West Coast Dreams | How to get naked in LA...and other stories.

Downtown LA, Unknown

Downtown LA, Unknown

Winter sun always makes me feel a summer-loving sense of melancholy. Back in 2003, I took a road trip from San Francisco to LA. It was early September, a place of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Ticking off our sightseeing list, it became apparent that the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood sign were going to elude us, hiding away, ghostly forms behind a draped, gossamer-light haze. Winding along the Pacific Highway, we did discover John Steinbeck country, fields of pumpkins...and Esalen. In my diary I wrote about our starlit dip. And in re-visiting our trip to the Golden State in my mind, I consider what else I shoulda, woulda, coulda seen.

How to Get Naked in LA...

“Swimsuits are optional”. These are the words that ring in our ears as we wind our way down the Pacific Highway at 12.30am, the last words spoken by a perky voice at the end of the ‘phone when we call to book ourselves a moonlight dip in the hot springs at Esalen. Neither of us speaks much on the drive, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the seemingly innocent mention in our trusty guide book of a place that was founded in 1962 as ‘an alternative educational centre’ hides a dark secret… 


Passing through the ‘Institute’ gates I push aside visions of 70s swingers, and am relieved when Sandy, a suntanned slip of a woman, greets us. I almost relax as she leads us through manicured gardens and handsome buildings that smack of communal sleeping arrangements, but as she turns to leave us at the pools, I falteringly pluck up courage and ask, “Just out of interest, do most people wear swimming costumes or not?” She smiles in a beatific, Californ-i-a kind of way – “Most people don’t” – and is gone.

Esalen Lodge, early 60s

Esalen Lodge, early 60s

Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins & Joan Baez, Big Sur 1968

Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins & Joan Baez, Big Sur 1968

Sleek limestone unisex changing rooms are subtly lit, and a brief “Do we, don’t we?” discussion results in our swimsuits being left to the side. After taking a deep breath, we step outside, and….are embraced by the clear night sky glittering with stars, and a soft, warm ocean breeze. I slip into a hot spring pool literally carved into the mountainside, and the silky sulphuric water wraps itself around my skin, while the crashing waves on the rocks below start to hypnotically work on my mind. Any embarrassment at our newfound nakedness soon starts to subside, by which time we’ve pretty much got the place to ourselves anyway and can relax, wallow, and chat – or not.

We leave much later feeling rather inspired by the wonder of nature, and a little smug at how brave we’ve been.

Next morning we wake at our motel and wonder, “Was Esalen just a dream??” But after breakfast of granola and coffee we head back down through Big Sur, and there are the trusty gates – it exists! Hippy dippy, happy clappy, navel-gazing or not, I love the place, and am considering signing up for a ‘Spiritual Massage: Lightbody Infusion’ workshop, or an ‘Undefended Love: When Close is Not Close Enough’ course.

In the meantime, $30 for two hours of absolute bliss seems like a steal to me. To the infinity pool and beyond – Esalen is the bomb.

Find out more about the Esalen Hot Springs.

And Other Stories...My Sunshine State Fantasy Five


Lunch at Chez Panisse. A Berkeley institution since 1971, the restaurant was opened  by Alice Waters and friends in homage to the neighbourhood bistro and laid-back home suppers. Organic, freshly picked vegetables and fruit meet fish fresh from the ocean. Get me a table.



Art at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles. As a regular at the Hauser & Wirth Somerset gallery, I'd decamp to this sprawling outpost in LAs burgeoning downtown art district. Happily. Expect the usual roster of exhibitions, workshops and community dining.



Shopping at General Store, Venice Beach. Nothing evokes more Instagram envy than this repository of ridiculously beautiful home goods, apparel, jewellery and skincare. Literally nothing. Gwynnie P must watch - and weep.



Exercising at Soul Cycle. 45 minutes of indoor cycling, sweating, experiencing, unlocking and muscle-sculpting. All by candlelight and to specially crafted playlists. Say - no - more.




Dinner at Joan Didion's. The ultimate fantasy. Having read A Year of Magical Thinking and watched the Netflix documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, I can only imagine how it must have felt to receive an invitation to one of those legendary Malibu parties.



TravelDebra DrewComment