CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Playground for the Rich : New resort at Big Sur is seen as a symbol of the transformation for an area once known for free spirits.
On the crest of a ridge high above the Pacific Ocean, new hotel rooms on stilts are nestled among redwood trees. Nearby, rooms with sod roofs and sweeping views of the sea are dug into the hillside.
Civilization is encroaching on the wilderness, Big Sur style. The Post Ranch Inn, a small luxury resort scheduled to open May 1, is the first new hotel built along this rugged coastline in 17 years.
The resort is a sign of changing times in the isolated, mountainous region that has been a magnet for generations of free spirits and Hollywood stars. Most of the hippies who helped make Big Sur popular in the 1960s are long gone. In their place have come the wealthy, who can afford to buy or build homes along the pristine coast.
“The Post Ranch Inn is a symbol of the whole change the community is going through,” said Kirk Gafill, manager of his family’s restaurant, Nepenthe, a Big Sur institution. “It’s becoming economically stratified, much like Aspen.
“Landowners are more and more wealthy,” Gafill went on. “The middle class is being edged out. The disparity between (the work force and the homeowners) is greater every year.”
Big Sur today has been shaped largely by the California Coastal Act, passed by voters in 1972 to protect the state’s coastline from runaway development.
The law’s building restrictions, among the most stringent in the nation, preserved Big Sur’s spectacular beauty. But as the drafters of the law foresaw, the strict requirements also pushed the price of land sky-high and helped turn Big Sur into a playground for the privileged.
Few places along the California shore have been preserved so well as the 80-mile stretch of mountainous coastline that extends from just north of San Simeon to just south of Carmel.
From winding, two-lane California 1--the only major road through the region--Big Sur looks much as it did 20 years ago. Ridges plunge thousands of feet into the sea. Cattle graze on the verdant headlands. Along the roadside, only a handful of small communities dot the wilderness.
The few new houses built in the last two decades under the Coastal Act are tucked in the woods or hidden behind hills. Along the highway, prime scenic property has been purchased by Monterey County to be preserved as open space.
“The intent of our coastal plan is that Big Sur not change, which is a major challenge because everything conspires against it,” said Monterey County Supervisor Karin Strasser Kauffman. “In 100 years, it should essentially look the same as it does now.”
More than 6 million people pass through Big Sur each year, but only about 1,500 residents live in the area--just a few hundred more than the population of Esselen Indians who inhabited the region before the Spanish arrived in 1770.
Among those who own homes here are CNN founder Ted Turner and philanthropist David Packard, chairman of Hewlett-Packard Co. Actors Steve Martin, Rosanna Arquette, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker all live here, at least part of the year. Robert Redford is reportedly looking for a place to buy.
Housing is in short supply, however, for people who work in the restaurants, shops and inns. Some live in cramped quarters and old cabins; others commute to work about 30 miles each way along the scenic highway from the Monterey Peninsula.
“People who come to Big Sur are either really wealthy and can afford half a million for a house, or they’re people who come to live here and find there’s no work and no housing,” said Big Sur postmaster Jerry Lesch. “We still have a number of people who live in their cars and under bridges.”
The developers of the Post Ranch Inn won approval to build their resort only by pledging to protect the fragile ecology of the area--going so far as to build some units on pillars so they do not disturb the roots of the redwoods.
They agreed to construct only 30 guest rooms on the 98-acre parcel that was part of the old Post Ranch. They also built 24 units of housing for workers and donated land for Big Sur’s first fire station. They wooed their neighbors and, astoundingly, overcame all community opposition to the project.
Now, the developers say, the hotel set to open May 1 is a model of environmental sensitivity that they hope others will follow.
“I don’t know of any commercial development that has been as considerate of the environment as we have,” said developer Myles Williams, once a folk singer with the New Christy Minstrels. “We came here to get away from the asphalt jungle. We sure don’t want to bring it here with us.”
The Post Ranch Inn is an intrusion few travelers will ever see. It is invisible from California 1, and with nightly room rates ranging from $290 to $1,500, only a select clientele will be able to stay.
The hotel is expected to bring a spurt of economic growth to Big Sur Village and the first serious competition for Ventana, the region’s other luxury resort.
Ventana, which opened in 1975, has long attracted affluent vacationers and the Hollywood crowd, who valued the resort’s pricey privacy.
In the 1960s, Bob Bussinger was a stockbroker who abandoned his materialistic lifestyle, became a hippie and ended up in Big Sur as a waiter at Ventana. He never left Big Sur and now, at age 60, is Ventana’s general manager. He has traded in his headband for a tie but says: “I’m truthfully a bohemian at heart.”
Today he sees a change in the wanderers who come through Big Sur. “They’re not so much the flower child type,” he said. “They’re more the hobo type.” The visitors to Ventana are different, too. “Rather than just coming to visit, they want to have a piece of it before it’s too late,” he said. “People who come to stay are talking with realtors.”
The new style of Big Sur is evident down the road at Nepenthe, the restaurant and bar opened in 1949 on property once owned by actor Orson Welles and his wife, Rita Hayworth. With a dramatic view of the ocean, Nepenthe would never be permitted under today’s building requirements.
The 30-year-old Gafill recalls that in the 1960s the kitchen was painted in psychedelic colors and most of the employees were high on drugs. Waitresses breast-fed their babies while they took orders from customers.
When the restaurant needed dishwashers, someone would run down to the highway and knock on the doors of the VW vans to find hippies who wanted a day’s work.
“Times have really changed,” Gafill said. “There was a permissiveness that existed here that doesn’t exist today.”