Be a Happy Camper

So over the old tent-and-bedroll bit? Consider these blissful options.

Chanell Adamson and her daughter, Tilly, 3 (photos by Chris Hardy)

It’s camping for lightweights who like the sensation of sleeping in nature without sacrificing creature comforts like a real bed and available running water.

Forget the bedroll and mummy bag. Bring on the Tempur-Pedic mattress and Egyptian-cotton sheets.

Over the past few years a proliferation of glammed-up tents, cabins and vintage travel trailers have given rise to a new, upscale class of camping. Already codified in the Oxford English Dictionary, “glamping” is bringing pampered urbanites closer to nature and providing relief for midlifers and seasoned baby boomers who love the crackle of a campfire on a still night in the forest, but can no longer bear the thought of packing all that gear, pitching a tent and fighting for sleep on the cold, pitiless ground.

Glamour camping tent cabins overlook the giraffe enclosure at Safari West northeast of Santa Rosa.

Safari West, the 400-acre exotic animal preserve northeast of Santa Rosa, was one of the first tourist destinations to offer tent cabins with heated blankets and designer furnishings, handcrafted by owner Peter Lang.

Before the term “glamping” caught on, Safari West didn’t know how to explain to prospective guests wary of roughing it that the heavy canvas tent cabins, made in Botswana for safaris and outfitted with lamps, African art, heaters, bathrooms and hardwood floors, are not the typical straight-wall, polyester family camping tents.

“That word finally helped me to identify our tents. We used to say ‘rustic’ but still would get people not wanting to spend the night,” said Aphrodite Caserta, who does marketing for the preserve. “Since the word came into use, it’s helped me identify our accommodations.”

The view from a cabin porch at Safari West.
The view from a cabin porch at Safari West.

The spacious cabins are set on platforms. From the front deck you can savor coffee at sunrise while gazing out at nuzzling giraffes. No need for mom to boil hot dogs on a Coleman stove: Just herd the family down to the Savannah Café for a buffet dinner feast served around an African boma-style firepit, then retire to the Flamingo Terrace for wine and pink-bird watching.

“There’s no TV, no nothing. You’re there with each other,” said Mary Packard, an avowed noncamper who came from Palmdale for a “safari” with her family. “You can talk and not worry about your
cellphone going off. You’re just there with the animal sounds.”

The bathroom, with mesh vents, can be cold in the morning. But the sounds of exotic birds cawing, cooing and screeching in the night creates a soothing symphony by which to fall asleep.

With summer/fall rates at Safari West ranging from $240 to $335 a night, glamping is not necessarily a budget option. But cost savings isn’t what appeals to glampers.

On the northern Sonoma coast, guests happily pay $150 to $250 a night for one of two 10-by-12-foot “canvas cottages” with queen beds, maintained on a private knoll near the Stewarts Point Store.

Wood stoves and solar-heated water on demand make outdoor living easy. Tent flaps open to a wood deck with Southern-style porch rockers and unobstructed views of the coastal palisades and blue Pacific waters.

“You can sit and watch the ocean for hours and not be bothered,” said Suzanne Reynolds, whose boyfriend, Charles Richardson, runs the store and campsite. “It’s typically people who want a different experience. Maybe they want to camp but they don’t want to get dirty or do anything. It’s almost like they’re treating themselves, the same as going out for a fancy dinner. Here, you don’t have to do or pack a thing. You can just come up and crawl into bed.”

The most requested lodging at the Metro Hotel in Petaluma are not the French shabby-chic rooms done up with thrift-shop finds, but rather the two Bambi-model Airstream travel trailers in back ($109 a night). Set up beside a square of AstroTurf inhabited by kitschy pink flamingos, it’s urban glamping at its best. The small trailers have that retro, silver-bullet cool, but are shiny new with flat-screen TVs, surround sound, morning pastries and maid service.

Laura Waterhouse and her glamping pals gather at sundown at the Cloverdale KOA.
Laura Waterhouse and her glamping pals gather at sundown at the Cloverdale KOA.

Serious glampers buy their own vintage trailers and trick them out with customized decor.

“We’re getting old. We’re in our 50s. We love to camp but decided, ‘Let’s get out of a tent,’” Laura Waterhouse said. The 51-year-old glamper from Cloverdale and her boyfriend, Nick Uribe, have two 1960s-era Shasta travel trailers, one done up in a groovy mod look, complete with lava lamp and atomic clock. Others go for Southwest and cowboy themes, or midcentury modern.

“Remember when you were very little and always trying to get away from the family, building forts and treehouses?” Waterhouse said, reaching for words to explain the nostalgic appeal of these cute tin cans that represent the blissful summer vacations of youth. “You were just trying to find your space. When we got ours it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We have our clubhouse.’”