Back to Basics at Big Sur
"Is that a theme park?” is a typical response from East Coast friends when we tell them we're going to Big Sur on a summer trip. California natives, whose coastline Big Sur resides on, seem iffy on its existence as well; seemingly divided between those who worship it, touting yearly pilgrimages, extended hiking trips and out of the way drives just to pass through, and a minority who, despite a lifetime of living in California have never heard of it despite likely traversing its 90 mile strip of Central coastline smack dab between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the PCH.
Ranging from cliff perched glamping yurts and autonomous solar powered tents to luxury homes with infinity pools and hot tubs, to more modest cabins, rustic beachside campgrounds and retro lodges where one feels thrust into a scene from Dirty Dancing; there's seemingly something for everyone and every budget at Big Sur.
Towards its northern entrance lay charming rows of woodsy cabins, where the common visitor at the historic Big Sur Lodge can expect modest grounds tucked into redwood groves, complete with a daily firewood drop delivered to the cabin doorstep for nightly fires in the fireplace. Evenings without wifi create an atmosphere begging for pinot and Uno by the fire paired with neighbors who strum their guitars from darkened porches while softly serenading the woods with an acoustic rendition of ‘Free Falling,’ all to the background music of kids cannonballing in the communal pool until after dark—a sight that can make any 70's or 80's born kid feel heavily nostalgic for those years away at summer camp when things weren't fancy but boy were they grand.
Whether your home base is more rugged or glamorous than the Big Sur Lodge, rest assured evenings in Big Sur have a tendency to often feel downright wholesome no matter your accommodation; and despite the vastness of nature, expansive vistas, and plunging stomach dropping cliffsides, the world somehow manages to feel smaller, more simple, and genuinely nicer when seen from inside Big Sur's globe.
Expectations should be tempered straight away though, as Big Sur is one of the few stunningly beautiful places in the US that has unabashedly decided against fully catering to the tourism industry, and has decidedly put land and species protection at the forefront of its mission. The lack of massive tourist inflow and infrastructure comes with some compromises though; often in the form of kitchenless setups being the norm, the omission of plentiful airbnbs to rent, a prolific lack of wifi and decent cell reception, and communal showers being fairly commonplace; visitors uninclined to share facilities with their neighbors, or choosing a cliffside sunset vista from their bedroom paying a premium per upgrade.
For those who are highly food motivated, a bigger surprise may come in the form of a limited selection of dining options, often charging an arm and/or leg because transporting fresh local food onto this stretch of highway can prove lengthy, expensive and sometimes dangerous. This becomes apparent when one checks into their cabin and is given the universal “Big Sur Map,” marking a dozen or so restaurants on the 40 mile coast, all with high dollar personal pizzas on the menu along with a heart crushing shortage of local seafood options which can prove a shock to the system when one’s entire day is spent with the Pacific Ocean in sight.
It's important to pause here and note that capped tourism is part of the brilliant equation of Big Sur’s magic. The deterrences above automatically weed out more particular breeds of traveller, resulting in a self selection and organic attraction of low key traveller who is content waiting in line at the one bakery on the coastline for over an hour in the morning without outwardly complaining; passing the time by exchanging pleasantries and tips with others mild mannered folks from around the world; humoured by the occasional avid hiker who rolls up to the bakery line, and loudly announces in good humor and a bit of pomp that they’ll be heading back to their cabin to eat a can of tuna for breakfast so they can spend the day on the trail instead of waiting an hour for an Americano and a pastry. Speaking from experience, I highly recommend being the line-waiting Americano drinking type, as the bakery (which turns into a restaurant during off hours/days) is the dining highlight of the entire coast. The epitome of the experience --and the essence of Big Sur locals-- is that after a sixty minute wait each patron is greeted without a hint of stress or rush by the barista and cashier, who take their time letting everyone peruse the bakery case, offering suggestions and pointing out favorites. The biggest mistake a newb can make is not ordering extra pastries for midday snacks and a second coffee to-go for when they hit the road.
In general, Big Sur locals are warm and open, shockingly seeming to love meeting all the unique people who wander into their neck of the woods, striking up conversations out of the blue over something as small as liking your sandals, which may or may not turn into a 30 minute long chat about where you grew up, and ultimately ending with them asking you to say hi to their sibling, who—believe it or not— lives down the street from you back at home--"The first house on the right after the market, the house with the red door. Just walk up, knock, and tell them I said hi."
What advice do they give visitors? “Get up early if you’re heading to Julia Byrne beach.” How early? Seven? Eight? “As early as you can manage,” their only advice. "Is it worth going," we ask? “Yes, definitely. We were just there for sunset last night.” they say. Visitors are capped by the Park, and with a parking lot of only maybe a couple dozen spots, it’s easy to see how it’s a ‘now or never’ situation in order to see the infamous beach and water spitting sea cave.
Other beach recommendations are further south near the southern entrance to Big Sur, on beaches not on the map given to all the visitors of the “must sees.” Where one usually finds locals instead of tourists meandering along the grassy almost deserted cliffs, again seeming to enjoy stopping passersby for an impromptu in-depth chat on life and plans for the day, curious about which trail you're planning to go down, paired with their personal advice on the best route, opening their hand with a few gifts of jade rocks for you to take home and use as a guide for finding more of your own, parting ways with a genuine heartfelt wish of “I hope you have a good day.”
The must-sees of Big Sur are worth a quick stop, as no one should miss a slow perusing of Henry Miller's home which is now the local bookstore, or go without longingly looking at the pristine shores of the infamous McWay falls while daydreaming about how to illegally sneak down there one morning. Though it's the undiscovered nooks and deserted beach coves that are even more noteworthy for those willing to travel a bit out of the way. The best of the best are spent on trail in soul soothing pin-drop quiet forests, weaving across the tops of exposed ridges trying to spot local endangered condors, or nestled into cliff backed nooks of sand, book in hand, alongside a handful of locals (easily spotted by their lack of paraphernalia; typically a dog, a towel, and a healthy dose of chill), in the private coves of Sand Dollar Beach or off-the-map spots like Big Sur Hidden Beach Access.
When possible, stay out, and stay south until close to sunset when temperatures begin to drastically drop, boomeranging one back towards home with the sun creeping closer and closer to the horizon, pulling over at one of the countless seaside cliff pullouts for a proper pause as the last glimpse of daylight heads behind the ocean.
Another evening option is getting your name on the list at the very popular Nepenthe, which boasts about half its seating with seaside views, or quieter The Lodge Restaurant at Treebones Resort with about an hour until sunset, waiting out by the roaring fire inside with a glass of wine in hand until a deck spot opens up, where one can sit bar style overlooking an expansive view of the Pacific Ocean, catching views of breaching whales, unembarrassed to appear completely shocked and awed, as the waitstaff and other patrons seem to all understand how magical the experience is regardless of whether it's the first or five-hundredth whale one has seen.
As the sun sets, it can’t be overemphasised how perfect it is to choose a place to rest your head that lies in the redwood forests of Big Sur; the damp and fragrant scent only improved by the warmth of a fire and time disconnected from the rest of the world, remembering how wholesome and fulfilling to feels to get back to the simple things, if only for a few soul restoring nights.