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RETREATING: Tassajara opens for guests April-September.

Margo Moritz

RETREATING: Tassajara opens for guests April-September.


The Zen of Tassajara

Finding a Meditative Eden in the Ventana Wilderness


Thursday, May 30, 2013

In a remote valley deep within the Ventana Wilderness section of Los Padres National Forest lies a tiny Eden known as the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Owned and operated since 1967 by the San Francisco Zen Center, this pristine spiritual retreat nestles beneath towering mountain peaks and dense sycamores, alders, and pines along the banks of burbling Tassajara Creek. Each year, it opens its doors to guests from around the world, beginning in late April through mid-September.

Whether you’re a serious meditation practitioner or just in need of a stress-healing getaway, Tassajara provides enough variety amidst tranquil beauty to soothe, comfort, and renew. The absence of cell-phone reception and wi-fi is an added blessing. The resort offers one pay phone, and if you must, you can recharge your electronic gadgets for $10/hour.

Renowned for its vegetarian cuisine, the Tassajara guest program includes a major kitchen operation to provide exquisite fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Tassajara Bread Book, published by Shambhala Publications in 1970 and revised in 1986 and 1995, is often credited as a major catalyst for the popularity of artisanal baking in the United States. Guests often depart with the Tassajara Recipe Book, filled with healthy-yet-decadent recipes such as pad thai, enchilada casserole, and chocolate pudding with whipped cream.

Guests can also prepare a gourmet bag lunch in the morning if they plan to hike the Horse Pasture Trail, a 3– to 4-hour loop through 65 acres of meadow and stream.

Originally occupied by the Esselen Indians for a thousand years or more, Tassajara became a healing destination for white visitors at the turn of the century when its slightly sulphurous hot springs were discovered by a government geologist. In 1904 a hotel was built along the riverbank; by 1909 it easily accommodated 75 guests. Now Tassajarans can bathe in gender-separated indoor and outdoor pools entered through a hand-crafted Japanese bathhouse. After 10:30 p.m., women are allowed to bathe on the men’s side.

Accommodations range from pricey cottages to bunk-style bedding. Some of the older lodgings still stand, with balconies fronting the creek. When you enter these most desirable rooms of pine or stone that sleep three or four, you find furnishings of a style I can only call “frontier mixed with Jane Austen.” You feel immediately transported to the 1880s, especially since kerosene lamps provide the only lighting. In bed, I read Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady on my Kindle with lamps lit on either side of the bed and felt a charm and relaxation unique in my experience.

Guests are invited to practice Zen meditation in the impressively elegant Zendo. Sessions begin at 5:45 in the morning and are announced by a soft beating of drums and a giant gong. Feel free to sleep in, but I recommend attending at least one session during the day for the picturesque formal ceremony practiced by monks and students. Evening dharma talks are also offered at the Zendo, while lectures on Tassajara itself are offered in the retreat’s office.

In addition to meditation, hot baths, hiking, and eating, Tassajara offers a 25-yard lap pool with chaises, so be sure to bring your suit. And a recently built yoga room is spacious and light-filled, perfect for private practice and classes.

With all that, a summer visit becomes more meaningful if you choose to participate in one of the many three-day weekend retreats designed around themes of Yoga, Qi, and Healing Awareness; Wilderness, Gardening, and Culinary Arts; Buddhism, Koans, Interfaith, and Compassion; Relationships, Visioning, Livelihood, and Work; or Visual Arts, Writing, and Improvisation. The season kicked off with “Finding Balance in a Difficult Profession: A Retreat for Lawyers.” No one can say that Tassajara lacks a sense of humor.

4·1·1

Tassajara is situated two hours south of Carmel, off the Carmel Valley Road. I recommend spending the night in Carmel Valley at a tranquil inn such as Los Laureles Lodge. This comfortable and reasonably priced older property charms with shade trees, white picket fences, and a restaurant. The next morning, it’s just a 20-minute drive to Jamesburg, from which a 4x4 vehicle departs daily at 10 a.m., mounting a rough dirt road to 5,000 feet before plummeting in slow motion to the valley floor. The trip takes about 50 minutes.

Weekend accommodations range in price from $407 per night for two in a creek-side cabin to dorm-style housing for single retreat participants at $132 per night. Call (888) 743-9362 or visit sfzc.org/tassajara.

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