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Cruising Big Sur

Cruising Big Sur

By dwright
Trip Plan Tags: 
adventure,
arts + culture,
outdoors + nature,
road trip
Destinations: 
California,
Carmel-by-the-Sea,
Monterey,
North America,
Point Lobos State Reserve,
San Simeon,
United States

A winding journey down the infamous Pacific Route 1

ITEMS

$400 or more
Editor's Pick
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Hotel

L'Auberge Carmel, California

Monte Verde at Seventh Avenue
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California 93921
Tel: 831 624 8578
Email: reservations@laubergecarmel.com
Website: www.laubergecarmel.com

Built around a flower-filled brick courtyard with a fountain, this classic Carmel inn has hidden staircases, gabled windows, and a tiny dining room that's one of the best restaurants between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the tradition of great French country auberges, the point is to come for dinner and stay the night—and the 20 rooms here have an elegant hominess to them. The cherrywood beds have 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and bathrooms have heated marble floors and elaborate chrome fixtures buffed to a mirror shine (ask for one of the four rooms with a two-person Japanese soaking tub). A few details might not be perfect—like the wall-mounted electric heaters with noisy fans—but after a sumptuous eight-course meal paired with wines, you probably won't even notice.

See + Do

Point Lobos State Reserve, California

Highway 1 (just south of Carmel)
Point Lobos State Reserve, California
Tel: 831 624 4909
Website: www.parks.ca.gov

This blustery jewel of a state park is famous for its wind-blown cypress trees clinging to the rocky cliffs, and for its hundreds of barking, braying, sunbathing sea lions. At low tide, tiny crabs and snails cling to the ink-black rocks and crawl in tide pools; you'll want to roll up your pant legs and explore. Harbor seals are born in the end of April and early May (bring binoculars if you want to see them from shore), and migrating gray whales pass by from December to May, making this a primo spot for whale-watching. There are several hiking trails; call ahead to ask about free guided walks. On weekends, though, be sure to show up early: Parking spaces are limited.

See + Do

Kayaking, California

Monterey, California

Monterey Bay supports one of the world's most diverse ecosystems and spans a whopping 5,300 square miles. A National Marine Sanctuary since 1992, it's an absolute must to explore by water, with frolicking sea lions and sea otters, low-flying pelicans, and giant orange starfish common sights.

If you've never gone kayaking, don't worry: It's fairly easy—assuming you're in reasonable shape and you stick to relatively sheltered areas (if you head out to sea, you're on your own). Monterey Bay Kayaks provides rentals, instruction, and tours for all levels; most tours last three hours and cost about $60 (800-649-5357; www.montereybaykayaks.com ) . If you want real drama, take a sunset paddle, or time your trip by the lunar cycles and take a full-moon tour.

See + Do

Hiking, California

Big Sur, California
Website: www.parks.ca.gov/parkindex/region_info.asp?regiontab=0&id=6

The best hiking in Big Sur isn't right along the coastline. Because the cliffs here tower a thousand feet high and drop precipitously to the pounding surf below, there are countless rocky coves and tiny sand beaches that are entirely inaccessible; the land is just too steep for trails.On the inland side of Highway 1, though, it's a different story. Here, the terrain is manageable enough that you can get those stunning views—without plummeting to your death. For major visual impact and only minor physical output, head to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, south of the town of Big Sur. Take the flat Waterfall Trail (about a half mile, round-trip), which leads to a fabulous overlook with a year-round waterfall. Hardier souls can reach the tops of the coastal ridges via the Tan Bark Trail, a 6.5 mile round-trip hike into the hills.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, abutting the town of Big Sur, has lots of great trails, including Pfeiffer Falls, an easy 1.4-mile round-trip walk through redwood groves to a 60-foot waterfall. Serious hikers should continue into the adjacent Ventana Wilderness, part of Los Padres National Forest. Be prepared for some intense elevation gains: Some of the mountains rise nearly 5,000 feet within two miles of the coast. This is rugged country—you'll need proper hiking boots and physical stamina. You should also bring water and wear layers you can remove. Although it may look foggy near the water in all these hiking areas, once you climb high enough, you'll emerge into the blazing-hot sun.

See + Do

Henry Miller Memorial Library, California

Highway 1 (¼ mile of south of Nepenthe)
Big Sur, California 93920
Tel: 831 667 2574
Website: www.henrymiller.org

The brilliant and controversial writer was a native New Yorker, but his archive is here, in the town where he lived for 18 years and wrote some of his best work. If you like Miller, or think you might after having seen Henry & June, check out the library. It's a coffeehouse and cultural center of sorts, with open-mike nights and an outdoor film series in summer (call ahead to see what's on the calendar). The wooded grounds and funky little sculpture garden are lovely places to curl up with a book, and you're welcome to linger as long as you like. There's even Wi-Fi access, as well as an old blue iMac on an outdoor deck where you can check your e-mail.

Open Wednesdays through Sundays 11 am to 6 pm.

See + Do

Hearst Castle, California

750 Hearst Castle Drive
San Simeon, California
Tel: 800 444 4445 or 805 927 2010
Website: www.hearstcastle.com

Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's monument to himself is by far the best-known attraction on the California coast. Perched high atop La Cuesta Encantada (the enchanted hill) and modeled after the grandest European châteaux, it really is a castle, occupying a whopping 90,000 square feet, with 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms divided between four buildings. You can't possibly see it all in one day, but for most people, one of the five different tours suffices. If you've never been here, take Tour No. 1 to get an overview. (Make reservations well in advance; spots are limited.) If you're staying in Big Sur or Monterey, plan for a long day trip. It takes two to three hours to make the one-way trek, depending on traffic, and you'll want to spend at least a few hours at the castle. If you want to break the visit into two days, note that San Simeon has notoriously lousy lodging (the nicest place is the Best Western). For greater selection, head to nearby Cambria instead, which has better food, some cute B&Bs, and several passable seaside motels, but nothing that we believe merits a write-up here.

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See + Do

Carmel Mission, California

3080 Rio Road
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California 93923
Tel: 831 624 1271
Website: www.carmelmission.org

Though currently surrounded by ranch-house subdivisions, the Carmel Mission was once the only building for miles around. Spanish missionary Father Junípero Serra established the mission in 1771 to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Today, it's still an important site for Catholics—primarily because Father Serra's remains are interred under the altar—but even nonbelievers will find it worth a visit. The primitive statuary and ornately carved altar are beautifully preserved, as are unexpected details like the charming cherubs peeping from behind the pipes of the organ loft. Adjoining the church are the living quarters of the missionaries. One of the most interesting rooms is the tiny library (California's first), where you can peer through a glass doorway at decaying leather-bound texts frozen in time. Outside in the courtyard, baseball-size roses grow in the lovely gardens. (Shutterbugs: One of the best spots to pose for pictures is behind the Basilica, beneath the bell tower.)

California's missions were positioned one day apart by horseback, so you can see several in a day traveling by car. If you're heading south on Highway 1, it's easy to make a detour to Mission San Antonio de Padua, in the middle of nowhere near the tiny town of Jolon (Mission Rd.; 831-385-4478). It provides a glimpse of how the missions looked before modern-day civilization grew up around them.

See + Do

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Website: www.carmelcalifornia.com

Originally founded as an artists' colony in the early 20th century, Carmel (also known as Carmel-by-the-Sea) has the look and feel of a Christmas snow-globe village—without the snow. Streets are paved with cobblestones, giant Monterey pines make whooshing sounds in the sea breeze, and the houses resemble picturesque Mediterranean villas and miniature castles. The artists have long since been priced out, and major celebrities (Doris Day, Clint Eastwood) have taken their place, but you'll still find more galleries per capita than perhaps anywhere else on the California coast. Head to Dolores Street between Fifth and Sixth for the best gallery-hopping. Stop into the Carmel Art Association, the only gallery that exclusively shows local works (831-624-6176; www.carmelart.org); Masterpiece Gallery, which has a collection of early Californian and American paintings (831-624-2163; www.masterpiecegallerycarmel.com); and Gallery Sur, specializing in landscape photography (831-626-2615; www.gallerysur.com). The best time to visit Carmel is midweek; avoid coming on Saturday in summer, when it gets overrun with oohing-and-aahing tourists. If you want to meet locals, head for the beach in the early evening; the whole community seems to turn out to watch the sunset.

Eating

La Bicyclette, California

Seventh Avenue and Dolores Street
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California 93923
Tel: 831 622 9899
Website: labicycletterestaurant.com

Styled after a French country café, La Bicyclette serves hearty European comfort food in a tiny 30-seat dining room, perfect for a romantic evening without any pretense. Meals are presented family style at heavy pinewood tables; plan to share. The three-course menu begins with a seasonal salad, perhaps heirloom tomatoes with blood-orange vinaigrette, followed by a copper tureen of soup for the table to share. Entrées may include pan-roasted chicken or a simple filet mignon with gorgonzola sauce. Chocolate mousse is the house-specialty dessert and comes in a big bowl with two spoons. The wine list is huge; the grands vins are stored at the sister restaurant, Casanova, and when you order one, the waiter hops on a vintage bicycle parked out front and rides up the street to fetch it—hence the name of the restaurant. The food doesn't break any new ground, but dinner won't break the bank, either: Three courses run about $30.

Open daily 11:30 am to 10 pm.

Eating

Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, California

Highway 1 (half mile north of the Ventana Inn and Spa)
Big Sur, California
Tel: 831 667 0520
Website: www.bigsurbakery.com

Hidden behind a gas station, this comfort food spot's only view is of a pretty cactus garden (and, okay, a big Shell sign pointing into the sky). But the old-school wooden architecture gives the place an unpretentious charm that mirrors a down-to-earth approach to cooking. Lunchtime pizzas come right out of the wood-burning oven; our favorite comes with chicken, pesto, and sausage. The dinner menu has five changing entrées, mostly grilled or wood-roasted free-range meats (the crispy-skinned, juicy roast chicken is a standout). The adjoining bakery serves to-go sandwiches worth stopping for, fresh-made bread, muffins, and old-fashioned jelly doughnuts.

Closed for dinner Sundays and Mondays.

Eating

Nepenthe & Café Kevah, California

48501 Highway 1 (29 miles south of Carmel)
Big Sur, California 93920
Tel: 831 667 2345
Website: www.nepenthebigsur.com

Perched 800 feet above the Pacific on a spectacular promontory (once owned—at separate times—by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth), this place has been a major tourist draw since it opened in 1949. The view is far more dramatic than anything else here: The dining room is casual and utilitarian, with an open-truss ceiling and lots of crowded tables, and the food is standard and overpriced (burgers and sandwiches at lunch, steaks at dinnertime). The vistas from the wall of windows, though, are truly showstopping—and if you'd rather avoid the clamorous main dining room, you can grab lunch downstairs at Café Kevah, an order-at-the-counter outdoor café with the same views as the main room. The adjoining gift shop has an unexpectedly good selection of regional books and home furnishings.

Nepenthe open daily 11:30 am to 10 pm. Café Kevah open March through the first week of January 9 am to 3:30 pm.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.