Saturday, July 5, 2008

What's in your back yard?

After my weekend vacation at Esalen, I was emboldened to try a weekend in Las Vegas for my next relaxation experience. This time I invited some friends to go along. Most of them are students so it was like a flashback to an earlier eon for me. No one even thought of catching a morning flight. They spent weeks combing the internet for value tickets. There was much sharing of rooms and sleeping on floors. Everyone got excited about eating at buffets. It was very cute. They were all very earnest and spent the night before the flight studying for Las Vegas by playing poker.

I had received an invite to Girls Night (different group of friends) some time back. Since the flight was in the afternoon, I could party with the girls the night before. Oh my! And I thought I mixed a strong drink! It was a merry guy-free evening spent discussing the merits of Sex and the City, the state of the economy, the hotels and shops in Las Vegas and shoes. Yes, Carrie Bradshaw has hit the nail on the head. Shoes are a staple item in a woman's life. I mourned my various foot ailments, from baby bunions to Morton's neuroma to plantar fasciitis which confines me to sensible shoes probably for the rest of my life.

We munched on delicious food, some homemade, some take-out (yes! chinese), all good for your diet, which beneficial effect, we promptly negated by washing it down with what tasted like 100 proof alcohol. Possibly higher. I'm glad a cop didn't walk by with a breathalyzer. I doubt the fumes in the room could have passed let alone me. I received awesome advice about what to do in Las Vegas, which hotels to check out, the gambling and, oh baby!, the shopping!

After hanging out for as long as we could all stand to do so to let the alcohol dissipate, I headed on home. I think it was about 2 AM. I'm a bit fuzzy about that. Maybe the alcohol dissipation wasn't as complete as I'd hoped. I reached home and stared at my empty suitcase. Time to pack! Fancy clothes for partying, swimsuits for frolicking, comfy clothes for flying around on planes. Don't forget the shoes. And the underwear...

I managed to toss all the necessaries into the suitcase and hit the sack at 3 AM. Time to get up bright and early at 7:00 AM. I needed to meet some friends and get to the airport in time! Since we were all a bunch of $$-saving students or, in my case, a tree-hugging, greenhouse gas conserving, why-pay-$12-for-gas-plus-$10-a-day=$30-for-parking-when-you-can-pay-$3.00-for-mass-transit liberal, we took the train to the airport. Unfortunately, this does mean, it takes twice as long to get to the airport. Mumble-mumble. Could have slept to 8 AM.

Getting to the airport went off without a hitch. We arrived promptly with plenty of time for lunch. Yum. Lots of acid in the coffee to cut through the grease. These guys sure know how to pair a drink with food.

All was well until we got to the gate. My cell phone was going nuts. Beep. The flight is delayed 5 minutes. Beep. Make that 6 minutes. Beep, beep, no 7 minutes. beep, beep, beep, how about 5 minutes, aggh, no, 15 mins. The worst part was without an internet connection, I couldn't figure out how to turn off the notification system. The group wasn't all booked on the same flight, so we had time to call each other and check up on our flights. In the end, all our flights were pretty much synchronized and we ended up in Las Vegas within 15 minutes instead of 1 hour apart.

We hopped a shuttle to the hotel, the new Hilton Grand Resorts on the Strip. Yes, this was a time-share deal, but that is a different story. It wasn't too long to the Hilton and we checked in and checked out the rooms. It was a 2-bedroom suite with 2 baths and a full kitchen with granite counter-tops, appliances, plus a few niceties like a washer & dryer, TVs hooked up to, well, something in every room. This place was nicer than my place by a mile. Except for the view. I gotta admit, I've got a grand view of the parking lot at my place but staring at a construction site is dismal. Plus, I usually think of the Hilton as reasonably restrained in decor but the Hilton logo or statuary or whatever that monstrosity was in Las Vegas was pretty tacky even by Las Vegas standards. It's time they renovated that casino. A short tour of the rest of the resort (not the hotel or casino) left us with a long list of things to try out the next day.

Since we were all wiped out by a long night's partying, we prepared ourselves for more partying by refreshing ourselves by using the luxurious baths and getting dressed up for a meal at a nice restaurant. The Strip in Las Vegas is marvelously simple, it's pretty much one long street and it's hard to get lost. Even with the 4 foot tall Margaritas for $20. I gotta admit my liver felt, um, satiated after the night before and I decided to drink diet Coke. It was clearly going to be a long night. We taxied down the Strip to the Venetian where I got my first impression of ... Venice??? The ceiling was painted and was supposed to look like the sky. There was a pool with fake thunder and rain every half hour. There were canals and gondolas with lovers. No one sang. Thank goodness. Well..., OK. We sang. But that was later. Much later.

It was quite a wait to get into the restaurant and well past 8 PM when we got around to the food. I was starting to fade but revived myself with more diet Coke. And many trips to the Ladies. After dinner, we headed off to the local shops.

I gotta admit, I wasn't too excited by the shops surrounding the canals and gondolas. I grew up in New York and with Fifth Ave. Window shopping is a blood sport there. And no, I usually don't buy the stuff. Maybe that's why I'm blase. But it was refreshing to accompany everyone else and listen to them oo... and ah... over some exotic merchandise. But sadly, the store with the Manolo Blahnik's was closed for the evening.

After strolling through the gauntlet of shops at the Venetian, we headed off to see the garden at the Bellagio. Holy smoke. Every plant groomed to within an inch of it's life. Fountains choreographed to music inside and out. Funky...ahh...artwork???!!! placed amongst the vegetation. Alright! A train set! Gnomes! Colored lights! Replicas of endangered birds. So rare that none of us had a clue about the species...

But the night called out to us and we had plenty to see. We went outside since it had cooled down to view the bright lights of the Strip.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Big Sur: Up close and personal

I'm not very good at taking vacations. The fine art of happily kicking back and doing nothing eludes me. However, being a classic ABC, I decide that I can fix this by taking a class. Luckily, I live in Silicon Valley where everything is taken very seriously including having fun. Classes on how to have fun abound and it's just a question of what, where and how much you'd like to pay to focus on relaxing.

Deciding that work is taking over my life, I planned out all my relaxation in carefully spaced intervals for the next six months. First, I'd start with a meditation class at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Luckily, I knew the instructor and was sure it'd be a great class. I wasn't so sure about Esalen. I'd heard some odd things about the place. After downloading the course catalog, the selection of classes and workshops only reinforced that impression. After careful perusal, I decided I'd signed up for one of the less "out there" classes offered by the Institute.

Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to check my calendar for other jolly good fun in the Bay Area and booked my weekend at Big Sur on the same weekend as the Bay to Breakers run in San Francisco. I was quite disappointed when I realized I'd be missing out on the dozens of Elvis', rolling kegs of booze, runners dressed as salmon (don't forget the lemon wedge) swimming upstream and, of course, the nude people all parading through the city.

Grimly determined to enjoy myself, I packed the fun vacation essentials, sunscreen, swimsuit, digital camera, cell phone and bluetooth headset.... but forced myself to leave the laptop at home.

It was one of the hottest days I'd ever experienced in Mountain View, 99 degrees when I left at about 2 PM in the afternoon. It got hotter as I drove off south towards San Jose, past Gilroy...104 degrees. I decided I was rather glad my car came with air conditioning after all. After I turned towards Monterey, it did start to cool down and I found myself shivering when the temperature dropped below 85 degrees.

Highway One, especially on the stretch between Monterey and the Esalen Institute hugs the cliffs where the land meets the ocean. It's memorable. I recalled advice I'd received from a friend almost 30 years ago, "If you ever get a chance to visit California, be sure to drive along Hwy 1, it's one of the most beautiful drives you'll ever see". I dutifully stopped at every vista point to snap some scenic shots. I promptly ran out of memory before I got to Esalen and realized that I couldn't save my photos without my laptop, unless I purchased a new chip. Needless to say, I hadn't a clue where the nearest Fry's was located, let alone how to get there, without my laptop. Kicking myself for not buying an iPhone, I drove on. But I kept stopping at some of the vista points to breathe the air and look at the ocean. Whether I needed to or not.

I arrived at Esalen and was promptly and courteously greeted at the gate with the announcement that dinner would be served shortly and my cell phone wouldn't be working by now. Cheered by this, I checked in at the front office where there was a wide selection of books, spa treatments, Institute tchotchkes, and the massage signup. There I was given directions to my room, my workshop location, the dining hall, the orientation session and the nude hot tubs which were fed by the hot springs...showers before and especially after soaking highly encouraged due to the sulfur content...




back up there.

nude hot springs???!!!


Were some of these tubs gender specific???


It's a free for all.



Nevermind, I'll cross that bridge when I get to it...

First settle in, then dinner.

As I walk across the institute grounds I realize there aren't any, ummm..., trail lights. As usual, the city girl in me has forgotten her flashlight in the glove compartment (Of course, I have a flashlight in the glove compartment, I'm not that citified).

I slowly approach the "Big House" where I'm housed. There doesn't seem to be a soul around, just a bunch of shoes by the door. I leave mine there as well and wander around where I think I'm supposed to be sleeping. It's not entirely clear except there is a towel in the room. And a lovely sprig of, umm..., some pretty plant.

As I unpack, I suddenly realize I don't have any toothpaste. Oh great, all my electronics are dead, there doesn't seem to be a store in sight and the walk back to the front office... nevermind, I have my choice of brushing with soap, shampoo, bath gel, foaming facial cleanser,... and I can safely report back..., there is a reason why washing your mouth out with soap is a punishment. Yech, mouthwash tastes good after that.

As I leave the Big House, there still doesn't seem to be anyone around. Walking slowly back to the dining hall, I'm fully aware that I'm in for one memorable weekend unless I find some toothpaste. At the dining hall, I find myself in what seems like a rustic college dining hall. Long tables, all you can eat buffet lines. I wander up to the one non-vegetarian option (lamb) among the 30 or so selections. It's delicious but not nearly as delicious as the mystery veggies. Yup, that was the name of the dish. Mystery veggies. Wish I had the recipe. Munching my lamb and assorted mystery veggie dishes, I float into a food fugue. Yum. This place could survive as just a restaurant. A high end restaurant. Not sure they should name their best dish, mystery veggies but what do I know about marketing? I wander out to the patio to eat dinner and watch the sunset over the Pacific ocean. I kinda wish I could take a picture but decide thinking about my family isn't sufficiently "vacation-y". Besides, you had to be there. After eating, I wandered around looking for the cash register to pay but then realize there isn't one. Apparently, all meals are included when you sign up to stay here.

Holy smoke.

Suddenly, the cost of staying here drops by close to one-third.

By golly, I think I'll have another glass of that honey-ginko-mint tea to celebrate.

Drat. I'm way too full to try any of the desserts.

Onwards to the orientation....

If it's your first time at Esalen, you MUST attend the orientation. Yes, you must. Just in case you aren't aware of the nudity at the hot springs issue. They also give some good history of the place and, err..., excellent details about their meal times, community, free classes, and environmentally friendly towel policies. But mostly, it's about the nudity.

After the orientation, which left me positively pixelated, we had our first class session. As usual, our instructor led a beautiful session. Unlike my last class experience where we meditated to the drone of power tools, the environment was incredible. The room had an enormous bay window overlooking a cliff next to the ocean. We meditated to the sound of the waves on the rocks below. It was immediately peaceful and soothing.

After the meditation, we spent some time discussing the experience and the reasons to be grateful. The one that sticks in my mind was the weather. How mundane. But it was about 75 at Big Sur and very clear. Meanwhile, in Watsonville, not so far away, it was 107. It was then I discover that I, who had signed up for sleeping bag accommodations (usually about 8 to a room) was all alone. Basically, except for the lack of a bed, I had the best room in the house.

Feel the gratitude!

And I did... since I stayed awake til about 4 AM. A little too much coffee...

I had the whole weekend planned by now and execution went beautifully. First thing, hot tubbing in the morning. After you brush your teeth in the morning with soap, facing down (?) nude people is a piece of cake. So off I tromphed to the hot tubs and a gloriously sunny clear day. It was well worth the decision. The showers at the hot tubs have some of the most exquisite views I've ever seen. Imagine warm breezes as you shower with hot sunshine and a view of the Pacific where there would be the fourth wall of the shower....Just close your eyes and keep them closed as you shower. Peek carefully only in the direction of the ocean. You'll be fine.

Now, I know you have burning questions about hot tubbing with a bunch of nude people. Just how bad is this? Well, I gotta admit, it was the beautiful people who drove me nuts. They know they have nothing to regret if they flaunt it and flaunt it they do. Grr.... Everyone else was most considerate with their towel usage. It was almost as if there was contest to see who could fling their towel toward the rack whilst sliding in the tub with the least exposure.

After a fine tub session, it was off to breakfast. I must admit I was more interested in my food and the view than my fellow classmates, so off I went to an isolated corner where I mediated intensely on breakfast. I heartily recommend the bread at Esalen. Forget your diet. Eat at least two slices. With butter. Later, I found out Esalen has five (yes, count'em 5) chefs trained by the Culinary Institute of America (the good CIA).

After breakfast, I was ready to deal with a full day of sitting meditation, walking, enjoying the sights, hot tubbing, eating, sitting, walking, eating, massages, hot tubbing. It was quite a continuous round of that the whole weekend interrupted only by shopping for cool meditation books. My goodness, I felt wiped out. Ermm, OK, maybe that had something to do with getting only 3 hours of sleep the first night.

For those of you who think that meditation requires sitting for hours on end while your mind is in some other plane of existence... You're thinking of some other school of meditation. I'm rather fond of the mindfulness-based school of meditation where you pay closer attention to your immediate environment while trying to keep your thoughts and judgment quiet. Just relax and soak it in. I totally recommend practicing this sort of meditation at Esalen. The institute works hard to attain self-sufficiency: they raise their own organic crops and livestock, water is supplied by local sources, waste is composted or otherwise treated so it can be returned, pollutant-free to it's source. But the community manages to do this with grace. Lettuces and roses grow side by side. Succulents grow in unexpected nooks, lovingly arranged in spirals. Goats...well, goats are goats. You keep them out of trouble as best you can.

By the end of the weekend, I felt calm in mind and body. It's been a long time since I felt both at once and usually it takes me about 4-10 weeks of time off to get there. What can I say? Any weekend that gets you that relaxed in 3 days & 2 nights with food included for only $370 is priceless. Why the last time I experienced something like that was my scuba certification class in Malaysia. That was little less expensive though.

Airfare to south east asia not included.