MONTEREY, Calif. — For me, Big Sur is the high point of any drive along California 1.
With its immense cliffs, untamed forests and crashing surf, this classic 90-mile coastal stretch may be the state's most dramatic landscape.
But spectacular or not, one aspect of the journey is frequently overlooked: It is a terrifying drive for many people.
I am one of those. Put me on a winding mountain road--a hair's breadth from the great beyond--and my palms go clammy. My chest constricts. Panic sets in.
Such episodes can occasionally be hazardous. Driving the Colorado Rockies once, I abruptly froze in the middle of the road and had to turn over the wheel to a companion.
I wanted to avoid such trauma on a recent trip to Big Sur, so I checked out the dangers beforehand.
"Is it scary?" I sheepishly asked friends. Their answers were hardly reassuring. "It's not so bad," said one who suggested traversing the two-lane road from south to north. "That way you'll be on the inside."
Others were less sanguine. My mother told of a neighbor who drove California 1 with her husband "screaming all the way." I queried one hotel concierge who admitted: "I live here and I get nervous doing it."
Making matters worse, such fears are not irrational. People do drive off the cliffs. The plateau beneath famed Hurricane Point "is littered with irretrievable vehicles whose drivers took the sharp curve with too much speed and too little attention," an area guidebook blithely recounts, inviting sightseers to peer down at the unfortunate remains.
That was it: I would not do the dreaded drive. Neither would my mother, my traveling companion-to-be whose fear of heights was worse than mine. Someone would have to take us.
We decided that the most convenient plan was to make Big Sur a day-trip from a Pebble Beach hotel less than an hour away. As for available tours, our options were fewer than expected.
I found two companies offering Big Sur jaunts. However, they used vans whose bench-style seats seemed ill-suited to the four-hour trip. And the discomfort, for my mother especially, of climbing in and out.
That left one alternative: Big Sur by limousine. At $50 an hour--$200 plus tip for a four-hour trip--the cost was admittedly steep. But considering our driving anxieties, this low-stress option hardly seemed like a frivolity.
Still, Big Sur by limousine? The thought of going back to nature via this classic symbol of yuppie ostentation appalled even my sensibilities.
But my mother strongly favored the limo option. So I called Monterey Limousine, which had been recommended by our hotel. Dino Gerosolimo, the driver and proprietor, turned out to be a buoyant Italian who frequently did Big Sur tours. I blanched as he described his car: a 1988 white Lincoln stretch.
I now had new anxieties: What would low-key locals think of our oversized mogul-mobile? Would it fit on the road (said to be less than 1 1/2 lanes wide at some points)? And would we see well enough out of those black tinted windows?
We decided to take our chances. At 9 a.m. on the appointed day the limo showed up at our Pebble Beach hotel. Gerosolimo, the driver, was a dapper man with sideburns, tinted Italian sunglasses and a black suit.
"You're in good hands," he said as we sank into the red velvet interior. "Relax." That didn't seem difficult. We had a bar, TV set, tape player, enough space for half of the Lakers basketball team and our own cellular phone (though this last amenity, our driver informed us, was useless in the mountainous terrain).
The big car rolled toward Carmel and California 1 South. Gerosolimo had come to Monterey two years earlier after working in the restaurant and nightclub business in Brooklyn. He works mostly weddings and airport hops, transporting the likes of Bruce Willis and John Travolta to tony area resorts.
Gerosolimo told us that driving Big Sur reminds him of the coast near Naples in his native Italy. He does about two tours a month, mostly for phobic types such as ourselves. Some passengers have been so scared, he said, that "I had to stop so they could get out."
While unafraid himself, he can understand such reactions. The area's most famous landmark, Bixby Bridge, is so high and narrow that "sometimes cars shake in the wind." Hearing this, my mother gasped.
On the way through Carmel we passed the Carmel Mission, established by Father Serra in the 18th Century. On Ocean Avenue we admired the upscale eccentric designs of the street's ocean-front bungalows. Gerosolimo told us that one of them belonged to Hugh Hefner, who stays there "maybe one or twice a year."
On the outskirts of town, we picked up California 1. Gerosolimo pointed out a compound where he thought Kim Novak lives. Farther down was a sloping spread with a corral in front, said to be owned by Merv Griffin.