Travel is not what it used to be. In the age of COVID, the allure of crowded hotels has faded like a summer tan. Yet the desperation for a change of scenery remains real. Getting away and back to nature has never been better for the soul — nor has it ever been this chic. Checking into a world created from canvas turns out to be the best cure for wanderlust, just when we need it most.
Inspired by the African safari experience, a group called Under Canvas has elevated the idea of camping. Composed of private tents naturally set at comfortable distances, its camps are snugged close to U.S. national parks from the desert to the mountains, offering plenty of space and fresh air.
But let’s be clear: This is not really camping — at least not in the traditional sense. I’m not one to pitch a tent in the backyard for fun, nor have I mastered the art of portable cooktops or sleeping setups that don’t result in a sore back. I salute my outdoor enthusiast friends, but for the rest of us, glamping at one of these outdoor resorts is a beautiful thing.
When I checked into Under Canvas Moab last summer, it was in the middle of a road trip with my husband and our three daughters. Pandemic anxiety was high, and the heat had hit triple digits. By the time our weary crew pulled up to camp, we were having second thoughts as we eyed nearby roadside inns with air conditioning and swimming pools. But soon we were being led down a dusty footpath to our deluxe safari tent, where cots were set out for the girls and our bed was made up with crisp linens and a fluffy duvet. A quick flip of a switch kicked on the bedside fans and a lever activated the overhead mister, releasing a pleasant swirl of water. Air conditioning, glamping style.
As we peeled back the canvas curtains of our A-frame tent cabin, there it was — the view. It was like being backstage at Moab, its signature red rocks and watercolor arches the only things in sight. By sunset, the landscape was aglow in pastels as we gathered around fire pits for live music and roasted marshmallows. Come nightfall, we sipped on wine as we watched the stars fall over the rocks. And by sunrise, we glimpsed the first rays of light crack through the clouds from leather chairs on our deck.
It’s easy to get hooked on hospitality brands, and we quickly found ourselves plotting our next Under Canvas stop. Kids feel the buzz, collecting stamps at each location to fill branded passports, while adults appreciate little things like morning coffee deliveries and big things like private in-tent bathrooms. Guests know what they’re getting: a reinvented way of camping with no setup, no gear and no sore backs. It’s rustic-luxe lodging at its best, with just enough nods to nature to make you feel like you’re still roughing it. Kind of.
Among the “intentional inconveniences” are pull-chain showerheads, which give the romantic picture of a vintage utilitarian shower. Yet these, along with low-flow toilets, enable the resort to cut down on water usage. Likewise, bedside lanterns are operated by rechargeable battery packs, eliminating the need for electrical outlets in tents. (You can charge your phone while reading in bed after dark; just don’t plan on using it much.)
“Our camps are Wi-Fi free, allowing guests to disconnect with technology and instead connect with friends, family and themselves,” explains Under Canvas Chief Marketing Officer May Lilley. This immersion in nature has struck a chord with guests, especially as of late. To wit: Although Under Canvas got its start in 2009, the brand has seen an unprecedented demand in bookings in the past year. In fact, the hospitality group received several nods in the 2020 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, with the Mount Rushmore location being dubbed one of the top 50 resorts in the world.
A huge part of the allure, no doubt, are the extraordinary sites, which are secured thanks to the company’s eco-friendly commitment and its “minimal footprint/disturbance approach.” These values resonate with private landowners and municipalities looking to connect people to these places in a planet-friendly way. “Our camp locations operate on private land primarily outside of national parks and monuments, where there is understandably a lot of enthusiasm to protect and preserve the land,” says Lilley.
Our stay at Mount Rushmore began with curiously detailed directions to drive down a frontage road and follow signs through the trees way up a hill — a sort of scavenger hunt to find seclusion. But once the concierge led us through the West Elm–adorned lobby out to the observation deck, there it was: a VIP view of the presidential monument. It felt like a special secret we’d been let in on. And our third Under Canvas excursion to Zion felt much like our stay at Moab: another national park backstage pass.
Under Canvas will unveil two new locales this year: Lake Powell/Grand Staircase in Utah and Acadia, Maine (the latter of which is both the first Northeast and first waterfront camp). Along with introducing new partnerships, the company also plans to enhance its culinary offerings, which already include steak frites and craft beers at some spots. Although the luxe factor is likely to creep up, the brand remains true to its mantra (and hashtag) of #OutsideTogether to keep people hooked on the very basic concept of experiencing nature.
Indeed, travel is not what it used to be, but it will be again. In the meantime, may our wanderlust let us stumble upon these new kinds of lodging that are redefining luxury. Checking out of our comfort zone (even if ever so slightly) and into a new way of unplugging may be just the kind of experience we forgot we were craving.