Traveling south of Monterey on Highway 1, by the time you cross the Bixby Creek Bridge—famous for its use as a backdrop in car commercials—you’re in the region of Big Sur. Its boundaries are dubious, but it’s safe to say if you’re south of the Carmel River and north of San Simeon, and you’re gazing at a rugged and breathtaking coastline, you’re in Big Sur. There’s a reason poet Robinson Jeffers called it the “greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.” A haven for writers, artists and others with a bohemian bent, Big Sur has long attracted people seeking solace and inspiration among nature’s treasures, so plan your stay with some quiet time built in. While the entire Big Sur coastline covers approximately 90 miles, Big Sur proper—a smattering of businesses within a few miles of each other on Highway 1—isn’t that big. You can’t get lost.
Stay at Ventana Inn & Spa
Set into the mountains on the east side of Highway 1, Ventana does not hug the ocean cliffs, but the views are no less spectacular. Reserve a room or suite with a fireplace and patio-sunk whirlpool tub, and settle in. Start your morning with a hike around the property and a dunk in one of the two pools—you’re allowed to skinny-dip in the one closest to the spa—and indulge in a spa treatment. (The Essence of Big Sur herbal massage employs the magic of hot poultices; your muscles will thank you.) Soak in the Japanese hot baths, peruse the book collection in the library and wander through the gallery. Dine on the deck at the Restaurant at Ventana—from your room, it’s a short walk through the forest on a flat path, lighted for your trip back. Examples of what you might find on the menu: pan-roasted scallops with lemon risotto, prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin, seared Sonoma foie gras or Dungeness crab salad.
Take a Hike
With trails peppering its numerous state parks—including Garrapata, Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Limekiln—Big Sur is a hiker’s paradise. At Pfeiffer Big Sur, take the Pfeiffer Falls hike, dip into one of Big Sur’s favored swimming holes or simply amble under the redwoods. Meander along any stretch of the 20-some-miles of trails at Andrew Molera and see the Big Sur River mouth and estuary, the driftwood-littered beach and numerous meadows, woods and headlands. The lush Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park’s popular Waterfall Trail, relatively flat and wheelchair accessible, leads to a vantage point for McWay Falls, the famous waterfall that dumps onto the beach below. One of the most satisfying ways to explore Big Sur is with a guide. Ste-phen Copeland and Greg Ambrosio of Big Sur Guides know the popular spots, the hidden gems and plenty of tall tales. You’ll get some exercise and learn a thing or two.
A Big Sur institution since 1949, Nepenthe restaurant draws locals and visitors for its awesome views. A pro-perty designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and originally owned by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Nepenthe includes the main restaurant, the Cafe Kevah (a casual, counter-service cafe on the outdoor terrace beneath Nepenthe’s main restaurant) and The Phoenix, the on-site gift shop. Spend a couple of hours exploring The Phoenix—you’ll find a massive collection of Big Sur-themed books, locally created jewelry, cards, clothing, toys and spirituality-inspired items. Afterward, sit on deck at Nepenthe for a beer and a Famous Ambrosiaburger—the ambrosia is in the sauce, they say.
Explore Human Potential at Esalen
A retreat center dedicated to experiential and alternative disciplines, Esalen institute runs seminars and workshops on mysticism, psychology, spirituality, bodywork, yoga and more. Even if you’re not a registered guest, you can visit the renowned Esalen pools—natural hot springs fed by 119-degree water at 80 gallons a minute—situated cliffside, 50 feet above the Pacific. The only catch? It’ll cost you $20 and you better be a night owl: Esalen is open to the public only between 1 and 3 a.m. (that’s right, the wee-est hours of the morning) and then only if you’ve made a telephone reservation. But you don’t have to worry about what to wear: Nudity is the norm.
Next to the Big Sur Bakery, the Spirit Garden is a great place to catch live music or an art show. The Coast Gallery, with six galleries nestled in a redwood canyon, displays more than 3,000 arts and crafts works by local and international artists. For exotic—or erotic—jewelry, check out the Heartbeat Gift Gallery in the Big Sur River Inn complex. At the Hawthorne Gallery, find one-of-a-kind paintings, sculpture, ceramics and jewelry; this gallery carries works by Gregory Hawthorne and Barbara Spring, among other well-known artists.
At Sierra Mar restaurant in the Post Ranch Inn, take a seat on the edge of the world—this is perhaps the most dramatic view from a public vantage point in Big Sur. It’s a great lunch spot, with a pretty patio overlooking the sea. Try the curry chicken sandwich on raisin-pecan bread and pair it with a glass of lavender lemonade. Hit the Big Sur Bakery for your afternoon sweets fix (a mocha cookie and a latte, anyone?) or a hearty dinner of, say, butter-braised California halibut and a side of sweet potato and cheddar cheese pie. Or wood-fired pizza with roasted eggplant, pine nuts and goat cheese. Or a house-aged rib eye. During weekend brunch, discover the nine-grain pancakes with seasonal berries. At Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, where the restaurant inhabits the historic property’s original barn, cozy up to a tiny table by the fireplace and dive into the spicy seafood paella.
Go to the Library
The Henry Miller Library lends no books, but it stores and sells writings by Henry Miller, the controversial Tropic of Cancer author credited with luring a generation of Beatnik writers and poets to Big Sur after his arrival in 1944. Browse the shelves and find works by Jack Kerouac and other literary legends. The library also serves as a community center, with readings and workshops. Don’t miss the International Short Film Screening Series that runs through Aug. 29, held on Thursday nights outdoors under the trees.
Under the Light of the Moon—On Aug. 24 and 25, head to the parking lot of the Point Sur State Historic Park & Lighthouse at 7 p.m. for a moonlight tour of the historic light station. Cost is $15, and the tour comes complete with ghost stories.