Costanoa, California: If you hate camping, you’ll love this place.

We’d heard of a hipster campground south of SF, so we figured how bad could it be?

It was that time of year again. So we had to think of something to do for our fifth anniversary and, since life had been going along pretty well up until now, we thought “Hey, let’s screw it up by going camping!”

Now, both Amy and I had camped as kids, but we quickly wised up and never went again. But we’d heard of a strange property about an hour and a half south of SF, owned and operated by a trendy, yuppie designer-type hotelier, so we figured how bad could it be?

We went to the website, as all hard-core campers instinctively do, and booked three nights in a “deluxe tent bungalow,” though we had no real idea what that was. Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. For some reason, photos on the website were small and scarce, so we didn’t have a good idea of what we were getting ourselves into. But it came with a queen size bed, and that was good enough for us. (Surely there would be all sorts of luxurious amenities, right?)

Since we’re so “adventurous,” we gambled a few hundred bucks with a carpe diem, “what the heck” attitude.

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For some strange reason, Amy raised the ante by suggesting we bring our bikes along.

What was this? Physical activity beyond raising a glass to our lips on our anniversary? This was unprecedented! Was this wise? Or even physically possible? For us, we mean. Once again, throwing caution (and our car’s paint job) to the wind, we bought, and strapped to the trunk, a bike rack and set out beyond the creature comforts of four-star hotels into the land of….“outdoorsy-types”!

We drove two hours south along beautiful Highway 1 at a leisurely pace (no, honestly). Halfway between Half-moon Bay and Santa Cruz, lay two magnificent state parks whose names escape me. But between them, lay a place called, “Costanoa.”

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They’re not houses, they’re tents.

An easily missable paved road winds back off the Highway into a good-sized property containing several rustic-looking buildings and numerous small white houses. We parked, checked in, and found our new home for the next three days.

It was a wooden skeleton of 2×4’s. Where proper housing would employ drywall and roofing tar, ours was shod in attractive white tent canvas. There were real glass windows and a screen-door that wouldn’t stop a house-cat, but the place was nonetheless quaint and charming.

On the front stoop there were two wooden, but surprisingly comfortable, beach chairs which you could sit in and watch the sunset (were we facing the water, which we weren’t). Instead we watched darkness slowly, but artistically, paint the hillside behind us.

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The accommodations.

Inside, it was even more adorable until you smacked your shin on the bed frame. The heated, four-poster bed occupies a good 80% of the available floorspace. The remaining area is taken up by two wooden chairs (the wisdom of which escapes me, after all, you can just sit on the bed). It’s not like you’re going to do much entertaining in there.

In addition, there were two nightstands and two reading lights. You also got a white robe and a shower basket with clean towels, complimentary shower gel, shampoo, and lotion.

But that was it.

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The comfort station.

No phone. No TV. No radio. No sink. No bathroom. No toilet. No shower. This was truly “roughing it” in an Ernest Hemingway sort of way.

When nature called, and it did repeatedly after we’d gone to bed, we had to grab a flashlight and stumble up the dirt path to the “comfort station” in the dark. The community bath building housed one urinal, one toilet, one handicapped toilet, and one handicapped shower. Outside, it had three outdoor showers for non-handicapped guests like us.

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The comfort station.

While we were naked in the outside showers freezing our butts off, we wondered how many handicapped people camped enough to warrant their own showers and stalls—probably not that many.

Regardless, the building itself was new and very tastefully designed. Despite its rustic appearance, it was exceptionally clean and well-maintained. The fixtures were modern with a silver finish throughout. Between the men’s and women’s bathrooms there was a nice fireplace that they kept lit most nights (except when we wanted to roast marshmallows), and a dry sauna which was great to jump into, especially after you left the shower and stepped out into the 60 degree air in a robe.

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Inside the comfort station.

When the need for food struck, you were limited to whatever you packed and brought along, or you could rummage through an impressive assortment of gourmet comestibles in the General Store. The name makes you think of a small building with the bare necessities, but this was more like a small Mill Valley grocery store with a built-in cafe. They had every kind of gourmet food and drink you could think of ranging from Balance bars for serious campers to Stag’s Leap wine for people like us. I can’t recall if it was open 24/7, but it was never closed when we wanted something.

If that weren’t enough, every night they would host a barbecue of some ilk for $13 a head in a picnic atmosphere with a local folk band “rockin’ the house” with Jim Croce tunes. Still, for those who brought kids, it was perfect.

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Amy on the porch outside the General Store, and then inside buying crap.

The first night was semi-traumatic as once the sun went down, the temperature dropped into the fifties. That’s when we remembered some of the reasons why we quit camping. Like the fact that canvas doesn’t retain heat at all. Fortunately, the bed was heated with controls for each side. So, once under the covers, you were toasty warm. At least, until you had to pee (see above).

Laying down to sleep, we also remembered that canvas doesn’t block sound. We could hear our neighbor through like they were in bed with us (ask for the Pine Area tents, they’re supposedly more private). At least there was a curfew of 10pm that most adults adhered to, just not their screaming hellion kids.

The next morning, we woke up with the first rays of dawn, and the vague memory that canvas doesn’t keep out sunlight either. We had had better, more restful nights before.

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Artsy shot of tent.

Undaunted, but a little surly, we set about going for our bike ride, only the second since buying the bikes two weeks ago. As evidenced by the trip in general, we obviously weren’t thinking too clearly. Our better judgment was on vacation too, apparently.

We drove down Highway 1 for about three miles to a nearby State Park. Well, we weren’t gonna bike there! Then we peddled up a six-mile fire road towards what we were told was some cool waterfalls. The road twisted and wound, at a mercifully small grade, up into the mountain under huge redwoods and through lush foliage.

After about 5.5 miles, we locked our bikes at a rack and proceeded on foot up the path to the waterfall. The last 1,000 feet of the hike was grueling to say the least and we were about to come to our senses, but then we saw the top of the waterfall through the trees.

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Waterfall.

It operated by what they told us was “gravity,” a mysterious force that pulls down on the world. Rain would pour down from the sky, then traverse across the surface of the mountain to this point where it would fall into the pool at the bottom. It had rained recently and the waterfall poured down at a good pace. Well worth the trip, we thought. Our wobbly legs begged us to sit and marvel at the falls for quite some time, and we gladly obliged.

Once we’d recovered from the leg numbness, we stumbled back down the hill to our bikes and proceeded back the six miles to the car. We found going downhill MUCH easier and, in fact, pretty darn fun. This revelation completely turned around our attitude towards physical exertion. It actually seemed almost worth it!

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Waterfall.

By the time we got to the car, we were invigorated! THIS was the reason we had been put on the earth! To mountain bike! This was WAY better than skiing, if only because no lift line was involved (nor snow)! Yes, this was a sport Amy and I could do in warm weather climates! With shorts on! And there were plenty of mountains around Northern California! Hell, we LIVED on one!

The only downside was putting the bike rack on the car every time we went anywhere. But who knows, maybe we’ll put a rack on the roof! Yes, it could get that out of control! Someday, and I’m just dreaming here, we might buy an SUV! (Sorry, that was just the endorphins talking.)

After getting up so early the previous day, we called it a night around 10pm and promptly passed out to the sound of lawn sprinklers watering the perfectly manicured grounds.

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Me at the waterfall.

The next morning (and, as it was seven o’damn clock, there was no mistaking it for any other time of day), we grabbed the complimentary breakfast of scones and wasp-covered orange juice. (Mmmm, OW!) After finding our legs still attached at the hip, we inquired about additional bike trails in the area. Because we just don’t learn.

We were told of a 20-mile route that seemed easy, so we took it, feeling confident after our previous day’s success.

Immediately, we were set upon by burning pain and immense regret. Still, we toughed it out and fully expected to go back to SF in an ambulance.

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Some lighthouse point nearby.

We took another fire road up to Pescadero and then West to Highway 1 where Amy saw some seals. We traveled south to some lighthouse point place that most tourists wisely arrived at by car. Finally, after what seemed like an unending eternity, we made it back to the campsite. We fell to the bed and thanked the almighty before downing Advils™ like they were Cherry Pez®.

Amazingly, there still wasn’t a lot of pain. It was unexplainable. Sure, I bike the quarter mile to work every day and Amy puts in 40 minutes a few times a week on the stationary bike, but this was two days of three hour pedaling marathons. It should have crippled us for life. We now believe the whole thing may have been a hallucination brought on by some kind of childhood camping trauma.

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Me, resting my greasy, sweat-laden hair against their expensive artwork.

We hopped in our car and drove down to Santa Cruz (Go Banana Slugs!) and had dinner at a nice Italian place named Gabriella’s for our anniversary. We gorged ourselves content in the knowledge that we had burned off enough calories to justify cheesecake.

All in all, it was a very fun time, despite the lack of room service and Spectravision. While we aren’t your typical camper, we still enjoyed our stay at Costanoa. It’s perfect for a weekend getaway that’s a little different. And we’d readily recommend it to anyone, especially families with young kids. (There were a number of them, and they seemed to really be enjoying themselves.)

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An artsy shot of our tent.

For couples, I’d suggest asking for a location as far away from everyone else as you can get, but otherwise, it’s a great place for everybody. For reservations, check out SFTrips.com or Costanoa.com.