The must-do itinerary for a weekend in the inimitable coastal enclave.
You won't be in Big Sur long before someone mentions the fire of 2008. The Santa Lucia Mountains, rising straight up from the ocean, are as magnificent as ever, emerald-green swaths of new growth the only reminders of the flames that ravaged 130,000 acres and evacuated the town for two weeks in July of that year. But the close call has made this nearly mythical outpost—where artists, hippies, healers and now luxury seekers unite—feel all the more precious.
Ventana Inn and Spa just narrowly escaped the fire, which came within yards of the sprawling 243-acre property. And then, 10 days later, its restaurant burned down in an electrical fire. Now rebuilt, it's back to serving fresh and local Cali inside a rustic-chic dining room or outside on two expansive terraces with sweeping Pacific views. The resort proper—along with its spa, pools (one clothing-optional) and Japanese mineral baths—is located an eighth of a mile away via a winding wooded path. It got an $18 million makeover while the restaurant was being rebuilt, and it shows: The 60 rooms—each with its own balcony or patio, most with fireplaces, and some with private hot tubs—are upscale yet earthy and modern. They blend gracefully into the surrounding landscape and offer every imaginable comfort inside. It's hard to tear yourself away from them—until you open the door and look around.
Hiking is the primary activity here; trails abound that lead you through whatever type of terrain and scenery strikes your mood. The Pfeiffer Falls Trail is a 2.4-mile loop that snakes through redwood forest, past a waterfall, and opens to a vista of Big Sur Valley. If it's coastal bluffs you want, Andrew Molera Loop winds 8.8 miles high above the coast with access to several secluded beaches. Be sure to schedule a stop at the small Henry Miller Library, which not only houses Miller's archives and a bookstore, but hosts worthy acts like Bonnie Prince Billy and Animal Collective in an intimate space (look for Pink Floyd tribute band House of Floyd on July 21). And though you can't just walk into the famed Esalen Institute—you need to be attending one of its New Age workshops—you can experience its legendary hot baths perched over the Pacific. They're open to the public, by reservation, from 1 to 3 a.m.
Big Sur Bakery is a lot more than its name implies—but one bite of its wood-fired pizza crust (topped with butternut squash and serrano ham) explains the wise emphasis on baking. Its locally-focused menu is nothing fancy—wood-roasted chicken, butter-braised halibut—but the fresh ingredients, chef's attention to detail and charmingly hip atmo are noteworthy. Lunch should definitely be at Nepenthe, where the “ambrosia burger" and triple-berry pie come replete with sweeping views of the coast from its deck. And breakfast is best had at Deetjen's, the 1930s roadhouse attached to a ramshackle inn. Duck in among the antiques, order the eggs benedict, and watch salty locals, Europeans tourists and young families spilling from refurbished VW vans all congregate to enjoy the Big Sur specialty: decent food made delicious by a place unlike any other.