Any bucket list worth its salt must have a drive along Big Sur at the top. No words I know, no photos I am capable of taking could ever capture the grandeur of this approximately 90-mile drive along California Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon.
You can spend a full day driving the winding road and stop several places along the way, or you can plan to spend a week, a month, heck, a year there exploring all that Mother Nature and a few singular hoteliers and restaurants have to offer. I hope to tempt you with a few.
For places to stay, let’s start at the top with the Rolls-Royce of resorts, the Post Ranch Inn. Everything about this incredible coastline property is top of the line — the panoramic views, absolute privacy, the Sierra Mar Restaurant, winner of Wine Spectator’s prestigious Grand Award, Zen-like tranquility and the ultimate in organic architecture. Among the posh accommodations are the Tree Houses, built on stilts 9 feet off the forest floor, and the Ocean Houses, with roofs covered with soft carpets of grass and wildflowers.
Ventana, which is Spanish for "window," is aptly named as the entire resort is a window to dramatic vistas of the Pacific and rugged hills surrounding it. Unique one- and two-story buildings blend in seamlessly with the hillsides. Rated one of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Hotels” in 2010 by Fodor’s, Ventana offers a Billabong Big Wave Excursion with one-on-one surfing lessons; a Photo Safari for aspiring and knowledgeable photographers; and a Wilderness Package with local guides to take you to the area’s most hidden sites. Follow up these excursions with warm jade stone and eucalyptus treatments in the soothing spa.
Deetjen’s, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a rustic, comfortable haven on the edge of Big Sur’s redwood forest. Considered by many the best place for breakfast in Monterey County, you won’t want to miss the homemade granola, smoked salmon bagels and huevos rancheros in this country English setting. Candlelight dinners in the intimate dining room guarantee romance.
Nepenthe, family operated since 1949, is a very laid-back place to enjoy magnificent views and excellent casual food. Try the Ambrosia Burger and Three Berry Pie, and check out the Phoenix Shop for all things California.
Many marked stops occur from Carmel all the way down the Big Sur drive. You’ll want to stop at every one, especially if you have a camera, and you must have a camera for this trip. Here are a few must-stops, not necessarily in the order that they occur.
Point Lobos Reserve is often called "The Crown Jewel of the State Park System." It offers outstanding sightseeing, photography, painting, nature study, picnicking, scuba diving, hiking and jogging. Wildlife abounds, including seabirds by the thousands, seals, sea lions, sea otters and migrating gray whales from December to May. If you have time for only one hike, the easy under-one-mile trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is it. Your reward midway is the breathtaking 80-foot McWay Waterfall. Still guiding ships along the treacherous coastline is Point Sur Lighthouse, a turn of the 20th century gem standing atop a volcanic rock and open to the public for walking tours.
At the southern end of your Big Sur drive, in Cambria, you’ll be greeted by elephant seals — hundreds from July to August and thousands from January through May. Sunbathing along the beach in droves, I panicked thinking they all were dead. Not to worry; they’re happy as can be and a delight to watch up close.
I really don’t have the words to tell you how beautiful Big Sur is, so I’ll resort to the words of Henry Miller, American author and Big Sur resident from 1944-62: “Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”