AVILA BEACH, Calif. — Living in the rude metropolitan embrace of Los Angeles has its negative side effects, among which torture by physical stress strikes me as the most immediate. It's rather similar to the prolonged experience I had until not too long ago living in the urban vice-grips of Tokyo. One of the secrets to my survival and sanity in that inhumanely congested Asian capital was finding the time to get to a good hot springs resort frequently enough to salvage my body and soul from their knotted conditions. So it is that I have been on a quest for good California spas since reluctantly taking up residence in the City of Wired and Wigged-out Angels.
Reasonable weekend motoring distance is a requirement, which rules out the nirvana of Tassajara Hot Springs, 14 miles down a steep dirt road outside of Carmel. The allure of that Buddhist monastery cum Zen dude ranch is fantastic food, a great bathhouse and Spartan atmospherics.
But even remote Tassajara doesn't provide the ultimate in classic Japanese hot springs bathing: the outdoors rotemburo -literally the bath of the dew and heavens.
That's why I like Sycamore Mineral Springs resort, near Avila Beach on the road from San Luis Obispo, which offers a hybrid alternative, blending California traditions with the spiritual essence of the . The modern incarnation of this historic spa, which first opened in 1897, has 23 redwood tubs scattered in a hillside forest of live oak and sycamore trees.
The tubs are fed by two artesian wells spouting hot sulfur water, first discovered by wildcat oil men in the 1890s. In the late 1920s, the springs were popular with the Hollywood elite who stopped off on their way to elegant mooching at Hearst Castle, about an hour's drive to the north.
My wife and I serendipitously ran across the place two years ago. We were looking for a motel for the night and strayed off the U.S. 101 freeway toward Avila Beach. Recently we returned with our 3-month-old daughter to soak off the compounded tensions of urban life and parenthood.
It's a long drive from Los Angeles, but not really a challenging one. Traffic allowing, you can reach the Avila Beach turn-off in about 3 1/2 hours. The hillside baths are open all night, so there's no rush to get there if you're lucky enough to get a Friday night reservation, and an immediate soothing reward is waiting on arrival.
We recently took some vacation time and drove up at a leisurely pace on a sunny weekday, traveling the coastal route on California 1, stopping to feed and change Sonya Alexandra, our infant chore machine, and to pursue other distractions. In Summerland we detoured to watch-in wonderment-a practice match on the lush green lawns of the Santa Barbara Polo Club. Sonya scrutinized her first pony snout at close range, and didn't cry.