Jump into the wild by cruising Big Sur, one of the all-time great North American road trips.
TRAVEL ADVISORY | Want to drop off the planet for a few days, ditch the cellphone, skip the Starbucks, take a break from recreational shopping? One of California’s most beautiful and elemental places to get away from everything urban in the fall is Big Sur on the central coast. Big Sur isn’t an exact spot on the map, it’s a road trip: 90 miles of two-lane blacktop that zigzag around the edge of the wind-wracked headlands of the Santa Lucia Mountains mere yards, it seems, before they nose-dive into the Pacific Ocean. Cruising along this jagged, Amalfi-like coastline is—to borrow words from hippie vernacular—a mind-blowing head-trip. It’s impossible not to feel spiritual or to reflect on your place in the cosmos when a natural setting this powerful is shoving itself in your face.
Big Sur Country, as guidebooks refer to the landscape, is located between two beehives of tourist activity. To the north sits almost-too-cute Carmel, to the south, William Randolph Hearst’s architectural Xanadu, San Simeon. It’s a geographical circumstance that makes Big Sur’s misty, under-populated stretch of highway feel even more otherworldly.
What To See & Do
How do visitors amuse themselves in this alternate universe? “Big Sur is so scenic, being here is enough; you don’t need to do much of anything,” a local state park ranger told me before listing off his favourite low-energy (mostly) free activities. At the top is watching the killer sunsets from the veranda at legendary Nepenthe, a 62-year-old restaurant anchored to a 900-foot-high cliff. Then there’s combing for shells and jade on the postcard-perfect beaches, or driving the original unpaved Old Coast Highway. This 11-mile detour off Highway 1 takes you through redwood groves and across pioneer ranches, and offers jaw-dropping views of the ocean. If you are lucky, you might spot a California condor, the largest of all condors, in one of the canyons. The local Ventana Wilderness Society is reintroducing this endangered bird into the wild.
Where To Sleep
A superlative setting calls for superlative lodgings, and Big Sur has two well-priced options that will surpass your expectations—and each in it’s own way captures the essence of the coast. Deetjens rustic, redwood sided cabins were built in the 1930s, not long after this section of Highway 1 was completed (they are listed on the national registry of historic buildings). Tucked into the redwoods away from ocean views, this camp makes you feel as if you were back in the ’30s—or the ’50s, when Jack Kerouac dropped by with a few dharma bums.
Deetjen’s, with its organic, hand-built architecture and picture-perfect garden, is a one-of-a-kind experience. Rooms run from $105 to $250 a night. At the low end ($105 is an awesome price along this stretch of highway) you will get an utterly charming room, but will have to share a bath. This is hardly an inconvenience when you are ensconced in a place that looks like Bilbo Baggins designed it.
If you can possibly wangle it, the other place to stay that is quintessentially Big Sur is the world-famous Esalen Institute. The Human Potential movement began here in the 1960s, and the institute has hosted many big-name boomers over the years including Hunter S. Thompson and The Beatles. Esalen offers 500-plus personal-growth workshops annually. Most of them last at least several days, but you can get a room for the night if they have space sitting empty. For the reasonable rate of $188 for the first night and $138 for the rest you share bunk quarters (private rooms are also available), receive three gourmet meals, free dance, yoga, meditation and movement classes plus 24-hour access to Big Sur’s most popular hot springs. —C. Rule
Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn and Restaurant, Big Sur, 831-667-2377; Esalen Institute, Big Sur, 831-667-3000. (Want cheaper still, try Ripplewood Resort ($95 a night and up); for mid-range, check Glen Oaks Big Sur ($200 a night and up); for high end, look at Post Ranch Inn ($595 a night and up). The Big Sur Chamber of Commerce website lists most facilities along this stretch of coast.
Photo: Irven Rule