Where to go in Big Sur
By: Jennifer Maerz, Design by Anjel Van Slyke, Photos by Alanna Hale
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Big Sur has been my happy place since my college days, when I would drive down Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to soak up all the hippie nature stuff there night baths at Esalen, backpacking trips to Sykes Hot Springs. Now that I’m a grown-up, I enjoy grown-up hippie stuff – like night baths at Esalen, car camping trips along Big Sur River, and gourmet grub at one of the many awesome restaurants in town. If you’re hitting Big Sur for the weekend, these are the spots you should make sure not to miss.
Technically, this compound comprises a gorgeous, treelined meadow and a small, deck-lined cabin full of Beat- and arts-related books for sale. But the Henry Miller Library is so much more. Over the past decade, the space has grown to become the concert destination for intimate performances by such bands as Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and Peggy Young, as well as weekend music festivals – all of which are helmed by my favorite San Francisco promoter, Britt Govea of FolkYeah. His shows sell out quickly, but you can check the Henry Miller Library’s site for the full spectrum of events that go on here. Film festivals and other types of artsy gatherings are held on non-FolkYeah nights. Even if there’s nothing on the books, though, this inspiring space is worth a visit just to check out the ephemera of Henry Miller and his friends.
If you aren’t familiar with Big Sur, finding this beach can be a bit of a challenge. There are more rocky cliffs from which to see the sea than there are simple public access points to the water. But Pfeiffer Beach is a not-quite-hidden secret, located off a hairpin turn from Highway 1. Drive down the windy dirt road past farms and horses until you get to the state park parking lot, then it’s a short walk to the beach. Check out the purple sand and the dramatic vistas of waves crashing through holes in the rocks.
I don’t know if you can really say you’ve experienced Big Sur until you experience Esalen. The historic healing center has all levels of wooge for the open-minded, and if energy channeling and yoga therapy aren’t your thing, there are courses by famous writers like Cheryl Strayed to partake in. None of the classes come cheap, though, and the most popular way to enjoy Esalen’s cliffside property is from the baths, which are only open to the public from 1-3 a.m. The resort limits the number of people admitted nightly to the clothing optional (and by that I mean buck naked) pools, which are heated by natural spring water and overlook the ocean. If you go on a full moon evening, you’re in for an extra treat. Call ahead to make reservations and prepare for a magical evening and the deepest sleep of your life afterwards.
These cozy cabins are a coveted spot to spend the night, especially if you’re with your honey. But regardless of where you rest your head, Deetjen’s has a great restaurant in the main house that’s pretty much my go-to breakfast spot for stick-to-your-ribs food in town. Eat in one of the dining areas’ cozy clusters, all of which have a very homey feel. The staff is super friendly and good for giving guests local suggestions on places to hike.
If you’re camping, there isn’t a ton in the way of privacy here, but at $25 a night, what you’re lacking in ambience you’re making up for in budget price. Plus, there’s great hiking at Andrew Molera, which you can access regardless of where you’re sleeping. After you cross the Big Sur River (which can get quite high depending on the season), you can walk straight to the beach or go for the longer loop up into the bluffs and down onto purple-sandy beaches.
One of the great things about Big Sur is that you can enjoy one of the most beautiful places on earth from the high and low end of vacationing. If I had the money, I’d love to spend the night at Post Ranch Inn, but on my budget the Fernwood is my home away from home. FolkYeah has hosted some legendary shows in the restaurant area, and you can still sometimes find a weekend show here or in the larger stage area in the back. Regardless of performances, the bar at the Fernwood is tops.
It attracts a colorful collection of locals and guests, and the no-bullshit bartenders are quite friendly so long as you’re not acting like a tool. The back deck off the bar is surrounded by gorgeous redwoods, and the lounge-y area by the fireplace has a bunch of games you can play while tucked into one of the couches. But a weekend at Fernwood isn’t only about the nightlife. There are hiking trails off the back meadow, a river to gaze upon down in the camping and cabin areas, and a variety of lodging options that range from camping and RV spots to cabins, tent cabins, wood cabins, and hotel rooms. I’ve stayed at them all, friends, and there isn’t a stinker in the bunch.
Nepenthe has long had historical cache in Big Sur. The restaurant has been a hub for old-school Hollywood, the Beat community, and foodies flocking to see what the fuss over the iconic cookbook is all about. I love Nepenthe, but with so many dining options in Big Sur, I prefer this place for cocktails, especially around sunset time. Grab a drink from the bar and sip it from one of many ocean-facing seats or around the outdoor hearth, which isn’t too far from the pillow-strewn steps people love to lazily sprawl upon.
I’ve yet to stay here, but my friends who have report back good things (to be honest, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between the cabins and rooms at many of the similarly-priced lodgings around Big Sur, they’re all great). One bonus of the Lodge is that it’s located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which has a ton of hiking trails. Explore them and you’ll travel across creeks and up to shrub-lined vistas – and should you need an ice cream after all your hard work, these family-friendly grounds have a sweets shop with your name on it.
Ventana also has a gorgeous pool and hot tub you can soak in, although those grounds are much smaller than Esalen’s and the vibe here is less hippie and more resort-y. Should you want to splurge on a massage at the Ventana Spa, you are free to swim around in the clothing optional pool (with an ocean view, although a bit more off in the distance than Esalen’s) and a smaller hot tub. The hot tub faces a grove of redwood trees and is clustered into coed and single sex areas. I’d say if you’re going to plunk down the cash for the massage, go for everything at Ventana, including the snacks in the massage waiting room and the gorgeous hiking trails around the property. The restaurant also has a lovely bar where you can grab a drink to intensify the relaxation amenities of the place.
Don’t be fooled by the name this isn’t just a spot for sweets. It’s the best place in town to hit for dinner (or breakfast, but it gets so romantic in here at night, especially if it’s warm enough to sit outside). The Big Sur Bakery has great pizzas and seasonal dishes, an excellent wine list, and as a side note a dreamy tea selection for loose leaf nerds. Call to reserve a table ahead of time if you go, and by that I mean before you get to Big Sur, where cell reception can get spotty. Oh, and don’t miss the gorgeous garden next door as you wait for your table.
The rooms here are pretty much like the others along Highway 1, but Big Sur River Inn doubles as a good no-fuss brunch spot if you’re looking to down a Bloody Mary on a giant back deck with a view of Big Sur River down below.
I can't imagine sleeping arrangements that sound more Big Sur than crashing out in a yurt or human nest. Treebones Resort has both. There's only one nest, though (it's part of a campsite on their grounds), and it books up pretty far in advance so grab your reservation to get bird-bound well before you go.
I love Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, which has the legendary Beat writer restlessly traveling back and forth between San Francisco and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s simple cabin in Big Sur, all the while trying to figure out what life means when fame and bottles of booze no longer cut it.
Several images for this article were sourced from Creative Commons-Licensed photos on Flickr.
dwolfgra's photo of the Henry Miller Library
sarahwulfeck's photo of the Henry Miller Library
AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker's photo of the Andrew Molera State Park
Michael PG's photo of the Andrew Molera State Park
JAM + SPaM's photo of Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
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