By: Becca Bergman and J. Gabriel Boylan
Luxurious digs in the woods are nothing new, but lately tricked-out yurts and deluxe canvas tents have popped up all over North America and Western Europe. Some take it over-the-top (fireside butler, anyone?) while others go relatively bare-bones. All emphasize getting close to nature – just not too close for comfort. We've rounded up 10 one-of-a-kind camping trips that redefine roughing it.
Cataract Canyon River Rafting, Utah
Tear through some of the country's most challenging Class III and IV rapids at the point where the Colorado and Green rivers collide. Then climb ashore for wine and hors d'oeuvres amid the stunning wilds of Canyonlands National Park (www.nps.gov/cany). Such is the agenda on Abercrombie & Kent's (www.abercombiekent.com) six-day Cataract Canyon rafting trip in Utah, which starts in Moab and ends on Lake Powell. The guides take care of every detail, from setting up tents large enough to stand in (and the cots inside) to serving dinner on linen-covered tables. They'll even rig up a portable shower out of paddles and water warmed by the sun. During the float, which includes plenty of placid water, rafters pass red cliffs soaring up 2,000 feet from the riverbanks. On shore, the guides lead hikes to petrified forests, pueblo ruins, and ancient petroglyphs.The camping trip's grand finale is an exhilarating return flight in a little plane traversing the Canyonlands to Moab.
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, Vancouver
Set within a protected biosphere on Vancouver’s remote west coast, Clayoquot (www.wildretreat.com) is reached via chartered seaplane. Few places can match its combination of isolation and comfort. A Sherman’s Travel Smart Luxury Award winner, the resort consists of 20 canvas tents with wood floors covered in Oriental rugs and beds dressed in down duvets. Off-site generators provide hot running water, electricity, and even Wi-Fi for truly connected camping trips. Three spa tents and a yoga studio overlook the Bedwell River estuary and its resident wildlife. Dinner is a four-course gourmet affair (wild Pacific halibut, local Dungeness crab) served on heirloom china and silver. This can be followed by a soak in a wood-fired hot tub under the stars. Guides lead horseback rides through old-growth forests and show guests the best spots for catching king salmon, cutthroat trout, and steelhead. Perhaps most impressive is the proximity to wildlife: Sightings of black bears, whales, and bald eagles are all but guaranteed.
Costanoa Lodge and Camp, California
This California campground borders no fewer than four state parks – Año Nuevo, Big Basin, Butano, and Gazos Creek State Beach (www.parks.ca.gov) – totaling some 30,000 acres. No wonder Costanoa’s (www.costanoa.com) staff focuses on helping guests make the most of the surrounding wilderness – to see the elephant seals at Año Nuevo’s rookeries (also harboring otters, whales, deer, foxes, bobcats, and more), wander Butano and Big Basin’s redwood stands, climb the lighthouse at Pigeon Point, or explore tide pools and dunes. Set on several scenic wooded hills behind steep bluffs in Pescadero, the resort is halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, making it convenient for a town-and-country getaway. The camp is quite large, but certain areas can seem a bit crowded. Book camping trips in the Cypress section to secure a double tent with a four-poster queen bed and the most privacy. The staff at the camp’s Cascade Bar and Grille prides itself on serving locally grown produce, regional wines, and seafood.
El Capitan Canyon, California
With Santa Barbara, California only 20 miles away, El Capitan Canyon’s (www.elcapitancanyon.com) 300 wooded acres offer a cushy spot for camping trips that are only slightly removed from civilization. Located adjacent to El Capitán State Beach (www.parks.ca.gov), the camp makes a terrific launching point for outdoor activities like ocean kayaking, horseback riding, and hiking the surrounding hills. The 26 spacious (12 feet by 14 feet) canvas safari tents come with a whole range of extras, from linens and towels to a small heater for chilly nights. The grounds also encompass 108 rustic cedar cabins, a small (heated) swimming pool, and playground areas. The site is popular with families, so those seeking seclusion should request a remote creekside location and consider weekday visits. The Canyon Market and Deli serves meals all day, but eager campground cooks will find an outdoor fire pit at each site. Barbecue kits – with food, beverages, firewood, plates, utensils, and s’mores – run $45 and up.
Free Spirit Spheres, Vancouver Island
Imagine outfitting a kid’s treehouse with grown-up practicalities and infusing it with New Age personality. The result is Tom Chudleigh’s singular vision near Qualicum Bay on Vancouver Island: two wooden orbs named Eve and Eryn. The structures at the Free Spirit Spheres (www.freespiritspheres.com) float some 10 to 25 feet off the ground, rigged to trees by thick cables. Guests ascend spiral stairs and a short suspension bridge to enter. Eve is a petite, rather spartan affair of cedar, best suited to a solo traveler, while Eryn, at 10.5 feet in diameter, built of Sitka spruce and almost twice as large, fits a double bed, a small sleeping loft, a sitting area, a large skylight, and a pint-size kitchen. Both spheres are insulated and have windows, power outlets, and electric heaters. At the base of each sits a composting outhouse; a washhouse with showers is nearby. Don’t expect lavish accoutrements; the luxury during this camping trip comes in simply swaying to sleep in a rain forest.
Hoopoe Yurt Hotel, Spain
In the bright, brilliant Andalusian countryside of southern Spain lies the Hoopoe Yurt Hotel (www.yurthotel.com), a tranquil oasis whose stillness is broken only by the distant clang of sheep and goat bells. The hotel consists of just five yurts – circular, weatherproof structures with wooden floors and lattice framework – each set in its own meadow. Yurts originated in Central Asia and the decor of each (including Mongolian and Afghani themes) pays tribute. All are airy, light, and welcoming, with hammocks draped from giant cork trees nearby for outdoor lounging. Guests gather around a natural swimming pool by day and under a lantern-lit pergola at night for hot tapas or a three-course dinner. Chefs cull ingredients for meals from the kitchen garden and local farms. In keeping with a low-impact lifestyle, solar power fuels the entire operation, including the hot showers in private bathrooms and the electrical sockets and overhead lights in the yurts. Close by, guests can find horseback riding, ancient caves with Paleolithic paintings, and colorful villages. Relaxation is the central theme on these camping trips, and bird-watching (for the camp’s namesake, among others) is the sport of choice.
Lakedale Resort, Washington
The camping trip survival kits offered by Lakedale Resort (www.lakedale.com) at Three Lakes, in Washington, have little to do with emergencies: The Happy Hour kit includes folding glasses, a wine opener, a bottle of Happy Camper wine, and a six-pack of beer. Rekindle comes with firewood, fixings for gourmet s’mores, sparkling wine, and collapsible flutes. Guests may enjoy such rations within Lakedale’s newest lodgings: canvas cabins atop wooden platforms, bearing queen-size beds and a “front porch” with Adirondack chairs. Though equipped with lanterns and bath linens, the cabins lack electricity or running water; guests rely on communal bathhouse showers and toilets. The resort lies adjacent to three springwater lakes on San Juan Island, the most populous isle of Washington’s San Juan archipelago. Unlike the rest of the Northwest, San Juan is blessed with many sunny days, making sea kayaking and whale-watching for orcas all the more blissful.
Mille Etoiles, France
Among the French, the Ardèche River valley is a favorite region for camping trips. The river snakes through gorges, while along its banks the oak forests are dotted with farm villages. Mille Etoiles (www.canvaschic.com/mille_etoiles) – one of just two camps in France's Ardèche Gorge nature reserve – features 12 handcrafted oak and ash yurts decorated with Mongolian textiles and French antiques. Owner Ruth Lawson and her partner Lodewijk drew inspiration for Mille Etoiles from luxe African campsites, yet tailored their project to the enchanting Ardèche region. Travelers have a plethora of options for activities, such as taking a turn on the river (Vallon Pont d’Arc has several kayak and canoe rental companies); visiting the iconic Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge; experiencing cave paintings at Chauvet; and touring medieval villages like Labastide de Virac. In Barjac, home to a marvelous ruined château and a stellar farmers’ market, campers can pick up a little foie gras and Ardèche wine to enjoy back at the yurt. Three yurts are situated away from the others, ideal for couples or anyone seeking solitude. Campers who prefer to pack their own gear can set up in "The Village," a 2010 addition with spots for 10 tents. The site has no electricity, so after dark the only light is by lantern – and of course, thousands of stars.
The Resort at Paws Up, Montana
The Blackfoot River in Montana once served as a vital thoroughfare for Native American tribes. It later brought explorers (notably Meriwether Lewis), miners, loggers, and homesteaders to the surrounding valley and Garnet Range. Those settlers are gone, and the pine forests have risen again, but the river still draws the intrepid. Now they come for epic horseback treks and stellar fly-fishing (this region provided the inspiration for A River Runs Through It) along with luxurious accommodations on camping trips. Paws Up (www.pawsup.com) offers secluded Big Timber cabins and even a historic farmhouse. The best option: the 270-square-foot tents. These come with a full range of features and services, from custom-made beds to private butlers who can whip up tent-side meals. After a full day of horseback riding or fly-fishing, visitors can unwind in a hot tub, indulge in a spa treatment, and savor a simple but tasty dinner, such as Rocky Mountain trout sautéed with fresh herbs. Then they get to snuggle between 300-thread-count linen sheets. Mr. Lewis never had it so good.
Nearly every large campsite in California's legendary Big Sur area sports at least one yurt, usually a vestige of its hippie days and showing its age. Treebones (www.treebonesresort.com), however, keeps its yurts stylish, comfortable, and up-to-date. They sleep two to four guests and are furnished with queen beds, chairs or sofas, and soft quilts and linens. French doors open onto redwood decks, most overlooking the ocean, for truly deluxe camping trips. If sleeping in a classed-up yurt seems too tame, opt for a stay in the “human nest,” a jaw-dropping, thatched, open-air structure created by local artist Jayson Fann that fits two. Dinners in the main lodge incorporate fruits and vegetables grown on-site. Treebones even offers a Work & Stay program for those wishing to tend and harvest the gardens. Guests can also dine al fresco on the lodge's deck, where cocktails are served alongside fine views. The staff can easily arrange hiking, birding, ocean kayaking, and whale-watching tours. A massage therapist is on call for in-yurt spa treatments. For maximum privacy, request yurt No. 15 or 16.