Nomad's Refuge

Kurt Simonson 
Check into secluded Treebones Resort, and enjoy the best of Big Sur.

As it twists along the central California coast, fabled Highway 1 carries far more convertibles than your average road. Given a choice, who'd want to shut out any of Big Sur's cinematic scenery with a hardtop? Still, even with their roofs retracted, few motorists notice the soft-tops clustered above them, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. They're yurts, the round tents long favored by nomads on the vast steppes of Mongolia. At Treebones Resort, they've proven equally well-suited to the grandeur of Big Sur.

Planted on platforms, the yurts feature such homey elements as wood doors and floors, lamps, heaters, skylights, and comfortable furniture. "It's like camping but better," declares a guest not accustomed to roughing it. "You come here after a day of hiking and it's as though someone pitched the tent for you. And you don't have to sleep on the ground."

The remarkable eco-resort was conceived and built by Corinne and John Handy, who bought the property two decades ago. "For years we came here as a family and camped," says Corinne. When the property was rezoned commercial, they realized others would enjoy the same experience: "People are looking for something different," John says. "This is a unique place to stay, hanging out on the edge of the continent."

In this still-wild spot, winter storms churn the sea and sometimes close roads. "We've had gusting 80-mile-an-hour winds," John says. "The yurts just shrug them off. They're inherently flexible and wind-resistant." All 16 yurts have hot-water sinks, with showers and toilets housed in separate, communal buildings. More than a way to curry favor with the public, the eco-friendly aspects are highly practical. Treebones is largely self-contained. A well supplies potable water. Electricity comes from quiet propane generators, and their exhaust heat warms the pool, hot tub, and bath floors.

A centrally located lodge contains the gift shop, reception area, and a dining room with a vaulted pine ceiling. "We wanted a community center where people could gather at the end of the day and share their adventures," John explains. At breakfast, guests fuel up on waffles, fruit, yogurt, and coffee. Dinner typically presents a choice of fish, chicken, or beef, all grilled over wood and served with vegetables.

After meals, a few guests happily retreat into their fabric cocoons, perhaps enjoying an in-room massage, occasionally emerging to soak in the hot tub or lounge on Adirondack chairs placed outside each yurt. While the resort can arrange guided hikes and sea kayaking with local outfitters, most visitors venture out on their own to sample Big Sur's bracing beauty. On both sides of Highway 1, easy hikes lead to glorious beaches, waterfalls, and ancient redwoods.

Nearby, the arches of Willow Creek Bridge curve theatrically above a boulder-strewn beach. A mile or two north, a long stairway leads down to cliff-backed Sand Dollar Beach. The surf here gallops ashore like stampeding horses, white manes flying. Farther up the highway, a trail at Limekiln State Park leads to a pretty cascade pouring over a vertical garden of mosses.

The restaurants and attractions clustered in the northern half of Big Sur are easy enough to reach from Treebones, in the emptier southern end. But guests find plenty to do without going far from their domed homes. For lunch, they pack a picnic or grab a table on nearby Lucia Lodge's clifftop terrace, where the burgers are as impressive as the view.

At day's end, traffic along Highway 1 dies down. Within the yurt's soft walls, natural sounds―waves breaking, elephant seals barking―lull lucky visitors to sleep.

The yurts seem a far cry from opulent Hearst Castle, 25 miles to the south. But consider this: For years before he built his seaside Xanadu, William Randolph Hearst and his family camped on their land in nicely furnished, wood-floor tents. Hearst loved this majestic coast, and no doubt he would have appreciated the rustic ease of Treebones Resort.

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