Big Sur has no official boundaries, according to Wikipedia. It covers a lot of territory, and not just geographically.
Diversity rules here, with some residents having lived for decades on family ranches, and others snapping up expensive real estate for summerhouses worth millions. The area’s isolation contributes to a sense of community among locals, many of whom become volunteer firefighters to protect Big Sur’s natural beauty.
Spanning approximately 90 miles of Pacific coastline south of Carmel River State Beach, Big Sur, or “El País Grande del Sur,” means “Big Country to the South.” It meanders through Lucia, Gorda and Little Sur until it stops at San Carpoforo Creek, after Ragged Point and just before San Simeon and Hearst Castle.
Due to rainfall and mudslides, Highway 1 often closes, and in fact just reopened in June, causing local innkeepers to breathe a sigh of relief. During the Fourth of July weekend, tourists filled most of the 300 rooms in the area, and crowds teemed at the Big Sur General Store, the Big Sur Bakery and the three gas stations that service the area.
A palpable change in terrain occurs here as Highway 1 narrows and the Santa Lucia foothills rise above and the ocean drops sharply below. If you pull over at a vista point and look over the jagged cliffs at the rolling waves, you’ll have a good idea why it’s called the Wild Coast.
That name fits the place well. Where else would you find purple sand and green rocks? Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Beach, on Highway 1, approximately 15 miles north of Lucia (www.parks.ca.gov), charges a day-use fee. Here, you can hike to a 60-foot waterfall that lands in the ocean and watch migrating whales. Also, look closely at the sand. Swirls of lavender sparkle in the sun, a result of the manganese garnet crystals that drop off the surrounding boulders.
Another natural phenomenon occurs at Jade Cove in Los Padres National Forest, immediately adjacent to Sand Dollar Beach (off Highway 1, just north of Gorda). It’s a hidden spot well known to locals, many of whom like to collect loose pieces of jade. Big Sur holds an annual Jade Festival (www.bigsurjadeco.com) that benefits the South Coast Community Land Trust. This year’s is scheduled Oct. 7-9 at the Pacific Valley School.
A desolate, rugged terrain with only approximately 1,000 official residents, its remoteness and beauty have drawn artists and musicians for decades, since Highway 1 opened in 1937. Joan Baez, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Robinson Jeffers have all lived here at one time or another.
The best of both worlds
In Big Sur, you can enjoy camping at the Big Sur or Fernwood campgrounds or experience the world-class luxury of the Post Ranch or Ventana inns. Many hotels sit on cliffs with dramatic vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the jagged surrounding terrain.
Two all-inclusive learning enclaves, Esalen Institute and Tassajara Zen Center, offer classes in yoga, spirituality, relationships, art and music, as well as vegetarian meals. The clothing-optional sulphur hot springs in both places are open to the public for a fee. Esalen leaders Mike Murphy and Dick Price propagated Eastern philosophies and New Age attitudes, attracting psychologists like Fritz Perls and Abraham Maslow, who wrote about the hierarchy of needs.
We sampled a night of “glamour camping” at Treebones Resort (www.treebonesresort.com), 71895 Highway 1, Willow Creek Road, built by former toy executive John Handy and his wife, Corinne, after 20 years of wrangling with the state over permits. They designed the place with their adult children.
It opened in 2004 with 16 “yurts,” tentlike rooms similar to those used in Mongolia, and five campsites. The Turkish word yurt means “dormitory.” The spacious circular yurts sit on platforms and start at $170 a night. Depending on which one you get (you get what you pay for), they feature partial or full ocean views, wood-burning stoves and nightstands. You still have to walk to the communal bathroom to take showers, just like in regular camping. We were quite cozy under the thick quilts, however, with the sound of the waves lapping in the background. A see-through dome at the top of the yurt allows you to stargaze once the sun goes down.
There’s also a “human nest” designed by local artist and Big Sur Spirit Garden owner Jayson Fann. You have to bring a sleeping bag to stay in it, but it has an ocean view and picnic table at the campsite below.
Included in the price is a hearty breakfast of eggs, cereals, toast and make-your-own waffles. The deck features a sushi bar and an organic restaurant, Wild Coast, which can cost as much as the yurt if you include wine from the extensive list.
Before we checked out, we swam in the pool and baked in the hot tub with vistas of the Pacific so spectacular that it was hard to leave. However, be warned, the drive down to Treebones takes at least an hour, and once you’re there, it’s difficult to just pop out to buy something you’ve forgotten. Luckily, there is a well-stocked gift shop where you can buy sundries, snacks and drinks.
We also spent the weekend at the non-profit Esalen Institute, a place that’s not for everyone but certainly sits on prime property with lovingly cultivated organic flower and vegetable gardens.
The premium couples accommodations are pricey – $695 each, including the photography workshop we were taking. We stayed in lower-range “Sea,” a delightful cottage with a private porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by lush landscaping. The cottage, once part of founder Murphy’s house, includes Wi-Fi and incomparable views. Rates vary, depending on whether you opt for a sleeping bag on the floor, shared cabins or premium houses. There’s also a volunteer work-study program.
The newly renovated hot baths are clothing optional, and most people eschew bathing suits. The baths are far from the main grounds, down a steep dirt path, and you’re not required to go there by any means. However, to experience the famously fantastic Esalen massage, you must travel to the sulphur hot-springs building. For only $125, you get a 75-minute massage and unlimited use of the soaking baths. The masseurs/masseuses will also come to your room, if you’re staying there.
To browse the list of 500 workshops and classes offered annually at the groundbreaking institute, or to reserve a spot, call (831) 667-3005 or visit www.esalen.org.
Other places to sleep include Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (www.deetjens.com), 48865 Highway 1, founded by Norwegian Helmuth Deetjen and hidden in a redwood forest. The cabins may be too rustic for some, but the place attracted plenty of writers and artists in its day, including Greta Garbo, allegedly. There’s also an onsite restaurant with fireplaces, candlelight and classical music playing during meals.
Famous restaurants here have fantastic ocean views. Nepenthe (nepenthebigsur.com) offers sunset cocktails and burgers as well as steak sandwiches on its deck. Eat at Cielo restaurant at the Ventana Inn (www.ventanainn.com) to experience awe-inspiring ocean views.
For casual fare, stop at the Big Sur Bakery (wwwbigsurbakery.com) for fair-trade coffee and all kinds of pastries, pizzas and sandwiches made from wood-fired bread. It’s a simple restaurant with wholesome organic food that presents a contrast to the Post Ranch Inn restaurant. The day we visited, a local singer played Joni Mitchell songs and other favorites from the ’70s and ’80s.
Next door, visit the Big Sur Spirit Garden, an arts and cultural center created by Fann to provide educational and artistic opportunities for the community. Fann also creates massive “spirit nests” from eucalyptus tree branches. Proceeds support his endeavors. The next event is an Avanisuta belly-dancing workshop given by Rajuli Khetarpal of the Black Butterfly Dancing Company on Saturdays beginning this weekend. Call (831) 238-1056 for reservations.
Another place to stop before leaving Big Sur is the Coast Gallery (www.coastgalleries.com), 49901 Highway 1, a unique building made of recycled redwood water storage tanks. Here, you can buy Marc Chagall or Henry Miller lithographs. Miller, an accomplished artist in addition to his career as a writer, painted more than 2,000 watercolors. Find out more about Miller and Big Sur at the Henry Miller Library (www.henrymiller.org) on Highway 1, which houses collections and memorabilia from the author, who lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962. The library also sponsors concerts and poetry readings. An international film festival runs Thursday nights through Aug. 28.