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Surrender to the surf: Big Sur offers big vistas, big memories


Photo By: Eren Gknar/ Special to the Town Crier
Photo Eren Gknar/ Special To The Town Crier

Big Sur’s Esalen Institute precariously hugs the cliff along the coast, left. The alternative-education retreat center offers self-discovery workshops and programs – not to mention clothing-optional hot springs.

There are certain places on this earth that provide visuals and personal experiences that remain forever etched in your memory vault. Big Sur is just such a place.

Driving the approximately 115 miles down the winding cliffside engineering marvel that is Highway 1 south of Carmel offers some of the most dazzling, rugged coastline anywhere. It’s an area of stark contrasts: often barren, rocky sea cliffs lie next to flora-filled wilderness; jetsetters, artists, writers, Bohemians and hippies are frequent visitors or residents; five-star ultra-luxurious resorts sit adjacent to rustic campgrounds; high-priced art competes with tie-dyed T-shirts; and diverse weather produces cold, foggy mornings that turn into clear, warm afternoons.

Contrast is the essence of Big Sur, where diversity, serenity and spectacular vistas reign.

Things to see and do

On the way down the coast, stop at Bixby Creek Bridge and Hurricane Point for panoramic views, and soon thereafter a number of premier sites await. At the top of our list is the short walk to Pfeiffer Beach, where purple-hued sand frames the nature-tunneled rocky outcroppings. When light illuminates the tunnels, it’s a foremost Nikon moment. The U.S. Forest Service beach is so popular with locals that no highway signage exists to indicate its location. Posted signs have mysteriously disappeared at night, so visitors must be persistent and ask directions.

Hikes to consider within Big Sur State Park include two trails through the regal coastal redwoods to the 60-foot-high Pfeiffer Falls and the Valley View overlook. Keep an eye out for soaring California Condors recently reintroduced to the region.

Andrew Molera State Park boasts a 2-mile loop to its usually blustery beach, where the Big Sur River enters the sea and driftwood shelters shield visitors from the wind. Molera Horseback Tours (molerahorsebacktours.com) offers horseback rides to the beach and back.

For a list of more challenging hikes and backpacking/camping information, visit www.parks.ca.gov and search “Big Sur.”

Drop into the funky Henry Miller Memorial Library (www.henrymiller.org) for an event, concert or movie or to browse the book collection that includes classics from Miller, Jack Kerouac and other celebrated authors.

The adventurous may want to visit the Esalen Institute (www.esalen.org), the alternative-education retreat center that features stunning coastal views (don’t miss the waterfall at the beach access), clothing-optional hot springs and a variety of workshops designed to cultivate change in self and society.

Plan to tour Point Sur Lighthouse (www.pointsur.org), but allow a couple of hours for a moderately tough uphill climb, tour and return walk.

Places to stay and dine

The Big Sur area boasts a number of highly regarded upscale resorts. Our stay at one was so extraordinary that it’s become one of our top California lodging recommendations.

We’ve heard friends proclaim the virtues of Ventana Inn & Spa (ventanainn.com) since the late 1980s – and it more than lived up to the hype. The hotel’s hallmarks are its exceptionally friendly and professional staff, stylishly decorated accommodations (most with wood-burning fireplaces and some with ocean views), serene atmosphere and glorious woodsy hillside.

Sumptuous breakfasts, evening wine/appetizer receptions, high-speed Internet, yoga classes and daily guided hikes are welcome complimentary offerings. Other first-rate amenities include the unique dual Japanese baths located near two beautiful swimming pools (one is clothing optional).

Our evening dinner at the Restaurant at Ventana was a wonderful culinary experience. On a clear, warm day, be sure to eat lunch on the outdoor patio overlooking the Pacific.

For those tempted by the spa experience, the Spa at Ventana beckons with lavish renewal therapies.

Children under 18 are not allowed at Ventana, but the nearby Big Sur Lodge (www.bigsurlodge.com), located at the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, welcomes guests of all ages.

Cottagelike accommodations are tastefully refurbished, and the setting is ideal for families. Children will enjoy the seasonally heated pool, adjacent soccer and softball fields and all the hiking possibilities. Junior Ranger and campfire programs are also offered.

The grounds include a family-friendly restaurant serving tasty comfort food, an espresso cafe and ice cream parlor, a gift shop and a general store. Major perk: Lodge guests may visit any local state park free of charge.

Every trip to Big Sur should feature a dining experience at Nepenthe Restaurant (www.nepenthebigsur.com), where the magnificent cliffside setting and fine cuisine have wowed patrons since 1949.

For a more laidback experience, stop by the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant (www.bigsurbakery.com), where the menu includes creative dinner presentations from the three Culinary Institute of America grads at the helm.

Shops to visit

Because Big Sur has no downtown and its charms lie largely outdoors, shopping is minimal and spread out. A few boutiques, however, merit a visit. The Phoenix shop at Nepenthe (www.phoenixshopbigsur.com) carries a distinctive variety of clothing and gift items that should intrigue most shoppers. Local Color (www.bigsurlocalcolor.com), located in The Village Shops near the Big Sur River Inn, offers locally crafted gifts and art. The Gallery at Ventana (ventanainn.com/resort_gallery.aspx) stocks high-end artwork and jewelry, also by local artists.

Whether it’s your first visit or an annual sojourn, we confidently surmise that you’ll surrender to the charms of Big Sur.

For more information, visit www.bigsurcalifornia.org.

Los Altos residents Ann and Don Shanahan have written travel articles for more than 25 years. Email them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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