BIG SUR, Calif. — This region called Big Sur is California’s inspirational stretch of highway, beckoning the adventurous spirit with the promise of something found nowhere else on the planet. It is one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation.
Some say the road is 100 miles long; others get more technical and put it at 89 miles. There is no town called Big Sur, although there is a postal code by that name. The name is said to come from “el sur grande,” Spanish for “the big south” or from “el pais grande del sur,” “the big country of the south.” In this derivation, it was south of Monterey, Calif.
From Los Angeles, take U.S. Route 101 north past Santa Barbara, then get off at San Luis Obispo onto State Route 1, the ribbon of joy, the Pacific Coast Highway. Soon you will come to Cambria, the southern anchor of our adventure, just south of San Simeon, where Big Sur begins.
Cambria is about 240 miles north of Los Angeles and the same distance south of San Francisco. It used to be a quaint little hippie town. Though just a glimmer of its truncated free-spirited past remains, it is the gateway on our journey through Big Sur.
Cambria’s Burton Drive is full of innovative stops, including Old Paris, with its interior design furnishings; the fantastic Robin’s Restaurant; and the historic Squibb House, featuring Amish rocking chairs and swiveling gliders.
Just past the Cambria town limits is Moonstone Beach, an unspoiled expanse of sand that stretches for miles beneath 100-foot bluffs. Between Cambria and Hearst Castle are dozens of hotels and motels, but there is only one place to stay, the last hotel on the left, the Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort.
Call in advance and make reservations for the king oceanfront rooms, specifically rooms 272 to 278. These seven golden rooms overlook the beach and the sea in isolated splendor from their balconies. Fireplaces keep the rooms romantically cozy as the chilly ocean breeze blows in.
Head back to Cambria and have dinner at Robin’s Restaurant. A converted cottage with charming interiors and hardwood floors, Robin’s serves an eclectic Indian-tinged cuisine that is long on exceptional and compelling food combinations. It is a culinary gem.
Rise early the next day and take a long walk along the empty beach. Marvel at having the ocean to yourself, mere steps from your room. Then set off, while it is still early, for the several miles to Hearst Castle, a state monument just north of San Simeon.
Hearst Castle, built between 1919 and 1947 by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, sits on 250,000 acres of rolling hills. With 165 rooms, multiple guesthouses, sprawling pools and 127 acres of gardens, Hearst Castle was a playground for the rich and famous where Hearst entertained the cream of old Hollywood.
The main house is a tribute to excess, a monument to a man of power in American political and publishing life. It makes the splendor depicted in “Citizen Kane” seem understated and speaks of a time when robber barons, railroad magnets and titans of industry lived on a scale more like kings than mere mortals.
Upon continuing north, stop at Point Piedra Blancas beach, where dozens and sometimes hundreds of elephant seals sun themselves at low tide. In the water, they joust like huge water-polo players with bellowing lungs and gaping mouths.
Farther on, we come upon a last-chance gas station and motel, a desolate outpost of 1950s style: no-frills kitsch on an open, windy bluff. I have passed this motel for years and never stopped for the night, and yet it beckons like an old Hitchcock movie.
As the road begins to twist and climb, we come to the Ragged Point Inn on a cliff overlooking the ocean. From this point on, it is eclectic bohemia. For the next 12 miles, the road climbs to heights of several thousand feet, through inlets and valleys. At every turn there is a looming vista — and a sheer drop of thousands of feet to a churning blue sea crashing against glistening rocks. The highway is rough-hewn, the turnoffs little more than dirt shoulders. Hairpin turns swoop and curl like a 1940s roller coaster.
Soon you reach what I call the “slide zone.” Here the coastal mountains and the fragile hillsides have given way to time and erosion from winter storms and geologic meltdown. Buttresses and mesh barriers of steel and wire hold back the inevitable. The uneven paving of a road repair in progress reminds that man’s efforts are temporary at best and that nature has its own agenda. It underscores the difficulty of building the highway, which wasn’t completed until the 1930s.
Soon we are cruising through Pacific Valley, an area of high meadowlands that could have been plucked from the windswept coasts of Ireland. The next 13 miles are a prosaic zone of state parks. Kirk Creek Campground in particular is a favorite with families and occupies a beautiful location.
We come to the Lucia Lodge, a row of motel rooms perched, it seems, precariously close to the edge of a cliff that drops straight down into the jaws of the surging ocean. From here we enter into the nether realm of paradise. You can pull over every half-mile and stand on the edge of the precipice, looking down into a raging sea. The trees become thicker, the gates of secluded palatial estates become noticeable.
Side roads lead upward into the hills to who knows where, but habitats can be counted by the number of mailboxes at the bottom of the road at its intersection with Route 1. This is where people have gone to get away from it all, and who can blame them?
Then it appears, on the left, the Esalen Institute, clinging to the edge of the continent as if drifting below the highway in the sky itself. You will want to stop, but beware, for this unappalled oasis is open by reservation only. For 30 years, the Esalen Institute has been a spiritual way station for the yearning human spirit seeking physical and spiritual renewal. Esalen offers seminars and lodging on a sprawling campus set on a glowing mesa suspended over the ocean.
The centerpieces of Esalen are its massages and the cliffside bathhouse, an architectural wonder created by architect Mickey Muennig. This masterwork literally clings to the side of a steep cliff high over the thundering sea. Here wizards of massage deliver one-of-a-kind human-manipulation therapies.
In the middle are the showers, suspended in the glass-enclosed open air. At the other end of the structure are the baths, natural sulphur springs that have nurtured this location for thousands of years, collected in tubs and pools that enable you to soak in the nutrients of a millennium while looking at the scenery of the ages.
Be forewarned, the baths and showers are coed, and clothing is optional. Esalen combines nature with sublime architecture, healing waters with healing massage, all in an atmosphere of serenity and joy.
Heading farther north, every turn in the road is a wonderland. At Partington Cove, be sure to stop, climb to the top of the promontory and gaze in awe. For years, before there was a Pacific Coast Highway, this was the only place to bring in supplies to this part of the coast.
High above Partington Cove, perched among the evergreens and a part of the cliff itself, is one of the architectural landmarks scattered up and down this coast. This one is special. It is, for lack of a better name, the Blue Glass House. It cascades down three levels as if it is part of the hillside, a cathedral of glass and stone surrounded by redwoods, with sunlight pouring through the blue glass.
Remodeled in the early ‘90s by Mr. Muennig, it is a treasure that makes me stop and stare in wonder every time I pass. I asked Mr. Muennig what he called it and told him that for lack of knowing I had simply referred to it for years as the Blue Glass House. He replied, “Well, that’s as good a name as any.”
High above Route 1, on Partington Ridge, a collection of homes ride the crest like immaculate falcons looking down on paradise. Continuing up the road, we come to Big Sur itself. As the road curves in through a redwood grove, we pass Deetjens, a remarkable old inn, and the Henry Miller Library, where the author retreated for much of his later life.
Around the corner and up a hill, we see the Margaret Owings house, Wild Bird, another landmark home. It is a large A-frame house set into the rocks overlooking a sheer cliff, as if it were part of the jagged peak it straddles. Mrs. Owings’ husband, noted architect Nathaniel Owings, designed the house many years ago, and it has defined the Big Sur perspective of blending construction with the natural components around it.
This attitude of making development a quintessential part of the environment reaches a golden apogee of sorts at the Post Ranch Inn, a distinguished, luxurious resort. The Post Ranch Inn has 100 acres of land at the very peak of Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific. It is Mr. Muennig’s definitive masterwork, a complex of 30 rooms set among the woods and along the ocean in a sort of celestial village.
It is paired with one of the finest restaurants in the country, Sierra Mar, whose soaring architecture in concrete, steel and glass is held up by rows of wooden support columns. Sierra Mar offers sweeping views while incorporating its front exteriors under a rising mound of earth and sod. It is as if you could walk from the ground onto its roof — and you can.
This creation marked a defining moment in the architecture of Big Sur, and it has made Post Ranch Inn the destination resort of choice for many discerning travelers since its opening in 1992.
Post Ranch Inn rooms come in five basic types, all with mountain or ocean views. The five Ocean Rooms are in individual lodges with sod roofs that blend into their environment at ground level even as they open up to the plummeting hillside beneath them. The 10 Coast Rooms have similar views, are equally sumptuous in design and splendor, and make each room feel as if it is the only dwelling at the resort. The seven Tree Houses are triangular, spacious individual arboreal dwellings nine feet off the ground.
A serene infinity pool that serves as a moonlight hot tub overlooks the ocean, allowing the discreet couple or couples the opportunity to soak au naturel while gazing down at the Pacific. The property is laced with trails, quiet spots with hidden benches, and wooded areas with hammocks. Post Ranch Inn is unsurpassed in comfort, innovative design and superlative pampering, making it a peak resort experience.
Dinner at Sierra Mar is a five-course prix fixe affair with a menu that changes nightly. The wine list has more than 4,000 selections. The restaurant itself is incredibly beautiful, built with angles and shifting dimensions and levels that suggest a curving wave set on top of rows of wooden columns. It is like having the greatest meal of your life inside a work of art.
Wanting to extend this experience, we get in touch with real estate mogul and Big Sur wunderkind John Saar. We set off in his Range Rover for the ridge above Partington Cove, taking a dirt road past an access gate off Route 1, soaring up a winding track with thousand-foot drops on either side, and no guardrails. Then we turn into groves of hundred-foot-tall redwoods along a twisting road that would be home to any backwoodsman.
We reach a clearing far up in the hills and see the Pacific, glistening far below. We come to a stop and, ambling down a grassy path, is Mr. Muennig, in his early 70s, a spry, smiling whip of a man with an enormous appetite for wonder and a curiosity about form. He has designed dozens of landmark houses in Big Sur and beyond. He was a leader in using the natural environment as part of a home, using sod roofs on top of grand structures, building homes into and as part of the earth, making them works of art.
His own home on Partington Ridge is almost buried in the hillside, with sod embankments rising up to three sides, a glass roof and a large oval door swinging open on its vertical hinge. Inside, it is luxurious, simple, eloquent and stunning. Eight wooden columns support the roof structure, arranged like a courtyard in the center of the house.
We look up, and one of Mr. Muennig’s dogs is lounging on the roof, looking down at us. We have several bottles of wine I have brought for the occasion, and we talk about his life, his work, his influence, his dreams. I ask him what his favorite project is. He looks up and doesn’t hesitate. “The next one.” he says. We wander out front and watch the most glorious sunset I have ever seen.
The next day, Mr. Saar takes us on a private tour of some amazing homes, many of them Mr. Muennig’s designs. It is a side of Big Sur that is seldom seen by travelers. Mr. Muennig comes with us to tour several more of his creations. One in particular stands out: the home of Mary Ellen Scharffenberger, who shared it with her late husband, Carl.
The Scharffenberger home is a masterpiece, the peak of what Mr. Muennig has done for private-home design. It has 270-degree views of the Big Sur coast.
It is set on two concrete support pillars that double as fireplaces; the pressed wooden beams resemble an undulating wave. The roof itself follows that wave with flowing patterns of wood. The walls are made of concrete block, and the comparisons to Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a principal influence to Mr. Muennig’s guiding force, Bruce Goff, and to Mr. Muennig himself, are inescapable. We sit on a patio deck that is built on top of the round guesthouse, reached by a grated skyway, and we toast our good fortune to be here together in this glorious spot.
Across the road from Post Ranch is another resort, Ventana Inn and Spa, set on hundreds of acres and featuring luxury accommodations that, if they suffer in comparison to Post Ranch, are still superlative. The restaurant is exceptional. It and Post Ranch are the twin towers of luxury resort getaways in the area.
Just down from the entrance to Post Ranch is a turn down a narrow road to Pfeiffer State Beach, a large expanse of isolated white sand set in another world. Enormous rock structures jut out of the sea mere yards offshore, one with a massive gateway bored through the center by centuries of waves. The sense of isolation and of being ringed by the surrounding cliffs is splendidly self-liberating.
Back on Route 1, we come to Big Sur Lodge, a traditional hotel with a Yellowstone Park family feel to it and a part of the National Park Service. Farther north is Riverside Campground and Cabins, a throwback to simple budget accommodations that are charming and romantic. The Big Sur River trickles through the site. Then, in front of us, looming up over the highway, are Big Sur Lighthouse and Point Sur, with the stunning beach below. Access to the beach is quite a walk, but the view is incredible.
Back on the highway for the next 20 miles, we are on a high road above crashing surf in a more barren, more primitive landscape. Then, in the distance ahead, is the sight that launched 1,000 commercials: the Bixby Bridge. You have seen it innumerable times, with Toyotas and BMWs crossing it or in countless magazine ads. In reality, it is even more spectacular. Built in the early 1930s, it remains one of America’s distinctive landmarks.
Past Bixby Bridge lie Rocky Point and Garrapata Ridge, the last outposts of this windswept shore. Soon we are approaching the Carmel Highlands, made famous in the opening of “Play Misty for Me,” and an area of exceptionally high-priced homes in an impeccable environment. Ahead are bucolic Carmel by the Sea and Monterey.
Now we look back at our journey through all that one dreams when one is California dreaming. From Cambria to Carmel is a space of glory and scenic wonder unlike any other. It is a sight, an experience, that never loses its hold on you. The joy of the journey is exceeded only by the realization upon reaching Carmel that we will turn around and drive back down the coast. Big Sur does that to you.
You never want to leave, and you’re always ready to return.
Stops along the way
Post Ranch Inn: Phone 800/527-2200 or 831/667-2200 or visit www.postranchinn.com.
Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort: 805/927-4688 or 800/826-8168; www.cavalierresort.com.
Hearst Castle Tour Reservations: 800/444-4445; www.hearstcastle.org.
Esalen Institute: 831/667-3000 or 831/667-3005; www.esalen.org.
Robin’s Restaurant, Cambria: 805/927-5007; www.robinsrestaurant.com.
Sierra Mar Restaurant, Post Ranch Inn: 831/667-2800; www.postranchinn.com/dining.shtml.
John Saar Properties: 831/622-7227 or 831/667-1111; www.johnsaar.com
Ventana Inn and Spa: 800/628-6500; www.ventanainn.com.
Big Sur Lodge: 800/424-4787 or 831/667-3100; www.bigsurlodge.com.
Riverside Campground and Cabins: 831/667-2414; www.riversidecampground.com.
Kirk Creek Campground; www.jrabold.net/bigsur/roadpt1000.htm.
National Park Service sites, Route 1: www.jrabold.net/bigsur/road.htm.
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