All Thrills, No Chills

Not quite roughing it on the central coast

Photo by Dandy GorzynskiMaybe you'd get a good feeling about the Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp the moment you spotted its regally rustic designer billboard perched amid the natural splendor of California's central coast. Perhaps you'd turn off Highway 1 and be immediately enticed by the drive toward the entrance, which winds strategically through landscape-lighted trees and over speed bumps. You might not be appalled by that swollen log cabin of a hotel on your right. You might not be embarrassed by that Trader Joe's-meets-Pottery Barn general store on your left. And all those white-tarp tent/cabins polka-dotting the grass and trees and rolling hills like a New Age cult-scape? Maybe they wouldn't give you the heebie-freakin'-jeebies. Yeah, you might totally dig everything about Costanoa right from the get-go.

But that would not give us a very good feeling about you.

Costanoa is the kind of place that should take some getting used to. Eventually, we did get used to it. But it's weird. After nearly two weeks back home, we still don't get an entirely good feeling about what that might say about us.

"Costanoa is a new concept," general manager Daniel Medellin gently points out in the preface to the 37-page, three-ring, hard-backed binder of a guest book—featuring options and prices and FAQs on airlines; churches; maid service; bike, kayak and horse rentals; nearby restaurants; and on-site spa services—that's placed in every lodge room and tent/cabin. "It's an adventure escape for people looking for creature comforts."

Right. We get that: all of the thrills, none of the chills. But, see, we didn't know what we were looking for when we dropped in to Costanoa, totally by chance and only because we were getting desperate. It was way past dark and there was no room at the inn—none of 'em not named Quality, Days or Ramada, anyway, and we didn't drive all the way to Santa Cruz to settle for accommodations we could have had in Costa Mesa—so we headed north, hoping to find something in Half Moon Bay. Halfway there, we saw the sign for Costanoa. Barely spotted it, actually, and considered two or three times before turning around to give the place a look. We'd never even heard of it.

"We've been here three years," said the woman at the front desk. She said it with a where-have-you-been arch of her eyebrows, without looking up from the computer she was tapping in search of a stray vacancy. We weren't offended. At this point—it was past 10, there was no moon, all the roadside joints were closed and the no-reservations spontaneity of our trip was closing in on stupidity—her arched eyebrows posed a pretty good question.

There are 148 accommodations at the Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp—40 hotel rooms, 12 wood cabins in two adjacent neighborhoods and 96 tent/cabins—not counting the places reserved for people who bring their own RVs and tents. It's a big spread.

"We have one availability," the front desk woman said, finally. "It's an outer-pine, canvas cabin, with a queen bed, heated mattress pad; it's close to two comfort stations—bathrooms, showers, sauna, fireplace, vending machines—and it's early enough to use the nearby outdoor hot tub, although it's lights-out at midnight and quiet time till 7 a.m."

We opened our mouths to ask—

"It's $105."

We took it.

The drive out to our canvas cabin—literally, a one-room wooden frame wrapped in water-repellent white canvas—was eerie. The night was moist and breezy, and our headlights caught glimpses and shadows of waving weeds and trees and mists, along with the spooky glow of those canvas cabins. After we parked, we didn't particularly want to go in.

But once we did—unlocking the simple screen door, flicking on the simple, shaded lights, walking on the simply-patterned linoleum, noticing the simple white towels in the simple metal baskets and the simple white bathrobes hanging on simple wall hooks, appreciating the simply drawn and colored prints of simple birds hanging on simple wooden studs, falling onto the simple queen-sized bed, simple down comforter and feeling, simply, as though we'd fallen into an IKEA catalog—we didn't want to ever come out.

Of course, we had to. These canvas cabins have no crappers.

But the comfort stations were personal-hygiene palaces with doors of thick, varnished wood, walls covered with polished sheet metal, countertops of smooth stone, fixtures of glistening chrome and clean skylights. Oh, and the concrete floors were heated.

We liked all of this, yet somehow we weren't sure that we should. Maybe we were oversensitive, coming from Orange County, but encountering all these amenities in the wilderness, accepting them as a camping experience, struck us as the kind of sinister toehold of development that ends up being trampled into an environmental degradation like Coto de Caza.

We worried even more when we learned about the name—Costanoa—which is a thrice-bastardized word for the 40 tribes of indigenous people who ran things around these oceanfront forests for hundreds of years. They called themselves "Ohlones" and so do their few remaining descendents who weren't wiped out by diseases brought in by Spanish explorers, who called them "Costeños," and English settlers, who called them "Costanoans."

Then more trivial—and more personal—dilemmas were aroused. The camping purist in us was offended by Costanoa's approach to roughing it, which essentially is to shave off all the rough edges. And the camping delusionist in us was exposed again by Costanoa's evidence that the concept of wilderness camping has become little more than an earth-toned urban vanity. As we've realized before, only to try to suppress it for the enjoyment of occasional backpacking trips, the only camping skills with any real significance anymore are those employed by the homeless.

Beyond the comfort of Costanoa, however, came the realization that its meadows and forests seemed to be in a lot better shape than in many of the traditional campgrounds and trails we'd visited over the years. Grasses were thick, rather than flattened or worn away. Flowers were blossoming, rather than picked. Since each canvas cabin was fixed in place—and its inhabitants limited—there was space and quiet between campsites. The ban on camp and cooking fires left the air clear and the ground clean. The preponderance of European tourists meant we didn't have to talk to anybody. The tricked-out general store meant we could order double lattes before hitting the road.

Oh, and the Costanoa Adventure Guide—a glossy, full-color magazine filled with hikes, bike routes, tours, scenic drives, romantic places and sample itineraries—that we stole from the nightstand . . . well, like we said, two weeks later, we still don't feel very good about what that might say about us.

Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp, (800) 738-7477; www.costanoa.com.
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