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Hot Springs Heaven

My ritual road trip to a Northern California oasis of absolute tranquility

Photograph by Ann Prehn
Clothing is optional.

When I'm having my blood pressure taken and I need to put myself in a state of mind where I can be as calm and serene as possible, I visualize myself sitting in the pool at Harbin Hot Springs.

That's why I go there whenever I can.

I discovered Harbin about 20 years ago. I was driving up the coast of Northern California to Mendocino, and on the way back to San Francisco I picked up a hippie hitchhiker who was going there. It wasn't that far out of my way—about two and half hours north of the city—and I was in no great rush to get back. I've always been partial to hot springs anyway, so I said sure. I figured I'd stay for a soak and be on my way.

Two days later, I had to force myself to leave to catch my plane back home to New York.

I've tried to go back every time I go to California, which, fortunately, has been about once a year.

Harbin is my road-trip ritual, my reward, my sanctuary. It's the ultimate downtime, me-time, getaway refuge.

For some people, that means an indulgent luxury spa; for others, a formal meditation retreat. Harbin is like a combination of the two—sort of.

Extravagant, it ain't. Rooms in the old wooden lodges are spartan, with just a bed, an old dresser and some hangers on a rod to hang a few clothes. Bathrooms are shared. There are no TVs, no cellphone reception or Internet connection.

Meals are served in a common dining hall. The food is tasty, but the menu is very limited and mostly vegetarian. You wait in line, get a tray and look for an empty spot at one of the tables. No alcohol is served, or allowed anywhere.

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But if you want to relax—and I mean really, really relax—in a beautiful, peaceful setting with access to mind/body activities with an eastern-oriented spiritual bent, then Harbin is the place to be.

After driving through Napa Valley (not a bad way to start any trip), you come to Calistoga, a neat little town known for its commercial hot springs. If you want a traditional restaurant meal, this is your last chance. As you wind through the dark green mountains of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, just outside Calistoga, you begin to enter the world of Harbin.

On the other side of the mountains, there's a verdant meadow and the small town of Middletown—last chance for anything you need at a store.

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Harbin is on a two-lane country road nestled between small hills shaped like camel humps about 15 minutes from town. You sign in at the entrance gate, drop off your stuff—and there shouldn't be too much stuff—at your room, park the car in the lot below and walk back up, passing a sign for a hiking trail that says "The Spiritual Path."

Now you're really at Harbin.

Which means it's time for the hot springs.

They were considered sacred by Native Americans, and in the early 1900s, the springs were the center of a thriving resort catering to San Franciscans who wanted an escape from the city. But "taking the waters" became less fashionable after World War II, and the property fell into disrepair until it was rescued in 1972 by new-age spiritual seeker Ishvara and the nonprofit Heart Consciousness Church, who envisioned the springs and the surrounding 1,100 pristine acres of forest, hills and meadows as a "power spot" and refuge for healing and contemplation.

Indeed, as signs at the main pool make clear, silence is requested—and faithfully honored by bathers. Clothing is optional, and a sign very clearly warns that "no sexual activity" is allowed.

In all the years I've been going, I've only seen a few couples discreetly try to fool around and I've never seen any flirting. Since Harbin tends to get a word-of-mouth crowd and many repeat customers, it's obvious that nearly everyone understands it's not a pickup place. And if you didn't know it beforehand, you'd have to be an idiot not to get the message once you're there.

Nearly everyone is nude, but bathers are so relaxed and limp from the soporific warm water that sexual desire—much less making a move—is about the last thing on anyone's mind. I've experienced more sexual tension at an office Christmas party than I have in a hot springs filled with completely naked people.

To be sure, it's great to be able to look at a beautiful woman without any clothes right in front of you. Because of the setting, though, it's a purely aesthetic appreciation, like looking at a painting. Also, you're not just seeing attractive women or handsome men with great bodies, you're seeing the whole human spectrum—young and old, fat and thin, good-looking and not-so-good-looking, which helps puts things in perspective.

Soaking in the hot springs is a fantastically tranquil experience. Whatever's weighing on your mind or hurting your body is quickly forgotten. If you passed most of your stay at Harbin in the main pool, it would be time well spent.

But there are other options: a smaller, enclosed pool with flickering candles where the temperature is close to scalding, an ice-cold pool for a quick plunge, a sauna and steam bath, a hot springs pool for children (there aren't many) where quiet conversation is allowed and a nice big swimming pool.

Since chilling out is the main priority at Harbin, there are lots of sun decks to lie out on (which most people like to do without clothes). Massages and "body work" of all varieties are also popular, as is "watsu," a Harbin specialty and invention: Cradled in the arms of a guide, you gently float on your back buoyed by the mineral water in the main hot springs. It's like going to heaven for half an hour.

When you want to be active, there are loads of beautiful hiking trails, yoga classes and ecstatic dancing at night in a circular temple, which is also the site of meditation sessions and group chanting.

Video recordings of talks by spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Gangaji, as well as mainstream movies, are screened in a cozy theater with no chairs but lots of comfy pillows.

The outside world is kept at bay, but not sealed off. The San Francisco Chronicle is delivered to the café, and if you absolutely must check your email, there is one computer next to the library that has Internet access.

But Harbin Hot Springs is about a much, much deeper connection.

Tags: health