The Romance of Big Sur

A visit to a rugged and beautiful California haven that is all the more lovable for its idiosyncrasies

A calligraphic sign requested that we not walk on the roof of our—I don't know what to call it, other than "accommodations." (The official name of it is an Ocean House, at the Post Ranch Inn, in Big Sur, California.) The fellow helping my husband, Julian, and me with our luggage dryly remarked that the local deer never do pay any attention to that directive. No wonder: the roof is covered with bountifully planted sod. That afternoon, this past spring, when we entered our home for a week, we started at roof level and walked down a flight of steps cut into the earth, flanked by cascades of rose, bottlebrush, and rosemary bushes. They smelled heavenly, and they buzzed, with bees and hummingbirds.

Come inside and—boom!—there's the view: a scrap of the cliff into whose side the building has been dug, the ocean below, and the sky at eye level and above. You can see the view from the bedroom or from the stone soaking tub, which is separated from the bedroom by a double-sided fireplace. We had a small terrace, from which all that could be seen was more of the lush plantings to the south, the land falling away at our feet and sweeping off into the distance to the north, and the sky and the broad Pacific before us.

Usually all that could be heard was the bees and hummingbirds and, when we wanted, the music emanating from our choice of twenty-one diverse commercial-free channels on the stereo system. Not that we listen to much New Age music at home, but it definitely matched the mood here. We kicked off our shoes, opened one of the complimentary half bottles of wine in the room, picked cheese and Lavasch crackers from among the complimentary snacks arrayed for our pleasure (I wish more high-end hotels would catch on that including up front in the room rate whatever food and drink they put in the minibar makes guests feel pampered, whereas leaving lots of goodies around with fat price tags on them makes guests feel ripped off), and went out to sit in the sun.

Big Sur is fabulously romantic, and no place in it is more so than the Post Ranch Inn. Early one evening we were heading over to the terrace of the inn's restaurant, Sierra Mar, to have a drink and watch the sunset when we saw a group of people leaving one of the other rooms. Among them were a man in an odd double-breasted suit, like what a naval officer in a Gilbert and Sullivan production might wear, and a startled-looking woman in a frilly blue dress, holding a bouquet. I dawdled until another, more matter-of-factly dressed woman who'd come out of the room caught up with me. "What's going on?" I asked. The couple had just been married, she told me, and she'd officiated. The strange thing was, she went on, that the bride hadn't known in advance that her boyfriend had been planning a wedding.

Ah, Big Sur. Roughly three hours by car south of the San Francisco airport, it is lovable for its surprises and idiosyncrasies, for being neither so normative nor so easy and obliging as more southerly parts of California tend to be. Big Sur's inhabitants and devotees are famously individualistic, or possibly even peculiar. Maybe they have to be to remain loyal to Big Sur, with its rugged terrain, its treacherous sea, and its challenging climate, full of rainstorms and fogs and droughts and gales. The first time we visited, several years ago, a cold rain fell the whole time. On our recent visit people told us proudly about how they had coped after mudslides closed Route 1 both to the north and to the south for three months in 1998. And during another mudslide season, some years before, everyone ordered groceries by phone, and once a week the National Guard delivered them by helicopter. A group of residents split the cost of a weekly case of champagne, so that they could toast the helicopter immediately upon its arrival.

The person who mentioned the champagne to me was Mickey Muennig, the architect of the Post Ranch Inn. Once a year since the inn opened, ten years ago, Muennig has been leading inn guests on a tour of a sampling of his local buildings. We timed our visit for the tour, out of admiration for Muennig, who is a leading practitioner of organic, or green, architecture, which matches the mood of Big Sur as neatly as New Age music does. People in the area call each of his buildings "a Mickey Muennig," and everyone knows which ones they are. Mickey Muennigs tend to have swooping curves, often in wood, and notably few right angles. They make use of a lot of concrete, as well as wood and stone and glass.

The morning's highlight was a house at the end of a steep, winding road down from Route 1. Just inside the front door was a curved wall made of undisguised concrete blocks stacked intentionally not quite on top of one another. Facing the sea was, predictably, a wall of glass, with a redwood deck outside. From there a walkway of steel slats, with railings made of nothing but inward-angled sheets of glass (so as not to interfere with the view), led to a more spacious deck atop a round guesthouse. Whitewater crashed on the rocks below. A hole in the floor of a balcony off a bedroom in the main house allowed a madrone tree to grow up through. The couple for whom Muennig designed the house told me that they'd originally intended this to be a vacation home but they loved it so much they now lived here most of the time.

The terrain of Big Sur does make for astounding vistas—except when you're fogged in. But the fog tends to hug the coast; often you can just head inland a ways to find a clear, sunny, warm ridgetop. National forests and state parks safeguard millions of acres in the area, which are laced with hundreds of miles of hiking trails. On many trails, on many days, you're likely to see fewer human beings than members of other species, including deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles, and, occasionally, California condors and mountain lions. Otters, seals, and sea lions live along the coast. A little farther out runs what the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce refers to as a "superhighway" for migrating whales.

Just north of Big Sur cattle graze on broad meadows overlooking the sea. Nonprofit groups spearheaded by the Big Sur Land Trust have struck deals with the owners of many hundreds of thousands of acres, so that these will never be developed. Regulations have for decades prevented the building of new houses that can be so much as glimpsed from any main road. A strong consensus favors the idea that Big Sur should look no more built up a generation or a century from now than it does today.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Carmel, California
Information about food, lodging, art galleries, wine tasting, upcoming events, and more.

San Simeon Online
Information about food, lodging, shopping, upcoming events, and more.

In today's Big Sur the elements of civilization are too dispersed for the word "town" to apply. If you want civilization in a concentrated form, you must go either north, to Carmel, or south, to San Simeon, with its Hearst Castle. A visit to each of these places makes a nice outing. On the day we went up to Carmel, we followed some advice that a knowledgeable resident had tendered, and returned by way of the Old Coast Road. The turnoff for it on Route 1, the man had told us, is just north of the handsome Depression-era Bixby Creek Bridge. "Coast" road is a total misnomer, we soon began to realize.

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