Luxury camping doesn't have to be an oxymoron

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

"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.

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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."

Besides, adds Mr. Conley, who never learned to pitch a tent during his stint as an Eagle Scout, "with both parents working these days, people don't have time to prepare for a weekend camping trip. They might want to be outdoors, but they don't want to put so much energy into it anymore."

The outdoor-recreation industry just continues to explode, says Jerry Mallet, founder of the 10-year-old Adventure Travel Society. "In 1960, it was nonexistent. Since then, it's been growing every year, partly as a back-to-nature backlash against a high-tech, low-touch lifestyle.

"People are craving time to relax and reflect," he explains. Last year, industry sales reached the $230 billion mark with $100 billion for travel and the rest for equipment, says Mr. Mallet. And that's not just sales of mess kits and lanterns, but such over-the-top conveniences as espresso machines custom-designed for the trail.

Trips themselves have become cushier. With river trips now featuring filet mignon and lobster, "the greatest danger is no longer white-water rapids, but major weight gain," Mallet adds.

"Upscale camping isn't all that new a concept," he points out, mentioning African safaris and dude ranches as earlier examples. But luxury camping is growing in popularity - about 150 such places have opened in recent years.

Costanoa staffer Jeff Brown says a name has been coined for those who like to be outdoors but in luxurious surroundings. "I read about them the other day. They are called 'bobos,' which stands for bourgeois bohemians. At first I didn't like the term because it sounded like clowns, but I know exactly the type. They have bohemian-style environmental tendencies but also successful careers."

Successful careers indeed. In fact, half of Costanoa's customers live only a half-hour away in Silicon Valley. "Some of them come here every weekend," Conley says.

Some hard-core campers are skeptical of the new trend. "Not too many people can afford this," says Tom Shealey, editor of Backpacker Magazine. "Certainly not the average camper. These are wealthy tourists who aren't concerned with scrimping and saving."

Mr. Shealey's comment might best be illustrated by the long black limousine that was recently parked beside Costanoa's large, timberframe-style general store. Reading the paper for almost an hour while the meter ticks away, the driver reports that he's waiting for a customer to finish eating so he can whisk him off to the airport.

Perhaps, however, he's not waiting for an affluent dotcomer who's lingering over a smoked-salmon roll-up. Instead, it might be a guest who slowed down long enough to discover the peace and pace of nature, and is clinging to a few last moments.

Mr. Conley would like nothing better. "Aside from all the frills," he says, "discovering the pace of nature is really what we're all about."

*For more information, visit the Web site www.costanoa.com or call 800-738-7477 or (650) 879-1100.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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