It took Larry and me about 24 hours to grasp why someone would pay $370* a night mid-week for this tiny cabin outside of Santa Barbara, California — considering it came with no view, no stove, no wifi, no TV, no ipod dock, no hair dryer. We now think we know. People stay at the El Capitan Canyon to slow down, enjoy some nature, let kids be kids, and can afford to pay a somewhat pretty penny to do so. (*high season)
I LOVED the experience, yet left wondering had we not bought this on a charity auction, did we think it was worth the retail price? We flip-flopped on our answer. The facility definitely gets a lot of positive publicity, but the prices (PER NIGHT: $155 for a tent up to $795 for a two bedroom cabin) made Frugal Us take pause.
When we bought a two-night stay on a recent charity auction, the brochure was compelling — earthy photos of “nature lodging on the California Coast.” There were glamping (aka Glamour Camping) tents in the brochure with down bedding and sunset lighting. We’ve stayed in upscale tent camps in several African countries, and they were awesome. What could we experience in our own back yard just north of Santa Barbara? Our package was for lodging, massages for two, plus a BBQ kit dinner.
Skimmed the brochure, pre-booked our massages, jumped in the car and showed up clueless. We had no clear idea what El Capitan Canyon was. Mostly our fault, but still, the materials did a good job of slightly overselling what’s here, without actually doing that themselves. The photos are accurate. The publicity quotes are true. None of their own words are spun to falsify what was here. I take full responsibility for thinking I saw somewhere that it was called “upscale.” None of their materials use that word.
It’s not on the beach (they refer to being on the “California Coast” which tripped us up, but the beach is just about a half mile away). And — this is hard to not come off as a snot — I wouldn’t call it glamorous/camping (aka upscale) if you measure that by Ritz Carlton or Regent or Hotel de Crillon or La Valencia standards. OK, I’m a snot. So what?
It IS nice. “Cozy.” “Relaxing” definitely. Charming. Quaint. Quiet, DEFINITELY quiet.
It’s camp with really good beds. There are probably 200 cabins and tents here. All along one LONG upward route through a canyon. Once you unpack your car, park it out of sight in the invisible parking lot. There’s a swimming pool. Beach cruiser bikes to borrow. The ocean is about a walk or easy bike ride. You can hike to a llama and goat farm. There’s a nifty little store on the premises with a deli, nice wine selection for such a small place (oh yeah, we’re in Santa Barbara), groceries, great coffee, sundries and good looking prepared foods. California cool souvenirs (not pinecone crap) like good shirts, skirts, hats, books, jewelry, some art.
There are yurts (they look like water tanks, right? They’re big round tents). And there are square, strong canvas tents on raised wooden floors. All have nice beds with down comforters. NOTE: Shared bathrooms are part of the tent experience, which means you walk a short distance to one of several bath houses with gender-separated toilets, sinks and showers. If I had kids, I’d DEFINITELY opt for the bath house. They can all shower simultaneously. I think kids need to be humbled sometimes. Same with us adults.
Then, there are several shapes and sizes of cedar cabins – if you need a private bath and kitchenette, opt for one of these. We had a sweet Canyon Loft cabin. Every tent and cabin had its own outdoor fire pit, and firewood is available to buy.
So, it was dawning on me as I watched kids run around outdoors. Parents can relax. Nobody was hanging on cell phones. The only ipads in sight were ours (books and solitaire). Grownups weren’t yammering at their offspring to look at this or that site. No constant stimulation. No ziplines, no helicopter rides, no video games. Not even any dogs (forbidden). There was no racket beyond the sounds of happy kids and goofy teens in the pool. Early morning, look outside and see deer grazing on the lawn. Drink coffee on the porch. Hear birds. Play checkers. Appreciate trees, of which there are hundreds – the giant oak kind, mostly.
Sound a little TOO lazy? The newsletter also announces concerts, outdoor movies, ropes course, fun run, stargazing, wine tasting and yoga, depending upon the day. If you are need of a “bar,” just buy a cold beer or bottle of local wine and hang around the market. Plenty of picnic tables — literally everywhere.
Sure, you can dine at the deli. Or maybe down the road in Santa Barbara. Or, crank up that fire pit for the BBQ kit! We ordered ours for our first dinner ($54), and it was delivered to our door — firewood (plus a “starter” little cube), matches, green salad and two dressings, baked beans, garlic bread and two chicken quarters, marinated. Plus a S’mores kit – chocolate, graham crackers, marshmallows and two long forks. The kit served four; enough left over for lunch again the second day… our kitchenette had a small fridge and microwave. The kits are also available as hot dog, hamburger, tri tip, salmon and vegetarian at rates from $70 to $54.
PS… MOST EXCELLENT MASSAGE BETWEEN L.A. AND CARMEL
THIS is the compelling reason to return, in my book. Ask for Tova. She may look tiny but OMG, she is a master at finding that knot in the shoulder and working it out of you. She’s strong, not a chatter, efficient, and intertwines a head massage that makes every muscle in your body turn to butter. $125 for 55 minutes – and the spa offers several other options. El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara, CA 93117, www.elcapitancanyon.com. There are some promotions for low season lodging prices. I can visualize this would be a quiet, lovely place in the winter. Just bring wellies if it rains.