The Romance of Big Sur

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

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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.

At first the drive, which is unpaved, ascends gently, making its way inland—where it stays until it rejoins Route 1 near Andrew Molera State Park, back in Big Sur. As we put distance between ourselves and the Pacific, scattering yellow dust behind us, I wondered why this had struck someone as worth recommending. But soon we could look down and back on a panorama of sea and sky and a formerly hidden crook of valley. Then we crossed the ridgeline and began a descent, and not long after that we were winding through a cool, ancient forest of redwoods, the only sign of habitation being an occasional cottage or trailer. Eventually we climbed the ridge again and emerged from the forest amid vast grassy hillsides. From up there we could now and then catch glimmers of the sea.

Another aspect of Big Sur that people make much of is its social history, involving Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and the heyday of the Esalen Institute. The ethos of all this wafts over the area like a second, more ethereal fog. Esalen is still there, offering workshops. The home of a longtime friend of Henry Miller's has become the Henry Miller Library, right on Route 1.

Those who want to steep themselves in the history and the lore may enjoy a stay at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, just down the way from the Henry Miller Library. Helmuth Deetjen seems to have been a fugitive from justice in Norway. In the 1930s he and his wife, Helen, bought a plot of land in Big Sur, and Helmuth, with the help of local prison labor (turn and turn about), built the inn's rooms and cabins by hand. Ultimately Helen oversaw its restaurant, and through the years many colorful characters paid court to the couple. Helen Deetjen died in 1962, and when Helmuth followed her, a decade later, he in effect bequeathed the inn to its future guests. Now a nonprofit foundation operates the inn and restaurant.

Julian and I had dinner there one night and were charmed; it is as if preserved in amber. The dining rooms (and also the rest of the inn, a bit of snooping suggested) are decorated willy-nilly with old photos, old dishes, knickknacks, doodads, and whatnots. I asked our young waitress to please explain the pseudo-Egyptian gilded animal-head sculpture looming over our table from a wall mounting. It was actually a light fixture, she said, that we were supposed to be able to turn on by touching its nose, but the mechanism was broken. The thing had a companion in the second dining room, and she went over to it and touched its nose, but it, too, was broken.

What I've managed over the years to take away from the writings of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac amounts to an argument in favor of experiencing one's senses fully and living in the moment. That sounded good to me on this trip—and so I gave the history of Big Sur short shrift, skipped the Henry Miller Library, and booked a massage in my room. (Each room at the Post Ranch contains a massage table, folded up and tucked away somewhere, though there's also a spa with facilities for massages and other, more esoteric treatments.)

Thomas, the gray-ponytailed masseur, was wonderfully relaxing. Not only was his touch soothing, but so was every one of the few words he said to me. Thomas worked barefoot, and at one point when I was lying on my stomach, I opened my eyes to peek through the opening in the "face cradle" and saw that he had gold rings on four of his toes. When he had finished and invited me to sit up, he handed me a bottle of spring water that he'd fetched from my refrigerator and told me, soothingly, to be sure to hydrate, to flush out of my system the toxins he'd dislodged.

One day Julian and I went up to Point Lobos State Park, smelled the salt air, got as close to the ocean as was allowed, and admired a colony of barking sea lions congregated on rocks offshore. Another day we followed an almost mile-long trail through woods on the inn's property—the scenic route to the inn's main swimming pool. And several times we visited a tiny, almost-hot-tub-temperature pool perched on the cliff, overlooking the view, near Sierra Mar.

Another day we wandered across Route 1 to Ventana, the other deluxe inn in Big Sur that has an avid following. Alas, its dining room, Cielo, was closed for renovations, so we were unable to try it out. A couple of humbler restaurants in Big Sur, however, were nice surprises. The handmade sign that reads WOOD-FIRED GRILL AND PIZZA outside the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant does not do justice to a place that serves tender rare duck breast and fresh salmon cooked just so. As we left, the chef offered us the chance to load up, free, on what would soon be day-old goods from the bakery: savory bread with pepper in the dough, and cookies and breakfast buns. On the night before our last in Big Sur we couldn't decide where to eat, so we asked for advice from members of the inn's staff. The Roadhouse, they said, had no view at all, but its food was really good. And so it was—bold and imaginative contemporary Mexican cuisine.

On our last night we strolled over to Sierra Mar for dinner. A calligraphic sign near the entrance requests that patrons not use cell phones inside. So when, an hour or two after we'd been seated, the unmistakable sound of a young woman burbling on her phone was heard, hands discreetly went up all over the room, summoning the waiters to ask them to deal with it. Our waiter came over, murmuring expressionlessly to us and his other tables nearby, "They just got engaged."

The Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Web site, www.bigsurcalifornia.org, is a good source of information about the area. Descriptions of dozens of hiking trails and reports on their condition can be found on the Web site for the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance, www.ventanawild.org. For more information about the Post Ranch Inn, visit its Web site, www.postranchinn.com, or call 800-527-2200. For Deetjen's visit www.deetjens.com or call 831-667-2377, and for Ventana visit www.ventanainn.com or call 800-628-6500.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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