Big Sur, California, remains one of my favorite escapes. Nestled on California’s central coast between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountain range—from Carmel to San Simeon—it is a 60-mile stretch of ocean and mountains offering some of the most spectacular topography in North America. Experiencing natural beauty like this is a rarity for most city-dwellers, so you’re sure to soak up every last drop of fresh air, crashing waves, and scintillating scents from your surroundings.
Part of what makes a visit to Big Sur special is the adventure it takes to get here—the closest airport is in Monterey, but no one flies. The ritual is to drive north about 300 miles from Los Angeles, or south about 150 miles from San Francisco. (GWS prefers coming up from Los Angeles.) The coastal vistas are enough to make even the grouchiest cynic a believer. Not interested in the sea? Look for endless artichoke fields and grazing roadside cows.
The region averages 300 days of sunshine per year, with summer temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees and winter between 50 and 70, near-guaranteeing an agreeable experience—so long as you’re not put off by fog. Part of the charm is the minimal commercial disruption in this part of the world: few restaurants, no nightlife, bowling, movie theaters, or strip malls. Instead, you build your day around the time the sun sets, what trails you can explore, and how many condors you can spot on the skyline. Incidentally, condors are sacred and protected birds in California. They are ugly looking buzzards, but remarkable for their 11-foot wingspan. Folklore has it that they carry spirits on their wings and are seen as the symbol of creation and healing. I like the sound of this.
The first question anyone will ask when you mention a trip to Big Sur is, “Where are you staying?” There are really only two responses: Ventana or the Post Ranch. GWS prefers the former. The Ventana Inn & Spa is a gorgeous, completely chilled out, and unfussy retreat. It sits on a majestic 243 acres and lies 1,200 feet above the Pacific. It is blissful. You need not worry about your wardrobe or wake-up call because everything here seems to revolve around your pleasure. You want a nap? You take a nap. You want a hike? You take a hike.
What pleasantly surprised me on my last visit was the extensive $18 million facelift the inn has had—and which it needed. Except for at the delicious, included breakfast, you rarely see other people while on the property. There 60 rooms and suites, all with balconies with a view of either mountains or ocean. One perk I love are the private Jacuzzis and fireplaces. Ventana feels like it holds many secrets. It used to be a favorite haunt for badass Steve McQueen, which isn’t entirely surprising. Lawrence Spector built the property in 1975 from the profits of his film Easy Rider. Rooms range from $600 to $1,350 per night, which sounds expensive. Until I tell you about the property next door.
Ventana Inn & Spa 48123 Highway One Big Sur 831 667 2331 www.ventanainn.com
The Post Ranch Inn is literally across the street from Ventana, but feels like a world apart. It, too, is architecturally impressive, yet the grounds are smaller and greener, on 100 acres boasting impressive uses of solar energy. The most notable difference between Ventana and Post Ranch, though, is that Post Ranch—stunning as it is—feels fussy. The vibe feels forced and the staff don’t ever seem happy to see their guests, which completely puzzles me. The design in the 40 rooms and suites seems lovely until you find out the cost. The cutely named “Butterfly” and other mountain-view rooms range from $550 to $1,485 per night, while the expensive-sounding “Cliff House” and other ocean view rooms carry an even bigger sting, starting at $1,060 and heading north to $2,185 per night. Ouch.
On the upside, breakfast is included and all rooms have fireplaces and indoor and outdoor tubs. Also on offer are private house rentals which start at $1,685.
Post Ranch Inn Highway One Big Sur 831 667 2200 http://www.postranchinn.com
Nepenthe Restaurant opened in 1949 and serves lunch every day of the year and dinner every night except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. It is wildly kitschy, 100 percent touristy, and nearly everyone working here looks like Burt Reynolds. I love it. On sunny days you can take advantage of two terraces with Pacific views that are almost too good to be true. Start with the beets and horseradish crème fraiche, then move on to the Ambrosia burger, ending strong with the banana cream pie. Yum, yum, yum.
While digesting, stop down in the Phoenix shop. You won’t buy much, but it’s certainly worth a stroll through all the bric-a-brac.
Nepenthe Restaurant 48510 Highway One Big Sur 831 667 2345 http://www.nepenthebigsur.com/
The Big Sur River Inn has the “Famous Inn Burger ,” an accolade well-earned. If you’re looking for views this isn’t your place; but if the name of the game is meat, then grab $12.50 and look no further.
Big Sur River Inn Highway One at Pheneger Creek Big Sur 831 667 2700 http://www.bigsurriverinn.com
Visitors often don’t take enough advantage of the scenery of Big Sur. Molera and Pfeiffer State Parks are beauties, as is Pirate’s Cove for an afternoon adventure of hiking and swimming. One good tip is to find Greg Ambrosio from Big Sur Guides. This affable gent will take you on a customized walk, hike, or boar hunt around town. He knows every regional tale—true or false—and is just about as pleasant a person as you could spend your day with.
Big Sur Guides Greg Ambrosio 831 658 0199 Bigsurguides@msn.com
If you feel like driving, then consider heading 60 miles south to the infamous Hearst Castle. I’ve been many times, and each visit seems to inspire a new set of mysteries. I suggest the 90-minute experience tour and a night watching of Citizen Kane to get the full gist of William Randolph Hearst. Tickets are $24.
Hearst Castle http://www.hearstcastle.org
If fish are more your thing, then head north about 30 miles to Monterey Bay Aquarium. The jellies will rock your world, and don’t even get me started on the otters! The aquarium is packed with both sea creatures and kids, and if you’re feeling patient, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Admission is nearly $30, though, which I found a bit ridiculous.
Monterey Bay Aquarium 886 Cannery Row Monterey (831) 648-4888 http://www.montereybayaquarium.org
It pains me to say it—since this used to be a favorite haunt of mine—but Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn is now on my list of avoids. On prior visits it was a quaint, tasty escape from some of the flashier, more gourmet Big Sur options, but this has all changed. The Inn still remains charming, but the food and service have taken a nose dive. On a recent visit, it took nearly 15 minutes to procure a drink, and when the food arrived it was overdressed (think soggy salad) and overcooked (think charred halibut). On the whole, I was totally bummed. This used to be my local treasure, but instead it’s turned into the local letdown.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.