Virtuoso Traveler 2018 June Long Weekend: Big Sur

Long Weekend: Big Sur

The high road: Highway 1 spans Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur.
The high road: Highway 1 spans Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur.
Photo by Asim Bharwani/Getty Images
After months of highway closures, Big Sur is back and better than ever.

With the possible exception of Route 66, there’s not a stretch of road in America as iconic or soul-stirring as Highway 1 along California’s mythic Big Sur coast. Here, where the Pacific crashes into limestone coves and ancient redwoods soar through the mists, it’s less a drive than a communion with nature, beauty, and wonder itself.
 
“Big Sur is an essential part of a California coastal trip and an ideal weekend retreat,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Ken Neibaur of Menlo Park, California. “You can drive through the 90-mile area in just a few hours, but be sure to stay a few nights to experience the rugged mountain scenery, pristine beaches, and truly special Virtuoso hotels.”
 
After heavy rains in 2017, a series of landslides shut down sections of the corkscrew route from San Simeon to Carmel-by- the-Sea, leaving a prime 40-mile segment mostly inaccessible for months. The silver lining is that local resorts and businesses used the time to refresh and build out, and Big Sur today shines just a little brighter. The highway, navigable from the north since fall 2017, is expected to reopen completely in late summer of 2018.
 
What hasn’t changed is the area’s allure, which has always drawn travelers, artists, architects, and pleasure seekers of every sort. The majority of Big Sur’s coastline is protected from development (it’s the longest such contiguous preserve in the U.S.), which keeps the focus on the sea and mountains – with an occasional cameo by a cougar, California condor, or spouting whale. Adventure can take the form of beach-bicycling at low tide or a sunset kayak, but the real thrill is just soaking up that groovy, wave-splashed vibe. 
 
With the peaceful Post Ranch Inn as your base, here’s how to make the most of three days on the mother of all coast roads.

Living it up at Post Ranch Inn’s Cliff House.
Living it up at Post Ranch Inn’s Cliff House.
Photo by Kodiak Greenwood

Day One

Big Sur is as much about the drive as the arrival. It’s a winding 150 miles from San Francisco and 350 from Los Angeles on a two-lane strip that opened in 1937 after 18 years of construction. Cell service gets spotty just as the road coils and the enchantment really starts to surge – the splendid isolation here outwits even those Silicon Valley gods to the north. On the approach from Monterey, the scenery is so stunning that it’s worth paying the toll ($10.25 per vehicle) to tour the famous 17-Mile Drive, an epic twist through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove past Spanish Bay with teetering viewpoints exactly where you want them to be. The lone cypress tree on rocks jutting over the Pacific is not only the logo of Pebble Beach Golf Links: The company also trademarked the actual tree.
 
How remarkable it is that the day’s destination nearly makes you forget the journey. Pulling into Post Ranch Inn, with its cantilevered cliff dwellings appearing to float between water and sky, you understand why the place is a favorite of tech moguls and honeymooning celebs. With very private modern guest rooms and suites on a ridgeline over the sea, the inn is as dramatic a setting for adventure and romance as any in the U.S. (“It’s one of the last adults-only refuges in the true luxury category,” Neibaur says.) The property, set on 100 mostly untouched acres, emerged from the road closures with refurbished Tree House rooms and new landscaping, plus a beautiful photography gallery selling collector-worthy prints. Sierra Mar, the hotel’s restaurant, provides guests with picnic lunches to take to hidden beaches, and there’s a fleet of Lexus vehicles available at no charge.
 
For dinner nearby, Nepenthe (48510 Highway 1) sits 800 feet over the ocean in a homey cabinlike building that first opened in 1949. Lolly’s Roast Chicken Dinner is the signature order, with sage stuffing, cranberries, and just enough crisp skin and juicy meat to distract momentarily from the panoramic terrace vistas.

Dining at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant.
Dining at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant.
Photo by Kodiak Greenwood

Day Two

In such striking surroundings, Post Ranch guests typically arrive and are not seen again until checkout (looking exceptionally healthy and relaxed, it should be noted). But there’s plenty to do outside the suites. Strolls through the Sculpture Garden, morning yoga classes, and soaks in the heated infinity pools are big here, as are visits to the spa, where scenic treatment rooms include two couples’ suites in minimalist glass structures overlooking the verdant Ventana Double Cone peaks.
 
Leaving the property is OK, too, if you absolutely must. Have your travel advisor arrange a wildlife tour of Andrew Molera State Park (near mile marker 51.2 on Highway 1) to spot rare California condors with a conservation expert, or go out to Garrapata State Park Beach (Highway 1, 18 miles north of Big Sur), farm-fresh picnic box in hand, to watch California gray whales pass close during their annual winter migration. Sea kayaking and beach biking to view otters and sea lions are other options.
 
Stargazing is never a mistake on clear nights. Sheltered from the Bay Area’s urban lights, Big Sur’s skies are dark enough – particularly around Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (near mile marker 47.2 on Highway 1) – to track satellites and shooting stars for an evening rich in wishes. Or just hole up at Post Ranch, where they bring out the telescope (and complimentary wine) for a true cosmic experience.
 
Post Ranch Inn’s Post Gallery.
Post Ranch Inn’s Post Gallery.

Day Three

Big Sur Bakery (47540 Highway 1), around since 1936, is everybody’s favorite morning fueling station for fresh pastries and doughnuts, and, later on, for grilled sandwiches, meats, and fish. Farther south is Hawthorne Gallery (48485 Highway 1), in a glass-and-steel structure under sheltering pines, with works large and small by contemporary California artists.
 
For lunch, The Sur House (48123 Highway 1) at Ventana Big Sur resort has an expanded ocean view patio perched above the craggy coastline and a menu drawing from local farms and waters. If you’re lingering (or letting someone else drive), avail yourself of its 10,000-bottle cellar of small-production Central Coast wines to complement house specialties such as the cioppino of clams, mussels, black cod, and crab. 
 
Saying goodbye to Big Sur is never easy, but the road out keeps the magic going. Even with thousands of residents and tourists, Carmel-by-the-Sea puts the “civil” in civilization. Strolling for antiques and knickknacks along charming Ocean Avenue is one of California’s ultimate pleasures. For a cozy last bite of Big Sur, try La Bicyclette (29 Dolores Street), a perfect corner bistro serving coastal classics in cast-iron cookware, pizzas and breads fired in a wood oven, and strong, freshly brewed coffee for the journey home.

Yes, Sur
How to Go Big on the California Coast

When to Go
April through October is the best time to visit Big Sur, but also the most crowded. Even in high season, a blanket of fog is likely to sweep over the coast, and nights can be sweater cool. Winter is definitely cozy, as long as you don’t mind some rain and turning in early.

Stay
Post Ranch Inn is a bucket-list sort of place – a one-of-a-kind California treasure on a former nineteenth-century mountain homestead. Each of its 40 secluded wood-and-glass “modules” is an architectural marvel, though the Cliff House may just outdo the rest, with indoor and outdoor soaking tubs and views halfway to Hawaii. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.
 
Tucked into the Pacific headlands and surrounded by 243 acres of russet forest, Ventana Big Sur feels like a sylvan sanctuary. Wood, stone, and leather accents in its 59 rooms bring the outdoors inside; for total immersion (and turndown service in the woods), choose one of 15 rustic-chic safari tents – part of the resort’s new glamping program. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.

Explore
Your travel advisor can work with Virtuoso’s on-site connection, American Excursionist, to craft customized day trips or a longer Big Sur vacation suited to your interests and tastes. Highly recommended: Extend your visit with explorations of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey. Suggested adventures include a horseback ride through Carmel Valley, a private sunset cruise in Monterey Bay, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

 

Elevated camping at Ventana Big Sur.
Elevated camping at Ventana Big Sur.

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