An October 2003 trip
to Big Sur by smmmarti guide
Quote: From raging ocean crashes to startling mountain vistas, through high chaparral, scented eucalyptus and ancient redwood forests, this section of coastal wilderness affords more concentrated and glorious spectacles than should be reasonably allocated any singular county. Birds of prey, sea lions, otters, and whales apparently love it, as well.
It’s not a city or a particular destination but rather the stretch of wilderness from Point Lobos to San Luis Obispo, that includes approximately 100 miles of the most scenic highway in the world. The road, built over the span of ten years at a cost of , opened in June, 1937, as the result of an ambitious Public Works project.
Highway One, known the world over for its famous scenery, scales towering cliffs, traverses deep canyons and meanders along a wild seacoast flanked by the Santa Lucia mountains. The area it slices through encompasses 3,000 square miles and 192,000 acres of wilderness including the Ventana Wilderness and three State Parks. It is nothing short of awesome.
Big Sur is an authentic journey. Surrounded by the nearly pristine wilderness made up of some of the most unique geology and botany in the world, you can’t help but have primal stirrings as it calls out to you with rock formations and jade coves, ancient redwoods, fragrant eucalyptus and bay laurel, Madrones and Lucia Firs, the sea crashing far below your feet while condors, eagles, and peregrine falcons hunt for prey overhead.
There are only 600 stalwart homesteads in this area, ironically far fewer than when logging was an industry and since Hwy. 1 arrived. Due to the original homesteaders fierce love of this land and remarkable vision, most of the area is now designated forever free from development. Even those homes and inns that do exist are mostly hidden from sight and disappear into the landscape.
The work of the Ventana Wilderness Society‘s wildlife recovery program is evidence that man‘s intrusion into the natural scheme of things can actually be positive. Sea otters, condors, eagles, falcons, and seals have all been brought back from the verge of extinction primarily due to the efforts of local conservationist groups (hear a giant round of applause!).
The drive to Big Sur remains a fantastic experience primarily due to its isolation and degree of driving difficulty. Merely two lanes, the route is often blanketed with fog and includes hairpin turns and stunning drops into the ocean sans guard rails. Combine this treachery with the temptations for rubbery-necking that abound along the route, and it’s obvious that accidents are waiting to happen--along with mudslides, falling rocks, and trees that crash across the highway. Exercise extreme caution when driving Big Sur.
Restaurant | "Cafe Kevah at Nepenthe"
The founder of Nepenthe obviously knows how to please a crowd. Since 1949 this iconoclastic dining facility perched on a breathtaking vantage point with some of Big Sur’s best views, has continued to lure legions of travelers, bohemians, celebrities and vagabonds and enthrall them with not only prime vistas but also delicious, home-style food and devil-may-care, self-induced entertainment. Like dancing under the stars beside a roaring fire. How primal! How perfectly suited to Big Sur.
In Greek, Nepenthe means "isle of no care," a place to find escape from sorrows. Our only sorrow that morning was having missed breakfast early in our journey. Considering we had encountered no signs of sustenance suited to humans since we hit the long, twisted stretch of highway after leaving Carmel city limits, Café Kevah, Nepenthe’s more casual option, looked mighty decent to us come 10 a.m.
Climbing the wooden staircase that lead to Kevah, and few stories further up the mountain, Nepenthe, it becomes obvious the proprietors operate 99% on the right side of the brain. Natural materials, whimsical sculptures, rough-hewn carvings and fountains are scattered about the property. On the deck of Nepenthe, brightly colored albeit weathered cushions are directly toward the view, serving as the bar. A massive, round, open-hearth fireplace provides the centerpiece for indoor dining. A weather-vane - interpreted as angel, goddess, sorceress or virgin, depending on your viewpoint - oversees activities below.
Café Kevah is open-air deck dining with a walk-up window where orders are taken. The scent of jasmine, honeysuckle and herbs fills the air and birds of prey circle the skies above the canyon. It was a heady experience waiting for our bacon, spinach and goat cheese omelet, staring into the fog over the ocean that dared not creep in to spoil our views on this glorious morning. The stillness was intoxicating.
Someone called our name and we both realized we’d sunken into a reverie that forgets about food. Recalling suddenly the purpose of our visit here, we gathered our tray, stopped by the condiment table where home-style jams are offered in little jars (as opposed to those insipid single-serving plastic containers), and in spite of hunger, had a hard time breaking our gaze from the valley. We nibbled at great slabs of homemade rye toast nuzzled next to tender cubes of fried potatoes and picked at an omelet infused with the mellow flavor of authentic hand-crafted goat cheese and thicker, meatier bacon than found in supermarkets.
Typically hearty eaters, we found that one serving was plenty to share in spite of the average-sized portion. Oh, the food wasn‘t to blame, it was delicious. But love tends to diminish the physical appetite temporarily.
Clearly, Big Sur was aleady working its major mojo on us and Nepenthe's ambiance had put us into romanctic overdrive.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 17, 2003
Big Sur, California 93920
Attraction | "Big Sur: For Everything Else There is Mastercard"
At sunset, over a glass of locally-crafted Chardonnay in the ultra-romantic setting of the Highland Inn’s treetop overlook, my husband made the nearly-tragic mistake of revealing he’d been here before.
Quick on my feet, (familiar with such things), I popped the obvious question.
"But have you been to Big Sur?"
I knew he hadn’t. During former visits he’d focused on golf, but during this visit he’d not even mentioned it; hadn’t gazed wistfully in the direction of famed Pebble Beach even once. As that was then, this was now, there was no way I’d relegate this trip to his "revisit" while it was my "first crush."
We agreed. Tomorrow we would awaken early. The light would be best in the morning, the traffic minimal. We toasted to clear skies and new memories.
Daylight brought evidence that the gods of romance found us in good favor. A rare morning sunlight shone along the typically foggy coastal road. Photo ops were astounding. My husband’s patience at my frequent outbursts, "STOP! CONDOR! SEALS! AWESOME!" on the often hair-raising, isolated, twisting, winding, climbing coastal rode, was equally amazing. He honestly enjoyed himself, relating the history of this road, the evolution from a wagon trail to paved highway in the 20s, the story of the magnificent bridges built during the Public Works era.
In contrast, I knew little about the area, limited solely to a pop culture awareness generated by poets, writers and hipsters who had crowed quietly about this place for decades. It occurred to me later that Big Sur lies below public radar because there is little money to be made here. Outside of a few rugged, rustic and esoteric lodges equally as devoted to conservation as the area’s early settlers(at least one of which is operated as a non-for-profit organization), there is nothing but wilderness; nothing money can buy.
Early pioneers of the handsome, remote, isolated area could be called the country’s first hippies--individualistic conservationists devoted to the land. Some suggestions hint that the forbearers of the area, a tribe of native inhabitants resolute in ignoring the invading Spaniards’ attempt to enslave them, is what gives the area its defiantly self-reliant and idiosyncratic spirit. I say it is the geology itself that influences such things.
Here is what I learned that day. This place, this drive, is a rare and wonderful jewel, preserved as a step back in time, accessible on a well-paved (but dangerous) road. It is like a drive through Disneyland or Vegas where all manner of the world’s wonders have been gathered in one location--a giant feasting table of geology and nature--but with a major distinction. It is authentic. It is you with nature as it lures you into its heart-achingly, mouth-wateringly-gorgeous smorgasbord for the senses.
Searching for romance? Driving Big Sur is a veritable love-in on wheels.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 16, 2003
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
47225 Highway 1
Big Sur, California 93920
Attraction | "Big Sur: The Oddballs Who Made it Happen"
They may appear odd and eccentric by some standards, but isn’t everyone who looks beyond the "nightmare of air conditioning," (as Henry Miller identified modern life)? The few, stalwart, blessed residents of Big Sur are typically as quirky as the landscape, seeming to be at once the recipients of wisdom as ancient as the granite cliffs yet as naïve and zealous as the relatively new-born Santa Lucia range.
Since moving to Maui I’ve taken to unconsciously bracing myself against the crush of civilization when I travel. In Hawaii, it’s easy to forget about the high-speed chase of modern life, to tune out petty concerns that seem to captivate people elsewhere; the politics, the off-handed comments that generate self-righteous indignation, the crime and petulance of the great cities. More and more we think twice about leaving our island idyll. We are careful to choose an alternative change of scenery, something even residents of Hawaii need, much to the surprise of outsiders.
But almost immediately upon our foray into Monterey, the need to be on guard turned into a round of unnecessary shadow boxing. We found the people to be blessedly kind, relaxed, minding their own business, keenly focused outside themselves and the wonders surrounding them.
It didn’t take long before I developed an appreciation for the quirky, the odd, the zealous that lead to the conservation and preservation efforts that have maintained this "great meeting of land and sky" for future generations. You know some of the names responsible for the movement: Rachel Carsons, Ansel Adams, John Steinbeck, as much a biologist as a writer.
But I wanted to mention a few unspoken heroes with whom you might wish to acquaint yourself if you visit Monterey. There is Frank Davenport, who dreamed of a family village as charming and easy-going as a European fairyland. Devoted to this notion, that he gave land away to people he felt would appreciate it and lured artists and writers including Sinclair Lewis and Jack London to Carmel.
Then there is Lathrop Brown, a former Congress member from New York who, with his wife, moved to Big Sur and befriended the local pioneer, Julia Pfeiffer Burns. He built an amazing house called Waterfall Home, since it faced McWay Falls, but afterward didn’t feel right claiming ownership to such an exquisite place, something that seemed to belong to all people. He turned over his land to the California Park Service and dedicated it to his friend, Julia.
When you visit this area, think about the contributions these quirky, conscientious people made to preserve this piece of wilderness. Contrast that with other areas of the world whose primal glories have been forever corrupted by "the crush."
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the oddball any day.
Attraction | "Big Sur: The Voluptuousness of Restlessness"
Throughout Big Sur, the restlessness goes on, voluptuous as ever, moving with the same energy and force as always, yet under the time-scaled observations of mere mortals it appears steadfast. I’m not certain how the image of mountains came to represent stability and fortitude, for they are among the most dynamic of the earth’s features. Then again, compared with the changing tides, the falling leaves, the lifespan of man… progress is slow.
But the impact of such deliberate force! Speed up the cosmic camera and witness the moving of mountains as they tiptoe across the Sierra Nevada to be deposited at Big Sur‘s coastline. Watch with wonder as another portion of the peninsula slithers all the way from the Baja peninsula moved by the force of shifting plates deep below the sea. Be astounded as volcanic forces spew molten lava, alternating with settling sediment like a giant geologic lasagna resulting in a mélange more wacky than the décor at Nepenthe. Pack them all together, slam them into the coastal plains and find one of the most astounding vagaries of flora and fauna in the world.
First there was an island, then following the last ice age it joined the mainland just as the fault line pushed up a newborn mountain range. Inhabitants of the former isolated mass lived on, adjusting to the new surroundings and evolving into species found no where else. The unique coastal climate, deemed "Mediterranean" in spite of being on the Pacific Ocean, with rolling fog coming off the gulf stream waters, sunshine, sea air, rivers running through it, all contribute to maintaining a diverse ecology that seems entirely incongruous yet wildly beautiful. According to Henry Miller, it represents, "the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look."
One theory claims that prior to the last ice age the Colorado River emptied into the Pacific from the central valley, cutting out the canyons of Carmel. After the warming, waters filled those canyons followed by rich sediment, explaining the area's fertile soil. Nearly half of all the flora in California grows here. Within whispering distance of one another, redwood forests thrive along side high chaparral yuccas as in no place else. At least 57 plants are totally endemic to this region.
But although this continuous changing and swirling of nature continues to occur before your very eyes, it may go unnoticed, save the foamy surges of the ocean blasting granite into sand. Instead you may observe simply as Mr. Miller did, that the area maintains, "That same prehistoric look. The look of always. Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity."
Attraction | "An Un-Visit to Hearst Castle"
Just after we’d risen beyond the crest of the Santa Lucia mountains framing the Big Sur coastline, thrilled to pieces with our surroundings, we’d seen the sign. Like a drunken sot who doesn’t realize he’s had enough, I asked for a double by agreeing to continue the route sixty additional miles to the Hearst Castle.
After all, it had been such a glorious morning, and the afternoon still sprawled out before us, resonating like the lingering chord of an ode to freedom. Isn’t spontaneity the hallmark of a great road trip?
From there the mileage signs ticked off slowly. Maybe I was coming down from the Big Sur high now, because Hearst Castle remained stubbornly distant.
We were still miles away when I caught sight of it. From the highway it was a fairy-tale twinkle atop the hill. Turrets and spires rose like an ancient cathedral of a walled mediaeval city. Excitement built as we made our final approach through pasturelands, golden with the sun’s mid-day light, punctuated by emerald stands of trees. At long last we turned off Hwy. 1 toward the castle.
What I didn’t expect, after such a wild and isolated trek, was the gigantic concrete parking lot. I hadn’t anticipated the visitor’s center, busloads of tourists, lines at multiple ticket booths. Besides being a repository for finery and a testament to over-indulgence, what was the historical/social/artistic meaning of this attraction again?
I suppose it’s fun for people just to witness how the other .000001% once lived. More and more I didn‘t like the looks of things, and that was even before I discovered we’d have a two and half hour wait before we could board the tour bus to begin a guided, narrated tour of the palace that would take another one and three quarter hours. Was this really the way I wanted to spend the remaining precious hours of my fabulous day in the rugged back-to-nature wilderness?
Since we’d come all this way and were invited to watch a video and visit a small museum with samples of the house‘s history, I gave the question more consideration. Coin-operated spy-glasses were set up to take a magnified look at the castle - still twenty minutes uphill from the visitors‘ center. We were encouraged to peruse the gift shop and it was here, leafing through the books that revealed the extravagant gaud of the palace that it struck me; I had no interest in going there. The glitz and over-the-top fantasy of the matter struck me entirely wrong somehow.
If the Castle were situated elsewhere, or if I’d approached from the south, driven up from Santa Barbara, perhaps it would have not been so jarring. But after coming from Big Sur the scene suddenly appeared to me distasteful. To move so abruptly from a world away into an example of a world way out there, was a step I was not yet willing to take.
Maybe next time.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 16, 2003
750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, California 93452
Perhaps I had it wrong about Californians.
Before my recent visit to Monterey Peninsula, my views of the great state of trends and image-makers were slanted. I had seen California as a necessary evil, like the instigative Mothers of Invention who send the world trend after meaningless trend yet who sometimes, in the midst of the nonsense, also hit upon an enduring and substantial discovery--the value of fitness, the cure for AIDS, the protection of endangered species, and Farm Aid.
Like a group of collective researchers, not all of whom are qualified for the task, California’s citizens often appeared to me derailed in a self-conscious void, an underworld ruled by mind-expanding drugs, marketing ploys and good-life celebrations when a bit of self-control and quiet contemplation would sooner, and better, reveal the answers to their search. Their sense of self-importance, often demonstrated as thinly disguised "causes" generated by a weary vacuous search for the meaning of life, often wore me out.
But that was unfair. California, it turns out, is more than its cities, more than bikini, muscled beaches, Rodeo Drive, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. It is more than fast-driving entrepreneurs and celebrities who steal the show and thunder from the real work-a-day citizens who are the true majority.
There is a fairness in the attempt to "type" a culture--as that is the travel writers’ primary quest. Assuming our global similarities, we are charged with the dubious task of isolating and identifying the differences, a challenge in this day of political correctness (which to me is just another of California’s good intentions gone overboard). Now, more than ever, it becomes imperative to do adequate and extensive research before drawing any conclusions. Who has the time?
Instead, I simply observe anecdotally. Go anywhere that Californians have migrated--their second homes at the shore and in the mountains, the Oregon coast, newly-emerged centers of technology, Wailea!--and hear the whispered comments from locals, "… Californian," as they acknowledge with raised eyebrows the behavior of the bold, the brash, the beautiful people who carry cell phones into theaters, digi-cams into labor rooms while spouting PC and diet commandments as if they’d found a new religion.
Certainly kooks, weirdoes and eccentrics exist everywhere, but in California they are given center stage and quite often idolized. There is little discernment between the truly novel thinker and the publicity craving big mouth. Self-centered, self-righteous and senseless, they spend more than they make, live a drive-through, expendable life, and then recall their governor when the state coffers run dry. Naturally, they replace him with a myth of their own making, The Terminator. Does he have experience governing and setting budgets? Who cares! He has proven he can save the world in the dark glow of the movie theater, and what’s life without a little touch of fantasy now and then?
So how can you not be tempted to draw a conclusion too soon from such evidence? How can the entire world, who also often mistakenly sum up the "American" by the antics and philosophies communicated by the Hollywood star-making machine and its out-of-touch directors, not make this same mistake?
I suggest you visit the Monterey Peninsula. There you can visit a winery where people who grow the grapes see themselves as they are--farmers--and see you as you are--a valued customer whether you swirl, spit or chug. There you can visit a low-key community festival, like Pumpkin Carving on Main Street, and feel like a local in five minutes flat- regardless of what you wear. Even in the highest rent districts of the country, Carmel, you will likely experience a truth my mother spoke long ago; that the truly rich have nothing to prove, they just own nicer real estate. Those that feel compelled to flash and flaunt reveal, sadly, a poverty of spirit and an empty emotional bank account.
In the remote regions of Big Sur, where electricity has yet to make its way across the high chaparral, it is impossible to ignore a kinship with the world beyond commerce. Which is why I am tempted to conclude, admittedly without adequate methodology, that the Monterey Bay is home to more truly rich folks than I’ve seen anywhere else in recent memory. They have the stewardship thing down. Drive the 60 miles of coastline at Big Sur and you will know what I mean as seals, condors, eagles, peregrine, otters all revel in the largest marine sanctuary in the world.
Here the California spirit is a zen born of nature, not constructed in the same old "better, faster, smarter" intensity found even in the stress relief clinics of the cities.
In the Central Coast there appears a more authentic appreciation for the natural glories of this rarified world than are found elsewhere. Immediate needs met, values intact, there seems to exist an awareness and enlightenment that doesn’t need to drone on or constantly reinvent itself. It echoes instead across the bay in the elephant seal’s groan and the cry of the gull. Animals, from butterfly to cormorant, allow approach, as if humans had never been an historical threat.
There are issues everywhere inherent in the basic human condition and surely the "haves" and "have-nots" exist divided by a wide swath of valley agriculture East of Eden past Highway 101. Taken as it is, this county is uniformly blessed with unique climatic, geological and natural features that serve to feed the soul. In Monterey County, everyman has a mansion; it is called nature.
It is not off-handedly that I give such high marks to a place other than my beloved Hawaii. But if Hawaii were to sink into the sea I’d paddle to the Monterey Peninsula. There I’d gaze across her fertile valleys, trudge up the Santa Lucia range, croon with the sea lions in the moonlight over Monterey Bay. Then, if the San Andreas fault tripped this former island back into the sea, I’d give glory to the forces at work behind it all, and swimming through a forest of kelp, I’d float through my last breath with a smile.
Fortunately, this outcome is highly improbable. Instead, I will admit again that the options put forth here may have been drawn using an inadequate methodology and may be based more on a glorious, revitalizing, romantic experience that was graced with perfect atmospheric conditions and barometric readings than it was upon science.
As such, I will need to return often to conduct further studies.