I must admit that at first, the idea of disrobing in front of a gaggle of other disrobed people in a warm room filled with the scent of lavender and patchouli and then getting into a warm pool shoulder to shoulder with other naked folks did not sound like my idea of a relaxing, enjoyable vacation. It definitely takes some getting used to, and even still it might never be for you. But, it is most certainly for me. For the past five years, Harbin Hot Springs in Middletown, California has been my own personal Garden of Eden, and here’s why:
When I stay at Harbin with my husband, we always camp. The campground consists of a series of tent-sized wooden decks flanking a creek. Pick a deck, erect your tent and enjoy the dappled sunlight coming through the trees. Occasionally, you’ll see deer, families of wild turkey and groups of nude and semi-nude people ambling through. The tents are located close to actual bathrooms with running water, so if you’re not into roughing it completely, you don’t have to. If you’re really not into roughing it, Harbin has rooms, which are lovely: they’re rustic, yet very clean and extremely homey.
Soaking in the Springs
A short walk over the creek and up the hill from the campgrounds takes you to the main area of Harbin Hot Springs, which includes the hot springs themselves and decks for sun worshipping in the nude (no tan lines!) The pools are the main reason to visit this gorgeous place. They provide a place to relax, rest and ruminate… once you get past the whole naked thing. Yes, you can go into the pools in a bathing suit, but a person in a man-made bathing suit in such a natural setting is a jarring sight. Everyone stares, which really defeats the purpose. Just go into the dressing room, surrender to the warmth of the heat lamps and take off those clothes! There are showers (both private and open) between the dressing room and the pools where you rinse off with lavender soap before entering the pools. Don’t skip this part! You wouldn’t want someone else getting into the pools and sullying them with a day’s worth of skin grease and grit, so follow the golden rule and don’t make others bathe in your filth. The first pool you’ll encounter is warm, comfortable and shaded by a huge fig tree. My husband and I could sit here for hours, and it’s definitely relaxing, but not very exciting. When you’re ready for some excitement, go ahead and climb the steps out of the warm pool and into the hot pool. It will burn. You will feel like you’re being cooked and if you stay in, all your flesh will fall off the bone. Just get in anyway. It helps to moan and breathe heavily, which sounds weird, but other people will be doing it too. Stay in the hot pool until you start to get used to it and you feel your muscles melting into the water, then get out of the hot pool and notice that your body is steaming as you climb the steps to the next pool, which is filled with refreshingly frigid creek water. It’s very cold, so just dunk yourself immediately and take some deep breaths. Isn’t this fun?! Do this switch between hot and cold a few more times, and you’ll swear the statue of Quan Yen that sits patiently near the cold pool was waiting for you and you alone to arrive. The hot pool will feel exhilaratingly icy and the cold pool will feel deliciously warm. The leaves of the fig trees will sparkle and pulse against the sun. Your body feels alive and perfect. It’s the most naturally high I’ve ever been, which is good, because…
You Gotta Eat!
Alcohol is not allowed on Harbin grounds (they don’t serve it, you can’t bring it), probably for the same reason it isn’t allowed in strip clubs: Naked strangers and booze don’t mix well. Luckily, they have plenty of great food options to make up for the absence of spirits. My personal favorite way to feed myself at Harbin is in the Fern Kitchen. You bring your own groceries and cook in a big communal kitchen outfitted with ovens, gas stoves, fridges, a few small appliances, and a ragamuffin gaggle of dishes. Fern Kitchen is not for the meek, mild, or germaphobic, but it is delightful. People often share food, and always share tables. One night I roasted too much squash, so I walked around and gave the extra to people who put it over quinoa, tossed it into salad, or mashed it for their baby. Another night, someone shared chocolate fondue, and the next night, locally grown melons. There are some strange people at Harbin who will say some strange things to you, though. One night, as my husband opened a can of veggie chili to eat over baked potatoes, a man walked by and said, “Hey is that dog food?” The next morning, a woman snapped at me when I started melting butter in a frying pan to make a mushrooms and spinach omelet. “I’m vegan,” she said, “Can you move? I don’t want any animal products splattering into my food.” I didn’t move, and she stormed out muttering something about complaining to security. The Fern Kitchen is vegetarian, so you can have eggs, milk, cheese, and butter, but no meat, which includes fish. If you prefer not to cook on your vacation, the La Sirena Poolside Cafe near the sun decks serves amazing sandwiches (try the Zorba the Greek) and salads (try it with a scoop of chunky, homemade hummus) at lunchtime, a coffee shop, and a restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner. Dinner at Harbin's restaurant, Stonefront Restaurant, is relatively expensive, and I wasn’t impressed with it the three times I’ve eaten there. The restaurant uses produce from Harbin's vegetable garden. I do recommend breakfast, where you can take a big plate of organic eggs with fresh bread and seasonal jam out onto the restaurant deck and watch jays swoop down to retrieve bits of others’ abandoned breakfast, and if it’s early enough, the sun rising up from behind the mountains.
What Shall We Do?
If you need something to do at Harbin besides soak in the pools, eat food, and take naps in the sun all day, you’ll have your pick. Check out the schedule to find out when you can go to free yoga classes. Check out the hiking trails. Check out the grounds themselves! There are tons of interesting places to go and things to see, my favorites being the vegetable garden, the maze, and the shop tents filled with silky, exotic clothing. On Thursday nights, there is Unconditional Dance, which features various DJs and a chance to really let go and let your body whirl and swirl as it pleases. If you’re into massage, you’re in luck, because pretty much every type is represented here. You could get a hot stone massage in the morning, a Swedish massage after lunch, and a before dinner, a Thai massage. My favorite is Harbin’s baby, the Watsu massage. Watsu was invented at Harbin Hot Springs in 1980 by Howard Dull, and it continues to be a popular activity. A Watsu practitioner uses the pressure of water to bend and stretch your muscles by swirling you around in a pool. If being in a warm pool, naked, with another naked person who is holding you gently in their arms and swirling you around seems weird to you, well… it kind of is, but get over that and try it. You might love it, like I do. Go explore your options at the Harbin massage office. There are pictures and personal statement from all the bodywork practitioners, so you get to pick!
The People You'll See
My longtime pastime and guilty pleasure is people watching, and Harbin has the raw materials for my secret hobby in spades. Sitting in the pools, you’ll hear whispered conversations about omens, symbols, and sex. At Fern Kitchen, people talk animatedly about their strange dietary habits, their juice fasts, the medical conditions, and the love lives of everyone they know. At Yoga, someone will ask you to move away from their spot because the smell of toothpaste on your breath is aggravating their chemical sensitivity. What I love most about Harbin, though, is that everyone is naked, and yes, I look. After spending a lot of time looking at airbrushed fashion models for my job, I often start to feel down about my body. Being at Harbin reminds me that that’s not what’s real or what’s beautiful, because as trite as it sounds, beauty really does come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. If you only gain one thing from your Harbin experience, may it be that you leave loving yourself a little more than when you arrived.