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Luxury camping doesn't have to be an oxymoron

By Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2000


Every month for the past 20 years, Dunbar and Annegret Ogden have left their comfortable home in Berkeley, Calif., to head into the wilderness.

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"It's so peaceful out in nature, away from phones and all the pressures of daily life," says Mrs. Odgen, an author and a reference librarian at the University of California at Berkeley.

Although they're enjoying the wilderness, the Ogdens aren't roughing it. And they didn't have to trek far to get away from it all. This time, they traveled a mere 55 miles down the California coast to Costanoa, an innovative luxury camp that opened last summer.

Accommodations at Costanoa range from rustic cabins with wooden sleeping platforms, to laminated canvas tents with queen-size beds and heated mattress pads, to fully furnished "tent bungalows" with porches, and a post-and-beam lodge with fireplaces, Bose stereos, and two high-speed phone lines in every room. With four state parks nearby as well as access to 30,000 acres of hiking trails and a wildlife preserve, Costanoa is a kind of idyllic base camp for the adventure traveler.

The $40 to $240 per-night fees charged here may be considered expensive by those used to ordinary camping. But for someone accustomed to paying for a hotel room at an upscale resort, the rates sound more reasonable.

The Ogdens, who are staying in one of the few RV hookups, have found that the idea of gathering kindling to cook supper has lost its appeal. And a brisk morning walk to the outhouse never did have much appeal for them.

Instead, mealtime at the upscale campground entails a short stroll to Costanoa's trendy gourmet general store and deli, where choices are vast and hardly the pup-on-a-stick variety. Tortellini with cilantro pesto, fruit smoothies, and dark-chocolate truffles are more like it.

As for that morning walk, at Costanoa, each cluster of lodgings has its own "comfort station" where not only flush toilets, but also hot showers, a sauna, and a courtyard with a fireplace await. If that's not enough "comfort" for one day, a full-service spa promises full-service pampering.

These Berkeley academics are typical of a growing number of American travelers who are no longer satisfied with sleeping on rocky ground and listening to the buzz of mosquitoes all night. Affluent, Patagonia-clad young families also fall into this category.

What these people share is a desire to escape from their fast-paced, overscheduled lives, but not in the form of a hedonistic, five-star resort that might be insulated from nature. Instead, they want to hike, bike, ride horseback, kayak, or simply study birds and wildflowers all day, and then luxuriate in a hot bath before dozing off between flannel sheets.

"The problem with nature in its rawest form is that it's not comfortable or convenient," says Chip Conley, the founder of Costanoa. "People love to camp, but many campgrounds are stuck in the '70s. Americans have developed a much more sophisticated palate and way of looking at things since then."