BIG SUR, Calif. -- The Great Deluge of 1998 ended symbolically on May 21, when the California Department of Transportation announced the reopening of storm-ravaged California Highway 1 through Big Sur. At least, that's what I took the announcement to mean. (I had just moved to Los Angeles from New York.) So to celebrate, I bought a car, the first I had owned in 20 years, packed a bag and headed north.
I had been to Big Sur before, but never in a new black Miata convertible. And never before was I so aware of what the Big Sur coast is: one of California's chief beauty spots -- one of the world's. There the land meets the sea along the steepest coastal slope in mainland America, with the westernmost ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains hugging the ocean for 90 famous miles from San Simeon to Carmel.
Many things set the place apart, such as the artists, writers and millionaire dropouts who have run away to Big Sur and never come back. Because it lies at the overlap of two ecological territories -- the cool northern Oregonian and the warmer Californian to the south -- its plant and animal life is unusually abundant -- including, above all, the great coast redwoods, which spring up in nursery groves along moist private canyons. Guarded by the secretive Santa Lucias and a citizenry that tolerates only a minimum of development, Big Sur remains, to the average tourist's eye, almost as pristine as when condors flew freely over it and the Portuguese explorer, Juan Cabrillo, sailed by. Before I moved to California from New York, I never thought of driving as a pleasure. But heading to Big Sur in a sports car is a joy ride -- like having a fling with someone young and inappropriate.
I left Los Angeles early on the Tuesday after the Memorial Day weekend. With a cup of Starbucks at hand and a James Taylor tape cranked up loud, I had decided California was beautiful by the time I hit the Los Angeles County border. By San Luis Obispo, I was in the zone, listening to a Cuban band called Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, which may explain why I missed the first turnoff for Highway 1 altogether.
So I let the car tell me what to do, and it turned off on Route G18 at Bradley, which leads eventually to the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. At the road's crest, intersected by the Cone Peak Trail, I did something I had long been meaning to do: I took the top down, so that descending the mounded ridge brushed with purple lupine and goldenrod, I could feel the Pacific wind messing up my hair.
My trip meter read 297 miles when I turned north onto Highway 1 near Lucia, and flagmen waved me to a standstill three times before I reached the Ventana Inn, while trucks maneuvered at the very brink of the precipice.
But even if traffic occasionally stops, the views never do.
I'm no sybarite, but on my three-day trip to Big Sur, it was no holds barred. So I had reserved rooms at the three most expensive spots on the coast: the Ventana ($295), the Post Ranch Inn ($365) and Deetjen's Big Sur Inn ($165), all of which sit along a five-mile stretch of road just south of the Big Sur River.
The old, red Post family homestead greets travelers at the turnoff for the Ventana Inn, yielding to a pretty lane that winds past the restaurant and gift shop, through a grove of redwoods, and then up into the hills, where Ventana's two-story guest quarters of weathered cedar with latticed railings and sharply pitched roofs command sterling views.
In the main lodge, which also has accommodations, guests clustered around the complimentary cocktail table. I got an upgrade to a $365 room after looking at one for $265 that didn't please me because it was above the reception area.
Meanwhile, spacious No. 18, where I spent the night, had the air of a spring garden, with a pink-sheeted king-size bed, rattan chairs, a window seat and a porch looking right into birds' nests perched among oaks and bay laurels. The fireplace was ready to light -- which is the first thing my masseuse did when she arrived with her portable massage table and little bottles of herbal oil.
"What hurts?" she wanted to know. For the next 90 minutes, nothing at all.
The next night in the cozy candle-lit restaurant at Deetjen's, I met a well-heeled man from Texas who said he had been coming to the coast for years and wouldn't dream of staying anywhere but Deetjen's. The place definitely has its aficionados, thanks to its authentic old Big Sur charm. A registered National Historic Site, its idiosyncratic redwood cabins cluster around the rim of shady Castro Canyon, cobbled together in the 1930s by the inn's founder, Helmuth Deetjen.
I stayed in "Stokes," named for Grandpa Deetjen's handyman. It was dark and small, with Calla lilies at the front door; a plump, duvet-covered queen bed; a wood-burning stove; and rustic bath decorated with an appealing jumble of old bottles and lamps, dingy paintings and mirrors. The inclement weather did not stop me from going barefoot at Pfeiffer Beach, horseback riding through meadows of Queen Anne's lace and morning glories in Andrew Molera State Park, taking in a photography exhibit at the Henry Miller Library around the bend from Deetjen's, and joining a three-hour tour of the Big Sur Lightstation. The lighthouse, built in 1889, sits atop a great rock surrounded by water on three sides, like Mont St.-Michel at high tide.
I even hiked up to Buzzard's Roost, a promontory in the western section of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, thinking it a fine thing to set out during a downpour because you don't have to worry for a minute about whether it will rain. I grew tired of the gray weather, though, and asked a clerk in the gift shop at Nepenthe, Big Sur's most popular view bar, what she did all through the long, wet winter. She smiled so broadly I could tell she had loved every minute of it, and said, "I sat in front of the fire with kitty."
There was no kitty in my room at the Post Ranch Inn, where I stayed on my last night in Big Sur. But the staff was pleasantly attentive, and once I had been taken in a van to my chamber in a building called Middle Butterfly, I found that there was everything else to make life blissful: home-label sea kelp body lotion for use after bathing in the deep Jacuzzi tub; a porch with two Adirondack-style chaise longues facing 3,397-foot Mount Manuel; a CD player; fireplace; and a refrigerator stocked with cheeses and chocolates you don't have to pay extra for.
The inn has 30 rooms, but they aren't rooms really. Scattered across the last ridge before the Pacific, they are architectural fantasies in myriad forms: sod-roofed burrows with ocean views, treehouses set on struts and eclectic contraptions of metal and wood -- such as the one I stayed in -- that manage to suggest modern sculpture and shacks built by Big Sur settlers at once. You see strange, decadent things at the Post Ranch Inn: guests wearing their plush terry cloth robes on walks though the woods to the fitness room 10 minutes below and German tourists smoking cigars in the "basking pool." There are a few activities, such as yoga, stargazing and garden talks, but the main offering is indulgence.
I resisted at first, but finally succumbed at supper in the Sierra Mar restaurant, where nothing but a picture window separated me from the Pacific. The four-course, fixed-price dinner was a gastronomic extravaganza. I started with grilled artichokes in arugula-pine nut risotto, accompanied by mussel chowder and followed by exotic mushroom pot-au-feu with fiddlehead ferns. Dessert was blackberry tart a la mode, which I carried back to my room.
Small wonder, then, that I left the inn carrying a couple of extra pounds that weren't in my suitcase. Never mind. The sun was shining again by the time I drove out of Big Sur, down Highway 1, until it vanished for a while at San Luis Obispo. But I expect I'll be going back, now that my car knows the way.
Where to stay
The Ventana Big Sur Country Inn Resort has 56 rooms and two townhouses. Rates of $340-$725 high season (Memorial to Labor days), $260-$550 off season include breakfast, afternoon wine. (408) 667-2331, fax (408) 667-2287
Deetjen's Big Sur River Inn has 19 rooms, some of which share baths. Rates: $75-$180. (408) 667-2377.
The Post Ranch Inn has 30 rooms. Rates of $365-$645 include breakfast, stocked fridges. (408) 667-2200 or (800) 527-2200, fax (408) 667-2824.
Less expensive are the Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, (408) 667-3100 or (800) 424-4787; the Big Sur River Inn, (408) 667-2700 or (800) 548-3610, fax (408) 667-2743; the Esalen Institute, (408) 667-3000, or the New Camaldoli Hermitage near Lucia, (408) 667-2456.
Where to eat The restaurants at the Ventana Inn, Deetjen's and the Post Ranch Inn are all excellent, if expensive, choices. For more casual meals, try the Loma Vista Cafe Gardens, (408) 667-2818, or Ripplewood Cafe, (408) 667-2242. For sunset over cocktails, Nepenthe is the place, (408) 667-2345.
For more information California Division of Tourism, 801 K St., Suite 1600, Sacramento, CA 95814; (800) 862-2543 or (916) 322-2881, fax (916) 322-3402, Internet http://gocalif.ca.gov.
Big Sur Information Station, Big Sur Station No. 1, Big Sur, CA 93920; (408) 667-2315.