A few weeks ago, Highway 1—which, since a landslide in March, had been closed about 13 miles south of Carmel—finally reopened, allowing drivers to pass both ways, shaving off about 3 hours of a hellish detour. Which means get thee to Big Sur before the tourist hordes know the better.
Recently, I did just that. Once you get through Carmel, driving down Highway 1 is a cliffhanger. It's exhilarating, for sure—while you're marveling at the scenes of immense beauty, you're also curling your toes as if this will keep your car from careening off the cliff.
Right now, the view of the hills are as breathtaking as the views of the Pacific and really fancy and expensive homes perched along it. The wildflowers are in full bloom: oranges, and yellows, and chartreuse, and purples—colors that ebb and flow, blending into each other. It's Sound of Music stuff. There's always that point on a drive like this that I want to pull over, put on a big skirt, and go running through the meadows. (Though I think my husband is very glad I've never acted on this impulse.)
Where to stay: My husband and I arrived at Ventana Inn & Spa, our very-not-roughing-it destination, just as the fog had cleared for the day. Ventana is hardly a secret, but it has to be one of the most beautiful properties I've ever been to. The grounds there rival the natural landscape—flowers everywhere you look. On our room's deck which looked over redwoods and burnt-gold meadows to the sliver of ocean, I stretched out on the hammock for a bit, breathing in the bucolic calm, breathing out my San Francisco stress.
It would be very easy to never leave Ventana once you get there, no matter how many beaches or hikes beckon. It's the kind of place you can walk around in your terrycloth robe like you're some kind of boxer or some kind of spa-pampered show-off and no one stares. Plus, there are 243 acres to play on, including a lovely hike around the property. There are Japanese soaking tubs that stay open until the stars are well out, and two pools, including a clothing-optional one. In the morning, the fog still blanketing the sky, I swam lazy laps, watching the steam from the heated pool rise mystically into the air. I wasn't naked but I probably should have been.
Where to eat: You'll definitely want to have one night to eat at the Restaurant at Ventana—if nothing else to walk along the gently-lit path through forest and meadows that leads you there. Lunch is worth a trip across Highway 1 to the Post Ranch Inn's Sierra Mar restaurant. It juts over the cliff and has walls made of glass. Request a table at the window for the effect of floating on air. Order a couple glasses of wine for extra effect. Some of the best local food can be had at the Big Sur Bakery where you can get a very good wood-fired pizza, a great seasonal salad, and more.
What to do: First and foremost, try to do a lot of nothing. Then, sign up for a spa treatment. Ventana is revamping their whole spa program come fall. Choose from "touch therapies," sea-salt scrubs, and massages performed with aromatherapy oils that make you feel as if you've become one with all the herbaceous aromas that perfume the air of Big Sur.
As difficult as it might be to break away from the resort itself, it's worth a quick drive down to the popular Pfeiffer Beach. (Make sure to ask how to get there though because locals tear down the signs.)
At Pfeiffer, a suitably craggy ranger who looked like he'd followed the Dead in the day greeted us at the gate. The beach itself has a stream running through it, which is perfect for little kids to splash around in. There are dramatic rocky cliffs forming a cove and plenty of chill, protected spots for picnicking. The sand here is streaked with deep purple. I asked the ranger what causes it and he told me it was from rose quartz. It crossed my mind that this might have been the original inspiration for tie-dye. Considering Big Sur's pervasive hippy culture, I'm not ruling this theory out.