Nothing compares to spending time in the great outdoors, enjoying a crispy campfire in the inky black night under the stars, then waking up to a breathtaking sunrise in the middle of nature, hundreds of miles from civilization. Another incomparable experience is having a fitful night of sleep in an uncomfortably tight sleeping bag on the hard, rocky ground with buzzing mosquitoes trapped in your tent.
If the prospect of enjoying the first experience while avoiding the second is attractive, that is where "glamping" ("glamour" plus "camping") comes in, offering nature without actually roughing it.
Luxury camping is not exactly new. Centuries ago, the wealthy traversed continents in style, on lavish safaris with peons carrying luggage, food and bedding. Those trips were born out of haute necessity, not choice, as there were no five-star resorts nearby. Now travel companies are reaching into the past to offer an option somewhere between a campground and a five-star hotel.
Glamping for beginners
The most basic glamping level is heavy on comfort and light on actual camping. This option is for those who want to get away from it all and stay in the heart of the campgrounds, so close that you can sit around the campfire till the embers burn out - then head to a warm bed.
One such spot is in the desolate but cavernous Death Valley, California. The lovely Furnace Creek Resort (www.furnacecreekresort.com) provides two options: the basic hotel "ranch" and the more upscale "inn", both within walking distance to hiking trails and the campgrounds, with nary a sign of civilization in sight.
Remote Hocking County, Ohio, just 40 minutes drive southeast from Columbus, is nature-abundant, with lush forests, winding brooks and many caves, which historically were used by the Shawnee Indians. There are many wood cabins in the area, like the four at Big Pine Retreat in Hocking Hills (www.bigpineretreat.com/), with four cabins, ranging from $165 to $225 per night for one- to three- bedroom cabins with full kitchens, hot water, beds and a hot tub. There are dozens of hiking trails outside, as well as a campsite for fires and ghost stories.
For more nature and less glam, head north to Yosemite's Curry Village (www.yosemitepark.com) in northern California. Its "cabins" are merely raised tents - like summer camp bunks - with basic cots inside and bear cans for all your food outside. Bathrooms and showers are communal, but at least there is running water. Head the next morning to Half Dome and Glacier Point. (It sure beats trekking Yosemite back trails while carrying 20 pounds of gear.)
The canvas tents at Chestnut Grove in North Carolina (www.chestnutgroveglamping.com) have a bed and breakfast sort of charm, with wood floors, hand-crafted furniture, patterned linen and a s'mores kit, at a nightly rate of $50 per person. Aside from the hot tub, hiking and massages on-site, nearby there are vineyards tours, rafting, fishing and canoeing.
Another option, perhaps "old school" glamping, is staying in a yurt, which is is a felt-covered, circular "tent" historically used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. There are yurts all around the country, from Belleplain State Forest, New Jersey (www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/belle.html), to the Big Island in Hawaii (www.hawaiianjourneys.net), to southeastern Ohio (www.saltcreekretreats.com/html/yurt.html).
Some would argue that true glamping means living like royalty while paying a king's ransom.
In the Canadian rainforest, Clayoquot Wilderness Resort (www.wildretreat.com) pairs "soft adventure with soft beds", according to its website. The 11 tents have rugs, propane wood stoves, antique furniture, hot water for sinks and showers and modern composting toilets. They offer adventures trips for three, four and seven days, (starting at $4,650, $5,585 and $9,250 per person) and include all meals, alcohol, flights from Vancouver and activities such as horseback riding, fishing and bear watching.
For true luxury, head to the Blackfoot Valley in eastern Montana (state slogan: "The Last Best Place"). The Resort at Paws Up (www.pawsup.com) has luxurious tents - if you can call a structure that has king-size beds, master bathrooms and electricity a tent. To be fair, the groups of six tents do open up directly to nature, with a view of the Blackfoot river, the pine forest or the banks of Elk Creek. Prices start at $820 per couple per night, meals included, or $1,200 per couple per night for a three-day, two-night wilderness camp horseback riding adventure.
Regardless of the luxe level, all glampers are attempting to trick Mother Nature by enjoying her benefits without being completely at her mercy.