Big Sur Without the Crowds
WHEN he moved there from France in 1940, Henry Miller, who had grown up in Brooklyn, called Big Sur his first real home in America. Running from Carmel, 150 miles south of San Francisco, to San Simeon, Big Sur's mass of tight mountains pushes brazenly against the Pacific swell. Kelp forests sway at the feet of rugged sea cliffs. Deep valleys shelter some of the southernmost redwoods. The only way through this fastness is along winding, breathtaking California Route 1.
Nearly two decades after settling in, Miller wrote Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, a collection of fond, philosophical sketches that expressed a nostalgia for the place born of his fear that Big Sur's magic could only wane as more people came to visit. Certainly, summers can be a crush here, a paradise lost of RV traffic jams and overcrowded facilities.
Yet in winter, nature reasserts itself. Whales, elephant seals and monarch butterflies arrive after travels that have taken them thousands of miles. California sea otters, once thought extinct and rediscovered only in a single Big Sur cove, float among kelp beds as effortlessly as the recently reintroduced California condors soar above redwood crags.
Winter is a refuge, not just for seekers and wildlife, but for Big Sur itself. Some days are so perfect, with golden sunlight burnishing green mountains against the dark blue sea, they are metaphor brought to life. On other days punishing storms scream in from the Pacific. Waves pound the coast like angry fists while torrents of rain howl up the canyons, obscuring the distinction between kelp and redwood.
But even during these times, a cozy lodge and a crackling fire are all it takes to render this side of nature, too, sublime in its way.
Nonetheless, if Big Sur rewards serendipity, it is no place to rely upon it the few lodgings fill quickly, and most buildings are anyway not visible from the road. After three hours' driving from San Francisco, my wife, Nina, and I were happy we had made reservations at Deetjen's, the coast's original roadhouse. The inn dates to the 1930s when Grandpa Deetjen built a redwood barn here. Being the only place to stay, it became the place to stay, growing into a cluster of rough-hewn cabins under the boughs of a redwood grove.
Our room was dim and cozy, looking out at ropy midtrunk pillars. The trees' upper reaches held the wood smoke drifting up from our chimney, blending it with the mists above. Below, a brook rushed to the ocean.
Though the Pacific is everywhere in Big Sur, the enfolding coast guards access like a jealous lover. Beaches nestle in coves backed by fearsome cliffs, and in only a few places is it easy or even possible to set foot on them. Pfeiffer Beach is one: in a bay sheltered from the ocean's full force by chunky offshore rocks, its fine tan sand is streaked with purple minerals.
When we visited, the sun was as warm as the water was cold. A few handfuls of college students basked in sweatshirts and sunglasses like style-conscious sea lions. An arch in the rocks served as a proscenium for the lowering sun and the backlit orange seawater splashes of gentle swells.
Knowing that any winter sunset on this coast could be the only one we'd see on our trip, we left the beach and made our way up to the ridgeline, hundreds of feet above us, where the Post Ranch Inn perches in unobtrusive luxe.
There, cottages are spread tactfully over rolling acres of grass and woods. But as in the rest of Big Sur, the Post Ranch Inn's charm lies in its attitude as much as the landscape. With our rumpled, sandy sweaters and wet pant cuffs we clearly weren't the establishment's target clientele, yet we found a welcoming spirit. At the inn's restaurant, the jovial Mexican bartender took us under his wing and brought us wine at a table on the outdoor deck.
We had the deck to ourselves. As we sipped the fruity Barnett pinot noir from the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands, the ocean far below rippled in the setting sun like a sheet of honey-slathered gold leaf. The smell of sea and fragrant, sun-warmed coastal scrub wafted up to us, and we could see the white breakers against the rocks below, too distant to hear over the quavering birds.
With sunset, and flitting bats replacing the birds, we returned to Deetjen's for the affable restaurant in the original barn. A roaring fire in the low-ceilinged, comfortably crowded space of stone, wood and plaster took the winter chill off the night air. We tucked in to a hearty and perfectly executed mushroom risotto and a solid and delightful cassoulet, glad afterward that we had only to grope our way a few hundred feet into the bracing redwood-scented darkness to find our little cabin.
The place itself is so overwhelmingly bigger, greater, than anyone could hope to make it, Miller wrote of Big Sur in 1957, that it engenders a humility and reverence not frequently met with in Americans. There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings, the tendency is to set about improving oneself. He could have been describing the Esalen Institute. Founded in 1962, Esalen is a sort of New Age Harvard, the intellectual home of the Human Potential Movement and West Coast gestalt therapy a place where seekers and celebrities (including, in his day, Henry Miller) gather to experience energy and spirit, to come to know Deepak Chopra and Atlantis.
Esalen's lush campus tumbles down from Highway 1 toward a precipitous cliff above the ocean as usual, it's easy to pass by without noticing. But it's just off the road, a summer camp for adults earnest Californians in their middle years, bent on self-knowledge and self-improvement, people who fall into deep conversation quickly and naturally.
Shortly after we arrived, as I watched a sea otter in the kelp far below the main dining hall chopping at a clam on its belly, a blindfolded man walked by, slowly and with tentative steps. As we stood in line for a lunch of intensely fresh organic kale and fava beans, another man hugged us both. We're all going to die after lunch! he announced brightly, before heading off to the afternoon session of the Joseph Campbell workshop that was apparently transforming his consciousness even then.
Esalen's Northern California vernacular architecture of rough filigreed metalwork, raw redwood planks and grass roofs fits in easily with its landscape of lush lawns, spreading cypress trees and beds of organic vegetables. The neat grounds are informal and touched with whimsy. A big ball of vines hides a snuggle perch; here and there, carved benches are set just so: to view the setting sun; for quiet conversation in the cool night; to inhale the scent of the eucalyptus groves.
While the room we stayed in was cramped and a little damp, any complaints we might have had were more than offset by the magnificent hot pools: as much as the hundreds of relationship workshops, inner voice seminars and massage classes held each year, Esalen is known for these legendary tubs. Hugging a seaside cliff, the complex of baths momentarily captures natural hot springs before they pour into the Pacific. Board-formed concrete walls, warm and grippy sandstone floors and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to sea give the place the feel of a celestial point of embarkation.
We took a long midnight soak in the soft, sulfurous water, gazing through the steam at Orion high in a winter sky blacker than we had thought possible. The breakers below shook the cliff, filling our ears with clamor, as though we could hear the machinery of the heavens as it threw shooting stars over our heads. Cool, humid sea air puffed softly into our faces, all part of what Henry Miller called Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity.
The world fell away for us; we even forgot about Miller. It was not until we were on our way back toward San Francisco on Tuesday morning that we remembered to stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. The small library features a reading room, shop and hot coffee, and is the host of workshops, readings and special events. Nina's father makes a cameo as a toddler urinating on a billiard table in Miller's novel Sexus, so we thought we might go and brag about this to whomever we might find inside.
We pulled the car onto the side of the road under the big trees before the library, a modest shingle-roofed house, set back in a hollow. There was nobody around, but the gate was opened a crack, so I slipped inside, not seeing the sign propped against a pile of firewood: Closed Tuesdays. I walked across the wet grass strewn with sculptures and bric-a-brac, put a foot on the wet deck, and looked into the house to see a figure sitting on the floor surrounded by books. He looked up, and our eyes met, and I remembered reading of Miller's annoyance at tourists pulling up to his house and demanding sandwiches.
One's destination is never a place, he wrote too, but rather a new way of looking at things.
WHERE TO EAT
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn (48865 Highway 1; 831-667-2377; www.deetjens.com). Serving hearty breakfasts and solid dinners in a cozy candle-and-firelit space, Deetjen's restaurant has an unpretentious but efficient and friendly feel that seems the epitome of Big Sur at its best. Dinner entrees are around $24, and a gut-busting breakfast of fresh pancakes, sausage and strong coffee can be had for under $10.
The Sierra Mar restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn, on Highway 1, 30 miles south of Carmel (831-667-2800; www.postranchinn.com), serves visitors daily from noon to 9 p.m. in a stylish dining room perched at the edge of a Pacific cliff. Four-course prix fixe dinners of well-executed California cuisine run about $85 a person, not including wine. Lunch entrees are around $15. Reservations are required for dinner.
Nepenthe, on Highway 1, 51 miles south of Carmel (831-667-2345; www.nepenthebigsur.com), has long been a favorite tourist aerie. It is worth a visit on sunny days for the magnificent views and cheery crowd, although the food, served from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., is overpriced and undistinguished. Think of it as the price of admission.
WHERE TO STAY
Nestled in a redwood hollow near the road, Deetjen's is the coast's original roadhouse. It is unpretentious and friendly, and the tiny wisteria-shrouded library is the perfect place to read Henry Miller, or to delve into local history. The redwood walls can be thin, so ask for a detached cottage. A room with a private bath and fireplace is $165 to $195.
Hidden just off the road, the Esalen Institute (55000 Highway 1; 831-667-3005; www.esalen.org) seems to exist in its own dimension. Most people come for one of the workshops or courses, which last from a weekend to a month or more. We were able to reserve a one-night Personal Retreat for $150 a person, plus $50 Esalen membership. Personal Retreats, which include room and board plus access to movement and yoga classes and use of the art barn, meditation Round House and hot springs, cannot be reserved more than one week in advance. Visitors without reservations are not permitted.
THINGS TO DO
The Henry Miller Memorial Library (Highway 1; 831-667-2574; www.henrymiller.org) maintains a reference collection of Miller's work, a bookshop and a big wooden deck where visitors can enjoy coffee and Wi-Fi. Special events include readings, concerts, art shows, performances and seminars. The library is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Tuesdays.
The legendary hot springs at Esalen are open to the public for $20 by reservation only from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. each night. Call (831) 667-3047.
State parks are strung up and down the coast. Many offer short hikes to astounding coastal vistas, while others permit access to the rugged mountain wilderness of the interior.
Pfeiffer Beach is 26 miles south of Carmel, a quarter-mile south of the Big Sur Ranger Station, at the end of
At Limekiln State Park (Highway 1; 831-667-2403; www.parks.ca.gov), a half-mile stroll in the redwoods brings you to the ominous, mossy ruins of abandoned kilns. The day-use fee is $6 per car, and the park is open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
In Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, on Highway 1, 34 miles south of Carmel (831-667-2315; www.parks.ca.gov), a short trail takes you to McWay Falls, an 80-foot-high cataract that pours straight onto the perfect, though inaccessible, beach at McWay Cove. The park is open during daylight hours, and this particular trail is wheelchair accessible. Parking is $5.