I left town under clear blue skies, 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 Thousand Oaks. By San Luis Obispo, I was in the zone, listening to a Cuban band called Los Mun~equitos 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. I bought corn chips and a packaged tuna sandwich at a gas station along the way, and picnicked beside blowzy yellow roses in the still garden at the Mission San Antonio, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1771. Mozart seemed right for the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which posed no challenge even to a wimpy driver like me. At the road's crest, intersected by the Cone Peak Trail, I did something I'd 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. Poor, wounded highway.
But even if traffic occasionally stops, the views never do. I like it best near the Esalen Institute, where I was sad to learn that a mudslide had done $2 million worth of damage to the cliff-side baths. Onward, though, to arrive at the Ventana Inn well before 6 for a $125 massage.
I'm no sybarite, but on my three-day trip to Big Sur, it was no holds barred. So I'd 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. In the coming year the inn plans to add a full-service spa and redecorate its guest rooms.
Meanwhile, spacious No. 18, where I spent the night, had the air of a spring garden, with a pink-sheeted king 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. Afterward I soaked in the Japanese spa, dressed for dinner and followed the looping daisy-lined path to the restaurant, where I ate at the bar next to a couple from England. The service was efficient, if not exactly personable, and the bluepoint oysters and local rockfish on a bed of leaks I ordered were tasty--but not the source of my most intense pleasure at the Ventana. That came on the walk back, when for a long moment out of time I locked eyes with a gray fox.
The next night in the cozy candle-lit restaurant at Deetjen's, I met a well-heeled man from Texas who said he'd been coming to the coast for years and wouldn't dream of staying anywhere but Deetjen's. The place definitely has its aficionados, due 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.
But the highway was a little too close, I could have done without the rat trap I discovered behind the stove, and I got the feeling that the staff wished the guests had stayed home--particularly when I couldn't get anyone to let me into the restaurant the next morning, even though it was time to open and I was standing in the rain. It rained for two days while I was in Big Sur, but I didn't care because watching fingers of fog feel into the canyons and Turner-esque storm clouds break over the sea is a deeply calming way to pass the time.