Nature Plays the Starring Role Along Big Sur's Dramatic Coastline

By Judy Dash March 13, 1994
Chicago Sun-Times

"Our hikes are a little different," warned Steve Harper, a naturalist who was leading a weekend wilderness trek out of the Esalen Institute here.

How different could they be? You put on boots, you huffed up hills and through muck. You oohed and ahhed and kvetched . . .
"We bow to the trees."
Now wait just a minute.
"What if I can't find a tree I respect?" I joked. Nobody laughed.
Nature is serious business in Big Sur.

Whether you're trekking along forested ridges and bonding with the vegetation, cantering across one of the wild beaches on horseback, or simply gazing out on the Pacific from a cushy cliff-top resort, nature is the star attraction throughout this 90-mile expanse of coastal highlands. Big Sur country stretches roughly from San Simeon, 260 miles north of Los Angeles, to Carmel, 130 miles south of San Francisco. The performance is so magnificent that, in truth, bowing would not be an excessive gesture of appreciation.

We 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 1930s Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, where the dining room was as likely to be filled with locals as 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 old pot-bellied stove, a slew of scratchy old classical records and a scratchy ancient phonograph to play them on, and journals of the old man's musings about life - and after-life. We joined the aforementioned "Big Sur Wilderness Experience" at Esalen, known as the "Harvard of Human Potential," which runs hundreds of 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 cliffside hot tub. Shedding our clothes (but, alas, not our inhibitions), we sat, uh, cheek to cheek in the steaming water, trying not to notice how many folks looked better than us in the buff. Finally, we pampered ourselves at 500 bucks a night in an oceanfront bungalow 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. 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 and sometimes appearing in unison like a pastoral version of some flashy Broadway finale. But the show was never over; 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 the 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 State Highway 1 was completed in 1937.) Here, playwright 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 life was perfect - until a guy behind us whipped out a cellular phone and loudly began negotiating stock deals with someone in New York named Harvey.

Next morning, we rushed the 10 miles south from Deetjen's 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 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 focus 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 creativity, karma and where to get really good sushi in L.A. After a meal of huevos rancheros, fresh veggies and multigrain bread, Harper led us on a tour of the grounds, which sprawl over 12 cliff-top acres and include 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 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."

Whatever the visitor's philosophical bent, nobody goes to Esalen without taking a dip in the clothing-optional cliffside thermal hot baths. So, in the interest of journalistic research, we shucked our shorts, sucked in our tummies and joined a soak in progress. Hard to concentrate

Maybe so, but it was hard to concentrate on the view (of the ocean) while trying not to look like we were looking at - or not looking at - all the naked bodies around us. Besides, several guys sneaked 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.

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 a bushman might have dug out. But inside all was nouveau luxe, with a queen-size bed; kitchenette with fridge, sink and coffee maker, 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 the spa led out onto a private redwood deck, which faced the poppy-filled lawn and the ocean beyond.

Nice, huh?

So nice, in fact, that we found it hard to pry ourselves out of bed our first morning, and 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.)

At the crack of 10, our assigned bellman, Dominico, arrived with a giant wicker basket stocked with jars of fresh-squeezed orange juice, chunky granola, a fruit salad of mango, grapefruit and strawberries, warm banana bread, little pots of cream cheese and yogurt, milk and two stale bagels. (Better they should stick to California fare.)

Settling atop thick pillows in front of the fireplace - which my companion had lighted for some morning mood - we slowly worked our way through the meal while weighing our inclinations for the day. We put in a few grueling hours of deck-sitting, followed by a recovery period in the Jacuzzi, then ventured out at 1 p.m. Heading for Carmel

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.

Happily, we reached Carmel as the worst weather and hunger pangs both hit. Escaping 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 pardner chowed down on a Fist Full of Dollars steak. No surprise that 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, my favorite of the many gorgeous wild lands in the area. 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 all to ourselves as we strolled hand in hand along the sand. 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 climbed the 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.

Big Sur was blessedly real, we agreed, as glints of sunshine burst through the clouds, gilding everything in a sparkling golden glow.

Travel writer Judi Dash lives in North Bergen, N.J.