Before he commissioned the overblown confection that became Hearst Castle, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and his family would travel to that same spot on the Big Sur coast of California for a vacation in more modest lodgings -- a series of tents. The arrangements were rustic but stylish: striped fabric walls, wooden floors, writing desks, rugs and even separate tents for entertainment.
Hearst's setup, back when that corner of San Simeon was unassumingly known as Camp Hil, was a harbinger of the simple, elegant structures at the new Treebones Resort, about 33km up the rugged coast. Opened about a year, the 16 yurts perched along the ridge above Highway 1 embody the natural beauty and off-the-grid living that have long characterized Big Sur. Not much has changed in the physical landscape since the Hearsts "roughed it" -- California land trusts, conservation easements and local coastal programs have prevented rampant development.
Even today, you can spend a couple of hours winding along the treacherous, two-lane Highway 1, sandwiched between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the wild Pacific Coast, without anything impeding the view. Along with the Los Padres National Forest, a string of wilderness areas, state parks and reserves along the coast make for challenging hiking; in the winter, you can trek even the most popular trails and see nary a soul. It's an extraordinary piece of America that remains as Henry Miller described it in 1957 -- a meeting of extremes, "a region where one is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur and of eloquent silence."
Because of the very land-use restrictions that keep Big Sur beautiful, it's tough to find a place to stay in the area that fits in the category between campground and exclusive luxury resort. (A stay at the Post Ranch Inn will run upward of US$525 a night.)
It took 20 years for John and Corinne Handy to secure the permits and capital to build Treebones -- named for an old lumber mill at the site -- but the result is a comfortable yet unobtrusive way to enjoy the stunning seascape. The yurts, circular tentlike structures similar to those used by Central Asian nomads, are updated here with modern amenities, including polished pine floors, French doors, reading lamps, colorful quilts, pillow top mattresses and clear domed roofs for sunlight by day and stargazing by night.
The resort has its own well, and everything is powered by propane-fueled turbines; the heat produced in the process is used to warm water and some of the yurts. Several have gas fireplaces.
A main lodge, less than a minute's walk up a gravel trail from even the farthest yurt, has a great-room with couches, a fireplace and tables for dining (complimentary waffle breakfasts are included; barbecue dinners are extra). There's also an outdoor deck with a heated pool and a small hot tub.
The restrooms and showers are also at the lodge -- the yurts have no private bathrooms, though all have vanity sinks. It's a bit of a pain to navigate the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but in practice it's a good excuse to enjoy the brilliant star canopy above.
Winter is the time to appreciate the scenery in all its drama, when thousands of gray whales migrate past Cape St. Martin, the rocky point where Treebones is perched. During a recent visit to the resort, an oceanview yurt was just adjacent to a spot known as Whale Watch Ridge, complete with a little wooden bench for optimal viewing. And there were hundreds of blowholes spouting throughout the day.