“Simple luxury”: it sounds like a contradiction in terms. And yet, luxury comes in myriad forms, each wholly interpreted by the individual. For some perhaps it’s an exceptionally soft bed; a gastronomic feast; or merely the perfect day spent with the family. On my own travels simple luxuries seem to appear around every corner; an unexpectedly stirring weekday matinee in London; watching street performers at Washington Square Park in Manhattan; sitting on the bow of a friend’s boat at sunset in Charleston Harbor.
And so, when I need a bit of simple luxury from my home in Monterey, California, there’s one place that always springs to mind: the hot springs of Tassajara. Its remote location deep in the Santa Lucia Mountains two hours southeast of Carmel imbues it with a mystical aura fitting of the Zen Buddhist institution. The winding, pitted, and difficult to navigate 14-mile dirt road leading to the center is itself a small piece of luxury—the deeper into the hills I climb and descend, the more the realities of the modern world slip from my mind.
The history of Tassajara goes back some thousand years, when the native Esselen people made pilgrimages to the healing hot springs, prized for their restorative properties. By the turn of the 20th Century, with a resort at the site on the planning board, visitors from far and wide came to “take the waters”. But it was in 1966, when Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Buddhist priest who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, first laid eyes on the site that Tassajara evolved into its present incarnation. Now, hundreds of practicing students make the harrowing journey to live traditional monastic lives from September to April, studying, meditating, and working to maintain the property.
Happily, for those of us unversed in Zen Buddhist ideology, come April Tassajara opens its doors for the guest season. Comfortable but rustic accommodations—both private cabins and shared dorm-style housing—allow for multi-day visits, but for me a day trip is all I need to find a little peace and solace. And whereas activities abound here—there are yoga and meditation classes, nature hikes, seminars, and lectures—I often have only one thing on my mind: the waters of the hot baths and springs.
Taking advantage of Tassajara’s natural attributes, the Zen Center maintains a wonderland of watery delights, from Japanese-style bathhouse complete with hot plunges to steam rooms, showers, and glorious sun decks. Little is heard here, as an enveloping quiet and nothing more than hushed conversations are the respected norm. Soaking for a few hours, followed by a quick steam, cold shower, and some unhurried laps in the pool is truly a restorative experience. Deadlines and schedules are washed away by the legendary waters, time slows down a bit, and more often than not the only sounds are those of the wind gently caressing the giant trees and rocky cliffs of Los Padres National Forest.
The drive back to Monterey takes on a decidedly unrushed sense, and for days after a visit to Tassajara I find myself smiling a little easier, the stresses of daily life seeming, well, not so stressful. I found, once again, my piece of simple luxury.
Peter Rerig is a Senior Writer for Vacations.com.