'Glamping' brings California North Coast luxury hospitality to affordable campsites

Travelers with disparate preferences on overnight accommodations may find their compromise in glamping, a lodging trend that has been gaining traction in the North Bay.

Glamping can be described as an outdoor camping experience with a glamorous twist. An enclosed structure replaces pitching a tent, and amenities can include everything from a fancy bed and spa-like bathroom, to basic creature comforts like a standard bed, tables and chairs, and an attached or easy-to-get-to bathroom.

AutoCamp, which bills itself as a luxury Airstream outdoor experience, launched in 2013 in Santa Barbara. Its second location, AutoCamp Russian River, opened in 2016, and AutoCamp Yosemite is scheduled to open next month.

'What's unique about this type of an experience is that typically when you go on vacation, you choose a destination and then you choose a hotel,' said Mark Belhumeur, general manager at AutoCamp Russian River, situated among the redwoods in the Sonoma County community of Guerneville. 'What I've found here is that AutoCamp is the destination.'

Belhumeur, a 45-year hospitality veteran, thought he had retired in 2015 after selling the Village Inn and Restaurant, which he owned and operated for 14 years. But a year later, AutoCamp's owners came calling.

'I left retirement because this was a new challenge,' he said. 'It was fresh and exciting to be part of a new type of lodging experience.'

AutoCamp Russian River has 23 Airstreams, each 31-feet-long and outfitted with a Casper bed, flat-screen television, a galley with a microwave and refrigerator, and a large bathroom with a residential-size commode and marble shower. There also are 10 seasonal luxury tents on property that are available From April 1 through Oct. 31, plus one 43-square-foot unit called the Happier Camper, which houses a double bed and some furnishings, Belhumeur said. 'It's purposed for the adventurer that's been out all day hiking, biking or trekking, and all they need is a place to sleep.'

Pricing is seasonal and can range from $140 per night (for the Happier Camper unit) to $475 per night during peak season in July and August, Belhumeur said. Annual occupancy is about 83 percent.

Visitors run the gamut, from solo trekkers and families, to business groups that come for retreats. AutoCamp's guests come primarily from San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, followed by Sacramento Valley and Southern California.

A more exotic way to glamp is in the jungle at Safari West, a 400-acre private wildlife preserve in Santa Rosa.

'Part of going on safari tours in Africa is that you spend the night,' said Keo Hornbostel, executive director at Safari West. 'So everything is fairly new in the glamping world except for us; we've been (doing this) for a couple of decades now.' Safari West owners Peter and Nancy Lang procured the 30 on-site tents from Botswana, which were customized upon arrival, Hornbostel said.

Each tent is outfitted with plush beds, hot and cold running water, a heater system and electric blankets, an en-suite bathroom, polished hard floors and a private viewing deck, he said.

For those wondering, there's no chance of accidentally meeting face-to-face with the wildlife that lives on the Sonoma Serengeti.

'All the animals are in different enclosures throughout the property so they can't get to the tents,' Hornbostel said. 'There is one row of tents 30 feet from the giraffe enclosure. So the giraffes are around and about.'

That said, it can get noisy, so visitors are encouraged to bring earplugs. The front desk also has some on hand.

'The flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs can squawk up a storm,' Hornbostel said. 'If you're a light sleeper, you're going to take us up on those earplugs.'

Rates depend on the season, running from about $350 during the winter months, and peaking at $475 on a Saturday night during the summer and early fall. Lodging is closed in January and February.

By its nature, Safari West gets a lot of families, but also singles and couples who want to get away for the weekend, he said. And like AutoCamp, corporate retreats also book stays at Safari West, accounting for about 10 percent of its overnight business.

Visitors typically travel from Sacramento and the greater Bay Area, but Safari West also draws international tourists from around the world, including from Brazil, China, England, Germany and Australia, Hornbostel said.

The glamping hot spot in Napa County is at Bothe State Park, where visitors can glamp year-round in a yurt — a circular domed tent made of canvas that's stretched over a collapsible framework. Bothe offers three 21' diameter yurts that sleep up to six people, and seven smaller yurts that sleep four people.

Each yurt is equipped with one bed (platform and mattress), between two and four additional cots, tables and chairs, an outdoor fire pit and picnic table, nearby bathrooms and showers, and a lockable door.

Jason Jordan, park steward, said summer is the most popular time of year for glamping, followed by harvest season.

'It's a great way to do the Wine Country experience,' Jordan said. 'Visit the wineries, go to the restaurants, and have a little more affordable option in lodging.'

Jordan said visitors are mostly from the Bay Area, but that international travelers from around the globe also come for overnight stays.

Large yurts go for $75 on weekends with a two-night minimum stay; weekdays are $60 with no minimum stay. The large yurt sites have enough room for one small tent and a second car.

Small yurts cost $70 on weekends with a two-night minimum stay; weekdays are $55 with no minimum stay. An extra tent is not allowed at the small yurt sites, nor is a second car.

In addition to the yurts, the park has five rustic, restored cabins with full kitchens and bathrooms, and a back deck. Prices range from $150-$225 per night.

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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