Whether you're trekking along forested ridges and bonding with the vegetation, cantering across one of the beaches on horseback, or simply gazing on the Pacific from a cushy cliff-top resort, nature is the star attraction throughout this 90-mile expanse of coastal highlands that stretches roughly
from San Simeon, 260 miles north of Los Angeles, to Carmel, 130 miles south of San Francisco. It is so magnificent, that, in truth, bowing would not be an excessive gesture of appreciation.
A companion and I spent five days sampling three dramatically different styles of Big Sur vacations, from rustic to royal:
* We booked simple lodgings deep in the woods at the laid-back 1930's Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, where the dining room was as likely to be filled with locals as with tourists, chowing down on hearty fare and catching up on news and gossip in equal proportions. Our room, once occupied by the legendary Norwegian homesteader Helmut "Grandpa" Deetjen himself, came complete with Grandpa's potbellied stove, a slew of scratchy classical records and an old phonograph to play them on, and journals of the old man's musings about life - and afterlife.
* We joined the aforementioned "Big Sur Wilderness Experience" at Esalen, popularly known as the "Harvard of Human Potential," which runs hundreds of weekend self-awareness workshops, from Gestalt psychology to couples massage to inner golf. Our consciousness-raising nature outings were followed by huge buffets in the institute's dining room and communal soaks in a cliff-side hot tub. Shedding our clothes (but, alas, not our inhibitions), we sat, uh, cheek to cheek in the steaming water, facing the crashing Pacific and trying not to notice how many people looked better than us in the buff.
* Finally, we pampered ourselves at 500 bucks a night in one of the ocean- front bungalows at the swank one-year-old Post Ranch Inn, perched on a bluff 1,200 feet above the sea. When fog blotted out the expensive view, and lashing rain made venturing out unappealing, we holed up in front of our wood- burning fireplace, slathered each other in jasmine-scented oil, and,
assisted by soft music wafting from the room's Nakamichi tape deck, dutifully practiced Esalen massage maneuvers.
The common thread throughout our trip was time each day given over to exploring the woods, beaches, and cliff trails for which Big Sur is justly famous. Starting in Los Angeles and driving slowly up gorgeous coastal Highway 1, with an overnight en route in trendy seaside Cambria, we were deep in Big Sur's Santa Lucia Mountains by late afternoon our second day on the road.
We had only 60 miles to go from Cambria to the heart of Big Sur, but distance and time rarely jibe in this captivating region. Just minutes after pulling over to photograph the most beautiful seascape we'd ever seen, we'd stop again to snap an even more dramatic shot, and then another and another. Every turn of winding Highway 1 revealed an enticing new juxtaposition of cliff and ocean, with moody clouds, blazing wildflowers and grazing cows alternating as supporting players in the scene. All the way up the coast, nature kept outdoing herself, until my companion finally begged me to close my eyes for awhile so we could get to our lodgings before dark.
We pulled into Deetjen's Big Sur Inn in plenty of time to stash our suitcases in the redwood cabin marked "Grandpa's Room" and get in our first Big Sur hike, at Andrew Molera State Park, a few miles north.
At the park entrance we paid a $4 car fee and were handed a trail map with several routes to a secluded beach where the ocean and Big Sur River meet. We chose an easy one-mile stroll along a sandy path flanked by wildflowers, and beyond, an old pasture. The view at the end of the line was everything we had hoped for - a wide expanse of sand for stretching our legs after a long day on the road, and at each end of the beach, towering cliffs curving out to a roiling, deep-blue sea.
No wonder so many artists and writers migrated to this magic land over the years, seeking inspiration and solitude. (There wasn't even a passable road through the region until the present State Highway 1 was completed in 1937.) Here, novelist Henry Miller, poets Robinson Jeffers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, singer Joan Baez, and countless others had composed impassioned works that mocked human foibles and railed against cruelty and injustice.
Dinner was another visual feast. We had heard that the best view in Big Sur was from Nepenthe, an informal restaurant high on a cliff with outdoor decks overlooking the Pacific and adjacent mountains. Arriving just in time to catch the panorama before darkness closed in, we sat at a long ocean-view table, lit by overhead Japanese lanterns. Devouring fresh Pacific salmon, while soulful jazz played over the loudspeakers, we thought surely life was perfect - until a guy behind us whipped out a cellular phone and began loudly negotiating stock deals with someone in New York named Harvey.
There were no such mood-breakers back in Grandpa's room. Cuddling up under the heavy paisley comforter with a fire crackling in the potbelly stove, we listened to the strains of Mozart playing on the old phonograph and read a yellowed magazine feature memorializing Deetjen, who died in 1972 at age 80, leaving the inn to be run as a nonprofit preservation trust. A bedside guest book solicited impressions of the place, and people had responded with poems, drawings and other highly personal tributes.
We fell asleep before we could add our own poignant contribution, and the next day scribbled a quick "Nice" before rushing 10 miles south to Esalen for our group encounter with the wilderness.
Our trek took us up the Tan Bark trail of Partington Ridge, a steep ascent through towering redwoods, wild strawberries and fragrant fennel, and along a
winding creek with cascades of tiny waterfalls. At the trail entrance, we followed Steve Harper's lead, and bowed to the forest - which Harper explained was a Shinto-inspired gesture that expressed our reverence for all living things. Then we joined him in clapping twice, a kind of wake-up call announcing our arrival to creation that also was supposed to stir our own inner alertness.
Per Harper's suggestion, most of our hike was in silence, so we could concentrate on our breath and be fully present to the sights and sounds around us. A born talker, I balked (silently) at such a concept, but soon found myself entranced by the forest sounds and feeling unusually serene as I wheezed up the ridge.
Back at the trail head, we crossed the road and followed another path down to Partington Cove, where we watched sea otters frolicking in the foamy surf, swimming on their backs and diving for fish. Then, facing the ocean, we joined Harper in a bow of farewell, before returning to Esalen for lunch.
The dining room was abuzz with people communing about karma, creativity and where to get really good sushi in L.A. After a meal of huevos rancheros, fresh veggies and multi-grain bread, Harper led us on a tour of the grounds, which sprawl over 12 cliff-top acres, and include flower and vegetable gardens, staff housing and a children's center complete with hot tubs for tots (hey, this is California).
Guest accommodations, meanwhile, were spread out around the property and ranged from dormitories with bunk beds to small but cheerful double rooms with lots of wicker, and balconies overlooking landscaped lawns and the ocean beyond.
In addition to being a weekend retreat for workshop participants, Esalen also is a residential community where scholars and practitioners of the healing arts pursue all manner of new philosophies and trends, prompting cynics to dub the center Ink Blot U. Esalen enthusiasts take the criticism in stride, even expressing some pride at the institute's image as a place of experimentation.
Whatever the visitor's philosophical bent, nobody goes to Esalen without taking a dip in the clothing-optional, cliff-side thermal baths. So, in the interests of research, we shucked our shorts, sucked in our tummies and joined a soak in progress. We had considered wearing bathing suits, but were assured by Harper that we'd be more conspicuous clothed than naked. Maybe so, but it was hard to concentrate on the view (of the ocean) while trying not to look as if we were looking at - or not looking at - all the naked bodies around us. Besides, I saw several guys sneaking peeks that didn't look spiritual to me.
Time for some privacy - which is what the exclusive Post Ranch Inn, 15 miles north of Esalen, is all about. For a price - and we're talking a minimum of $255 per night for the "cheap" forest-view rooms and up to $495 for the most desirable sea-view Ocean Houses - you get to experience Big Sur's newest resort and the only one built right on the cliff overlooking the ocean.
Deciding in for a dollar, in for $500, we splurged at the top of the line (and the top of the cliff), and spent two nights living everybody's California Dreamin' fantasy.
Bowing to pressures from environmentalists, who balked at the idea of a chi-chi hotel marring the purity of the headlands, the Post Ranch architects built the guest quarters into the cliff and the trees. The glass-and-wood treehouse units are perched on stilts amid live-tree neighbors, with a row of steep stairs leading to decks overlooking branches, sky, and sometimes a swath of ocean.
Our ocean house, which was built right into the bluff, with a sod-covered roof ablaze with wildflowers, looked from the outside like some primitive shelter. But inside all was nouveau luxe, with a queen-size bed, kitchenette with fridge, sink and coffeemaker, and a double-sided wood-burning fireplace that warmed both the bedroom and the whirlpool-spa area on its other side. Soaring picture windows framed Pacific views and sliding glass doors in both the bedroom and spa led out onto a private redwood deck, which faced the poppy-filled lawn and the ocean beyond.
In the morning, we rang for a room-service continental breakfast in lieu of the spread at the resort's glassed-in Sierra Mar Restaurant overlooking the Pacific. (Both options are included in the room price).
Over breakfast, we weighed our inclinations for the day. We put in a few grueling hours of deck-sitting, followed by a recovery period in the hot tub, then ventured out at 1 p.m.
We were bound for Carmel, 26 miles north, and the famous Seventeen Mile Drive to Pacific Grove, with its views of ocean cliffs, flat-topped cypress trees, harbor seals, and exclusive country clubs. The sky turned darker and darker as we wound our way up Highway 1, until lashing rains and heavy fog made sightseeing a bit too demanding for our tastes. Happily, we reached Carmel as the worst weather and hunger pangs hit simultaneously.
Escaping both the rain and the cutesy town, we ducked into the Hog's Breath Inn for lunch. Sitting at a corner table by a stone fireplace, with faux west murals painted on the walls, I devoured a Dirty Harry Burger, while my partner chowed down on a Fist Full of Dollars Steak. No surprise, the restaurant is owned by former Carmel mayor, Clint Eastwood.
We emerged from the Hog's Breath into what had become a sunny afternoon - giving us no excuse for missing a hiking opportunity en route back to the Post Ranch Inn. Turning sharply right at Big Sur's only stop sign, we followed narrow, curving Sycamore Canyon Road two miles down a lush fern gully to Pfeiffer Beach. The juxtaposition of wide sandy beach with undulating dunes, towering sea cliffs with arches carved by the waves, and giant offshore boulders and sea stacks, makes Pfeiffer perhaps the most dramatic beach setting in Big Sur.
We had the beach entirely to ourselves as we strolled hand and hand along the sand, stopping now and then to scan the horizon, where we could just barely make out the shape of a small fishing boat bobbing bravely in the rough surf.
Our faces wet with cool mist, we reluctantly headed back to the Post Ranch Inn, where we found the entire resort swallowed up in a thick white fog. The Pacific vistas, the fields of poppies, even our own sod-covered cottage were all invisible as we ascended the steep hill from the reception building.
Perhaps, we mused, Big Sur had been a mirage all along, a Shangri-La escape we'd fantasized out of our stress-filled urban life. But just then the fog lifted, giving us a dazzlingly clear view of deep green sea, towering brown cliffs, pale blue sky, and puffy white clouds.
No, Big Sur was blessedly real, we agreed, as glints of sunshine burst through the clouds, gilding everything in a sparkling golden glow. We stood silently for awhile as the fog rolled back in, closing the curtain on nature's latest stellar performance. Then, as if following some subliminal command, we smiled at each other, turned to the sea and bowed.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE. You'll need a rental car. Big Sur is closer to San Francisco, but you can also fly into Los Angeles. On Route 1, drive 130 miles south from the former, 260 miles north from the latter.
STAYING THERE. There is a good selection of hostelries, including:
* Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, Route 1; phone 408-667-2377. Rustic rooms and cabins, some shared baths. Rates: $40 to $110 a room per night. No credit cards. Checks accepted.
* Esalen Institute, Route 1; 408-667-3000. Weekend to weeklong personal growth workshops cost $350 to $1,150 a person, including lodging and meals. Accommodations, including all meals and hot-spring baths: $380 per person, double occupancy, for a weekend.
INFORMATION. Contact the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, Box 87, Big Sur, Calif. 93920; phone 408-667-2100.