Top Ten Big Sur Favorites
Depending on the geography, the experience of making a Top Ten list can vary greatly. In San Francisco there are certain undeniables (you can’t miss the de Young!) that have to be juggled with the up-and-coming things that aren’t on every explorers’ radar. In rural areas like Big Sur, there aren’t as many places to consider, but this doesn’t always make the editorial task simpler.
Everywhere you look in Big Sur there is something beautiful to see. I know travel writers have said this about many spots on the globe, but in my own realm of experience Big Sur rates in the tip top in terms of beauty.
I can hardly believe I live within driving distance from a place that is so majestic, so I make it a point of going at least once a year. Its been years I’ve been making these treks – short pack trips with hubby and poodle to Sykes Hot Springs, weekend pampering trips with massages (in view of the crashing coast), girlfriend getaways where ten of us pack a few rooms at the Big Sur Lodge and eat chanterelles all weekend.
For some reason this is the first I’ve blogged about Big Sur. I think it’s because the experience is so big to me that I was intimidated out of jotting down my notes. Other times when I visit marvelous places my urge is to pick up pen and paper. Could this be the writer’s equivalent of an adolescent crush? I feel like I don’t know what I’d say if Big Sur came along and stopped by my locker in the hallway…
I’ll stop questioning it for now and just get to my favorites, picked over years of visits at this special area just south of Santa Cruz on the California Coast.
Overlook trail, out to McWay Waterfall is the kind of scene you might need to be convinced actually exists. The 80-foot stream of water pours over granite cliffs onto sunny yellow sands in its own private beach cove on the Pacific. The view looks like those pictures used in motivational posters or dream-sequences in movies where characters dream-talk to their long lost loved ones.
Big Sur is a confusing string of state parks that have similar names to one another and are supported by a wealth of volunteers and docents. This one is south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – not the same park. The Julia matters!
Park along the road or at the trail entrance on the coast-side of the highway and follow signs for Overlook Trail. There’s a small day-use fee at the ranger’s station where you can also pick up a trail map.
Even if you aren’t there for a day of hiking the waterfall view is not a long walk and doesn’t involve up hills. The cove is breathtaking. It’s well worth the stop.
I like this place – it’s not to fancy, not too drab, not too campy. The Lodge is where many local community activities take place, including the annual Chanterelle Fest, and passes to all Big Sur-area parks is included in your reservation since the inn operates in cooperation with the parks commission.
Some of the rooms have fireplaces, some have small kitchen units, and there’s a pool to take advantage of in the warmer months. The lodge is inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park so hiking trails are navigable directly from rooms including the one leading Pfeiffer Falls off Valley View Trail.
If you’re a scone geek than the name precedes you – Big Sur Bakery makes some of the states’ most renowned scones. They even have a shiny cookbook to show for it. You don’t have to have sweets here, however, lunch and dinner are served daily and the weekend brunch is one of the best on the Central Coast.
Although this is one of the few businesses without a drop-dead gorgeous view, the woodsy backsplash behind the bakery remind you where you are – as do the shaggy-bearded locals sipping their coffee on porch benches.
Although there are no bananas grown anywhere near this place, the bakers have some uncanny ability with them. Banana walnut muffins and banana strudel are my favorite items to eye in their case – get there before 11a if you want anything that can be called selection, they only bake once a day and picky people get there right when the doors open at 8am to make their choices.
I was sent as a pirate to bring back morning muffin treasure for our spread when I was last in Big Sur.
It’s easy to forget the rich literary history of Northern California when you’re busy gawking. Big Sur has been the chosen home of several major American writers, most memorably Henry Miller who came on the coat tails of writing Air Conditioned Nightmare and left almost 20 years later after finishing the Tropic of Cancer.
His friendly personality is fondly remembered by old time Big Sur-ians, and his friend Emil White is the one who founded this memorial library using his own home for the purpose. The library operates as a non-profit with a visually-pleasing book shop centered around Miller and the writing of his contemporaries, and a slew of events including the annual short film fest and visits from performers of poetry and song.
You can put a dollar or two in the jar on the porch and grab some lemonade or coffee to go with one of Miller’s books and sit on the porch to read. Emil White’s paintings are an interesting take on the scenery, and some have funny political or poetic themes – thankfully they’ve been made into post cards. I know many of my family members have had one arrive in their mailbox before…
If you squint while you’re a passenger making your way down Route 1 you may think you’re seeing Mont Saint-Michelle in France. The lighthouse tops a coastal dome that is higher than any of the surrounding hills or cliffs, and a narrow road leads out from the main highway to a circular drive that climbs two full turns around the hill before coming to the top where you can tour the lighthouse. It is dramatic.
You can only tour the area with a chaperone, but there are plenty of scheduled tours throughout the year – Wednesday and Saturday mornings each week plus twilight tours with ghost tales in the high season from May to October. Meet the docent off the side of the road at the gate and you’ll caravan in. The fee is $10, a little higher for the twilight tours.
6. Point Lobos
I have a love-hate relationship with the work favorite – but this is one of those times I have to use it unabashedly. This really has to be my favorite coastal park in California. Point Lobos has three main areas to visit – the historic whaler’s cabin, the Cypress Cove trails (where the most otters can be found) and the popular Sea Lion Cove with the obvious name. There is a network of other trails criss-crossing the natural preserve, which is now taken care of by a private organization. California State Parks are under threat of loosing vital funding, so I happily pay my day use fee for a visit and am glad to see people coming together to protect natural resources like this for us all.
One thing to note about this place is it gets more poison oak than other parks in the area and that means when the leaves are young – April through May – sensitive folk should be wary. Even if you don’t touch the stuff you can get it since the oils are more potent this time of year.
Don’t skip a chat with one of the rangers in the central parking lot. They can tell you were sightings of otters, birds, even whales have most recently occurred, and also help you find you’re way around the park. I love that they all know so much about the flora and fauna in the area. It was one of these guides that first told me about the link between otters getting epilepsy and cat litter boxes. After following up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium folks I confirmed that one of the greatest contributors to stifled otter health is a cat owner not properly bagging and trashing their cat’s business. Toxins in it go right into the watershed and right into the ocean waters. That’s a whole long story, but suffice to say, never be shy with a park ranger, you never know what you’ll learn! And definitely bag up after your cat rather than putting their stuff in the toilet or leaving it outside. The otters will love you for it!
Joie de Vivre Hotels has a lovely outpost in Big Sur, one with the expected luxurious feel of other hotels in this Bay Area-based hotel group. There are nightly wine tasting with nosh from local sources, and a spacious lobby area where hours can quickly pass behind pages. My husband told me a looked like I was growing brain cells last time we were there and I was caught staring out the window. I couldn’t get enough of the atmosphere. Rooms are plush and you can book in-room massages. Another plus is the double-size pool area, one with a clothing-optional policy reflective of the laid-back vibe in Big Sur. I wish they’d include the daily resort fee of $25 per reservation into the overall fee but other than that there is little to gripe about with Ventana. Even if you’re staying elsewhere you can book the quality spa services here unlike posh Post Ranch Inn, just a driveway down the road, where you have to stay in order to book at the spa.
8. Esalen Baths
For the more adventurous visitor Esalen would be much further up on this list. It isn’t for everyone, but those who aren’t fazed by naked bodies or by new age ideas will be in for a treat. Esalen is a coastal resort set up for retreats on many subjects relating with self-empowerment, peace, communication, and spirituality. Members and retreat-goers have access to the spacious grounds during the day, but by 1am the famed Esalen hut tubs are opened to the public.
It isn’t as simple as getting there in the middle of the night, however. I would liken the experience of making a booking for the night baths to getting Bon Jovi tickets in the early 90s. You can’t give up, you must stay positive, and you have to focus. During the winter month’s reservations for the tub from 1-3am are only made the day of, for summer months you can reserve in advance. Call right at 8am when the phone lines open and keep calling until you get a person. You’ll most likely get a busy signal for your first ten tries. Keep at it. Then book for one to four people and pay over the phone. It is just $20 per person. Don’t show up drunk, they won’t let you in.
There is a widening of the road near the entrance and you’ll walk down in the dark to a booth where you’ll get the rest of the directions. Bring a flashlight. The baths themselves make all this fuss worth it. If you don’t believe me that is fine, I’ll have one less person to compete with when I’m calling repeatedly at 8am next time. I will say that the stars are amazing, the 6 or so baths are clustered on the cliffs above the waves, and there’s just a little healing sulfur in the water. It might not smell rosy but it sure leaves you’re body feeling amazing.
California’s state bird is another excuse to write that over-used word…but it is, my favorite. OK, I also love albatross. But condors are amazing, even to those whose favorite bird list has other choices. There are many regal soaring birds in Big Sur – my rule of thumb for picking out big vultures from condors is the wingspan and the angular stripe of white feathers on the outer wings of condors. They are especially fond of sitting in barren treetops eagle style, but can be found soaring over the cliffs and trees off Route 1 and the area’s hiking trails.
Condor numbers are coming back slowly but steadily thanks to people’s efforts, a handful or hard-working organizations, and an ad campaign to instruct recreational hunters to use lead-free bullets. Condors feed on downed pray and road kill and are susceptible to any poisons that leak from bullets. It might sound unlikely, like the cat-otter connection, but there are major links here that are measurable. If you’re in the market for bullets, surely get the lead-free ones. Cheers.
This resort and restaurant is the biggest attraction in Big Sur from a tourist perspective. It’s the only place where you’ll see carloads of kids filing out of a minivan, but it is still very much worth a stop. There aren’t many restaurants in Big Sur, and as I usually stay at Big Sur Lodge I don’t care since I my room is equipped with a small kitchen. Even though I’ve waited in line and zigged around the parking lot in search for a spot – two things I don’t associate with the Big Sur experience in the least – I’ve never left with a furrowed brow. There are large window tables where a group can sit and dine with the coast in full view. There are outside and inside tables with views – and there’s a fun menu with a famous “ambrosia” hamburger made with salsa in the patty plus tasty vegetable dishes like chilled Brussels sprout salad with Gorgonzola. They make White Russians the right way I’ve been told by my trusty cocktail-savvy friends. If you head to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in the morning for a waterfall walk and stop by the Henry Miller Library afterward, you’ll be a few short turns in the road from a scrumptious lunch at Nepenthe.