Feeling Small in Big Sur

Big Sur is unforgiving. I could wax poetic and quote those before me about its striking coastline hand carved by the Creator, how it’s the most amazing place where land meets sea, how it’s the Earth as God intended. And all of those things are true. But after a few days on the Creator’s coastline I walked away humbled by Big Sur’s bigness. The Spanish called this stretch of wild “the big country in the south,” but as you drive and hike further in, you see how quickly the land overshadows its name.

The cliffs, the mountains, the redwoods, the stretch of blue that is sometimes sea and sometimes sky–it’s all big. This is a place that just got electricity en masse only about 60 years ago because the land is barely habitable–so much of the parks and attractions there are named after those resilient enough to stick around. This is a place relatively under-developed in our over-developed world because getting people, let alone materials, in and out of there is a feat. This is a place where signs read “Sensitive Habitat,” suggesting Big Sur is about to crumble into the Pacific at any moment from the simple mistake of a mountain lion or a tourist drunk on Chardonnay stepping somewhere slippery and suddenly there’s a mudslide sending everyone over.

It’s silly to say words can’t describe this landscape, but, um, words can’t describe this landscape (though I will try). Fly to California, rent a car from San Francisco (or if you feeling ambitious, Los Angeles), and drive the Pacific Coast Highway, fondly known by the locals as the PCH. Sometimes the PCH is lined with guard rails. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the road runs right along a curvy cliff with a thousand-foot drop to the ocean. Sometimes it’s straight. But this is California, so take it easy, and take advantage of the multiple turnouts where you can pull over, give the white knuckles a rest from the steering wheel, breathe deeply and soak in what all that Creator talk and fussin’ are about. Big Sur is 90 miles of coastline so there’s plenty of opportunity. There are plants that look like feather dusters. Pink lilies grow along the sides of cliffs. The ground looks lush and parched all at the same time. The beaches are jagged in some areas, smooth in others. Make sure you have enough battery power in your iPhones and cameras because every moment spent in Big Sur is photogenic.

Where to Stay:

We stayed at Glen Oaks Big Sur, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s now my go-to destination for lodging there. It’s not cheap. And it doesn’t serve breakfast (though you can walk next door to the River Inn Cafe for awesome French toast or huevos rancheros). So why do I like it? The vibe. Yep. I pay for good vibe. Glen Oaks offers bucolic serenity with rustic modern flair. This place just oozed California cool to me with its Eames plastic chairs and sustainable hardwood bathrooms (my daughter particularly enjoyed the bathroom floor warming option). Every room has a fireplace, and the nights are cold there, even in late August. Other perks include orange yoga mats tucked in closets and, for $15, you can grab a bucket of marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers and sit by their gas-powered fire and listen to the Big Sur night rise. Sun salutations in the morning, sticky gooey campfire snacks at night. And then gorgeous hiking and beach time in between. Definitely get plenty of rest wherever you stay because when you get back on the Pacific Coast Highway to navigate your way across Big Sur, you’re quickly reminded who’s in charge on this planet, and, hint, hint, it’s not us.

What to Do:

Hike. Swim. Hug a redwood. Sunbathe. Kite surf. Look at birds. Watch elephant seals. Take pictures of wildflowers. Need I say more? Traveling with an eight-year-old, we kept the hiking light (nothing too vertical) and pursued very accessible trails at Andrew Molera State Park or spent time at the lovely Pfeiffer Beach. Santa Monica is beautiful, but Pfeiffer Beach reminds you what Santa Monica might have looked like when the mission fathers were building their parishes centuries ago. State parks cost a $10 entrance fee and admission is valid at any state park for the day. Pfeiffer Beach cost $5 to enter.

The elephant seals nap on Point Piedras Blancas towards the southern end of the Big Sur stretch. There’s no admission charge, but donations are welcome. Pull over and stand behind the fence while the seals roll around in the sand, bark, swat at flies, and pose for the camera, all from their protected natural habitats.

The little colorful specks here are kite surfers riding the waves at Big Sur.

Where to Eat:

Nepenthe. This cliff side restaurant is handicap-accessible and you can also burn calories before dinner by schlepping up several flights of stairs to the restaurant for an amazing view and a cocktail. There’s also the Phoenix Gift Shop stocked with jewelry made by area artists, books, funky overpriced decorative objects, and a clawfoot bathtub filled with goldfish. (I bought some souvenir bling.) The shopping is downstairs, the dining is upstairs. Since we were dining on a cliff, our daughter’s crayons kept rolling off the table, but thankfully our food did not. Everything was phenomenally good so order whatever–it will be delicious. My favorite part was the detailed story about the goat cheese wedge on our cheese plate. Our waitress thoughtfully explained to us how the goat was milked once in the morning when the fog was rolling out and then that very same goat was milked again at night as the fog rolled in; the milk remained separated and made into cheese that was then separated by a layer of ash. I couldn’t taste the difference between cheese made with morning milk and cheese made with evening milk, but the story and the waitress’s earnestness made me love California even more.

The view at Nephenthe, a great place to enjoy goat cheese with locally made wine:

And the fish in the bathtub. Now I know what to do with our antique spare clawfoot bathtub (yes, we own two):

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