here. None. If not for that enviable laid-back California vibe where the pace of life and conversation moves like a sip or two of wine while waves roll up on a quiet shore, then it’s the road that forces us to slow down and Cali-fornicate with that awesome majesty of the golden coast. Highway 1 from Carmel to Big Sur weaves and undulates like the whip of a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon. Awed by the “prophet on the burning shore” of which the Grateful Dead sings, around each bend lies another panorama that I can’t stretch my eyes wide enough to see. An endless sea of sapphire pours out from the horizon and laps the high rocky coves as I veer off the road into the storybook of Esalen.
Cleaved out of the steep slope is the fertile oasis of the Esalen Institute; a community of only a few hundred people at a time exploring their own individual intellectual and spiritual possibilities. Workshops at various locations along the narrow stretch of land include arts, movement, yoga, and meditation. You can’t just drop in. It’s not a refuge, and yet it is a retreat providing space and time to be present for self-exploration and discovery. It’s not about having a feel-good time or even relaxing—although that may be inevitable. Rooted in Gestalt Theory the aim is to provide all the organic components to free oneself for deep personal growth and human understanding.
Breakfast is a cornucopia of clean energy ingredients harvested on-site in the garden. Sipping a soothing infusion I gaze out at migrating whales. Morning yoga followed by meditation enables my internal shift to begin from the full-tilt traffic blitz temperament of my daily grind to a spiritual quietude.
Esalen is also renowned for its Esalen® Massage inspired and influenced by the rhythm of the ocean waves. Slow, long, deep strokes induce my sleep almost immediately. Passive stretching and gentle joint manipulation slows the nervous system and supports the lymphatic system. An added abdominal massage technique called Chi Nei Tsang blends Chinese and Thai massage as well as meditation to detoxify and energize me. Completely sedated, I’m out for the count.
Awakening to the ocean breeze and the distant crashing of waves, I stretch out and plunk into the adjacent outdoor hot springs. These healing waters literally on the edge of the cliff overlook the ocean for a magical experience. The co-ed and clothing-optional aspect of these showers and baths evoke an organic Eden-esque quality that is naturally liberating. At night, cosmic splendor dances above as shooting stars stream out of the sparkling and nebulous infinity.
Daybreak in Monterey is met with a cacophony of barking sea lions. The best way to see this harbour is to be in it. Cannery Row, immortalized by John Steinbeck, is the launching point for our Fast Raft Marine Eco-Tours. As we motor out, dolphins and whales promenade across Monterey Bay in awesome fashion.
Inland the hypnotic beauty of Pinnacles National Park beckons. Volcanic vestiges draped in wilderness appear as spires shooting up like petrified Gods. With gargantuan sandwiches from Compagno’s Market and Deli in tow, we hike through talus caves formed by large fallen boulders wedged into crevices. Massive condors fly overhead.
My guide from Sanctuary Rock Gym leads the way. The attraction here is free climbing, and the challenge is more mental than physical. The equipment, belay and safeguards are in place for protection in case of a fall, but that doesn’t stop me from fearing a fall. Got vulnerabilities? Pick one. This exposes them all. Hanging on to the wall higher up than I’m comfortable being, I’m shaking all over like Elvis glued to a rock face. “Where do I grab onto?” “How do I move?” “What do I do?” I scream. From miles below—or twenty feet, depending on your perspective—the calm California-cool voice of my guide tells me to defy all of my instincts. “Don’t hang on.” He tells me. “Lean back.” “Push up from your feet, don’t muscle it.” He instructs.
It all sounds like insanity to me, but it is such a metaphor for life. In order to move forward, you have to let go. It’s about trust, focus, balance, and the enjoyment is in the problem solving; figuring out the next move; how to do it. The art is in actually figuring it out, followed by an unmatched exultant feeling of accomplishment. Once on top however, there’s that stark realization, “How the hell do I get down now?”
Ancient Greek for “anti-depressant”, Nepenthe Restaurant, is the most inspirational perch from which to view Big Sur. From the largest selection of local Santa Lucia Highlands wines, their house Pinot Noir is vibrantly ripe and plum-y, and pairs with an Ambrosia Burger of ground steak. These are the keys to sitting by the patio fire pit and looking out over the ocean in wonderment.
Monterey is a playground of adventure for a California road trip along the Central California coastline. So breathtaking, it must have been photo-shopped. We’re enchanted.
If you enjoyed our California Road Trip, check out our journey to a Nordik Oasis.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.