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To Sur, With Love : A few days of solitude in the haunting beauty of Big Sur breeds thoughts of chucking it all for the simple life.

May 12, 1991|JERRY HULSE | TIMES TRAVEL COLUMNIST

BIG SUR, Calif. — It is 10 o'clock in the morning. On a spider web outside my window, dew drops sparkle like pearls and moisture drips from the branches of a redwood tree as well as from the eaves of ancient cabins at Big Sur Inn.

In the distance I can hear the muted thunder of the ocean. The fog is slowly lifting and sunlight filters through mists after a night of zero visibility.

Throughout the night, Highway 1 was an unseen ribbon as fog filled the canyons, obscuring inns with inviting fireplaces, down comforters and shelves crowded with books.

One returns to Big Sur to recharge the soul, for no place along the entire California coast matches its solitude and beauty. Indeed, in a setting like none other on earth, peace prevails.

Gentle people--dropouts who provide good argument for trading job security for contentment--take refuge in the simple lifestyle of Big Sur, divorced from the chaos and violence of the cities, north and south along the California coast. One woman I know ventures here whenever time permits. Eventually she returns to the city and her job, but I suspect that secretly she desires to cast off that bondage for the freedom of this tranquil, rehabilitating hideaway.

In fact, few stay on permanently here. They try, but there is a scarcity of jobs. Openings are rare at Ventana, Big Sur Inn, Nepenthe and a scattering of other inns and cafes along the Big Sur coast that begins south of Carmel and curves and dips for approximately 80 miles to San Simeon, the home of Hearst Castle.

Highway 1 is a narrow, two-lane road that drops like a roller coaster to the ocean and moments later rises hundreds of feet above it. With cliffs that fall straight to rocky coves, it would be a plunge to eternity for the driver who loses control, as has been the case numerous times since convict labor completed the highway in 1937.

Over the years, conservation has been uppermost in the minds of environmentalists and the few residents of Big Sur. For the most part, they've succeeded in discouraging developers. It has been nearly 20 years since Ventana, with its handsome cedar buildings, began providing shelter for tourists, and only now is another resort on the rise, scheduled to open next spring in a stunning setting just across the road.

For the most part, though, Big Sur remains primitive and wild. The drive along the coast has been described as the most beautiful in the world, with miles of forested hillside overlooking coves that are mostly inaccessible. Below are treacherous beaches with threatening riptides and waves that can curl up to 30 feet and break with a force so powerful the land shudders as if wrenched by an earthquake.

Each year, 3 million motorists and campers travel Highway 1 through Big Sur. It is not a trip for the timid, particularly when shrouded in fog. I drove it the first time 24 years ago during a rainstorm at night, from San Simeon to Carmel, with my head out the driver's window, watching the white line so as not to cross over to the ocean side with its perilous cliffs that feature drops of 1,000 feet.

On a sunny day, though, it is a drive of startling beauty. On one side the mountains; on the other the ocean. Cattle, waist-deep in grass and wildflowers, gaze as motorists pass. Occasionally deer cross the highway, emerging from the forest that is a haven for other wildlife. Pines and madrones and black oaks and redwoods surround meadows bright with poppies and other wildflowers. Hawks soar overhead, riding thermals and frequently diving to pastures below, where crows chatter and an occasional mountain lion steals through the grass. Hidden in the folds of the Santa Lucia mountain range are a scattering of cabins and homes that, by ordinance, must be built so they cannot be seen from Highway 1.

The settlement of Big Sur, less than 30 miles south of Carmel, consists of little more than a grocery, a deli, a gift shop and a post office. A mile or so north is Ventana, the 60-room inn that is terraced up the mountainside, 1,200 feet above the Pacific.

Ventana means window , and indeed from its lofty perch it frames a scene of redwoods and grassy slopes. Deer, fox and raccoons pass by guest quarters, which are furnished with window seats, fireplaces and beds with hand-painted headboards, handmade quilts and loads of pillows. Honeymooners make pilgrimages to Ventana simply for the privacy it offers in a mystic world of timeless beauty. Ventana is booked tight on weekends, sometimes six to eight weeks in advance. Between May and October it is nearly impossible to get a room, especially the ocean-front accommodations that come with hot tubs.

Ventana's early discoverers were actress Ali McGraw and the late Steve McQueen, followed by Goldie Hawn, Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase and Alec Guinness. Other guests fly in regularly from New York and Chicago. Europeans learning of Ventana suffer jet lag for the sake of cleansing the spirit in the wilderness of Big Sur.

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