California’s iconic Highway 1 reopens after 19 Months
The Carmel, California, poet Robert Jeffers once stated, “The noblest thing I have ever seen is Big Sur,” and we have to agree: Windswept cliffs and towering redwoods hover above the mighty Pacific Ocean. Then it all disappeared as fires and flooding forced locals into exile. When the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge begun to fail due to heavy winter storms coupled with devastating wild fires a year prior, government officials closed the stretch to begin an intensive eight-month reconstruction, with crews working six or seven days a week. On October 13, 2017, reopening brought much needed traffic back to this postcard-perfect region. As the community and engineering teams worked to reconnect the tourist-driven economy of Big Sur, many found that the seclusion helped to reestablish a sense of identity and purpose as they were forced to use ingenuity and teamwork to survive months of isolation. News of the reopening was a welcome relief for the small town of Big Sur, and as former residents of nearby Monterey, we were anxious to revisit this very special part of the country.
Big Sur is a sparsely populated unincorporated area of Northern California with some of the most incredible coastline in the world. Winding our way along the pulse-quickening narrow stretch of Highway 1 gave us a deep appreciation for all who have worked so tirelessly in re-opening the highway. We looked forward to seeing the iconic landmarks and inns that make up this intriguing area and to see firsthand how residents coped with their island-like existence. Known for gorgeous campgrounds, inspirational hiking trails, and secluded beaches, Big Sur averages a million tourists per year on along this two-lane stretch of highway.
After our awe-inspiring coastal drive, we stop by the Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant, established in 1934 when Ellen Brown opened her home along the Big Sur River to serve meals and a slice of apple pie to travelers. As it was so many years ago, this place embodies Brown’s hospitality with its rustic pine lodge décor, roaring fireplace, and vintage photos of area development. General manager Rick Aldinger informed us that he was relieved be in business once again but also added, “Our forced seclusion did give us time to reevaluate how we were going to do things going forward and helped us to reset and reflect.”
We took our seat near the blazing river-stone fireplace on a damp Halloween afternoon and were ready to try some heartwarming dishes. The winter beet salad proved to be a hearty autumnal dish with rosy beet chunks, delicate slices of juicy pear topped with generous amounts of spicy arugula, pungent goat cheese all tossed with zesty lemon vinaigrette topped with crunchy candied walnuts. BS BLT, classic sliced California sourdough bread with smoked Applewood bacon, locally grown tomatoes, lettuce, and avocado with zingy chipotle aioli, satisfied our hunger pains. The servers were setting tables adorned with freshly cut Jack O’ Lanterns, indicating it was time for Halloween celebrations. Tonight we were here to partake in the Halloween Bal Masque celebration at the legendary Nepenthe restaurant, but first we needed to check into our accommodations at the Glen Oaks Inn.
We had booked one of the inn’s ultra-modern cabins nestled in the Redwood forest. Opened in 1957, Glen Oaks Inn offers contemporary luxury meets Mother Nature, by utilizing organic, recycled, and renewable materials. Turning down a secluded road shrouded by dense forest, we found the Redwood Grove. Inside were Redwood bark-tiled wall coverings, European birch-style furnishings, and an efficient kitchenette painted in bright orange with lime green accents but the outside world beckoned. The fall foliage glittered with vibrant oranges and yellows, and invigorating fresh air filled our lungs. Just as we veered down the leaf-strewn path we came upon the second largest Redwood in Big Sur, just steps from our cabin.
Unpacking our masks and costumes, we anticipated an evening of fun and celebration for this annual event dedicated to fundraising for the Big Sur Volunteer Firefighter Brigade. Eager to get the party started, we donned our masks and drove a short way to the restaurant.
Opened in 1949, Nepenthe has always attracted creatives, vagabonds, and seekers. The word nepenthe is derived from Greek, meaning “no sorrow,” and who could be unhappy here with jaw-dropping views of the Pacific surrounded by the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains? Just below the restaurant, The Phoenix gift shop sells an extensive array of local artisan wares. A cast of Halloween characters came streaming in: a 10-foot jellyfish, scantily clad maidens, and ghostly ghouls. The beat of the DJ’s records put our costumed tribe onto the dance floor while a Balinese snake charmer captivated the crowd with her boa constrictor.
Early the next day the fog burned away, and we were ready to visit two more iconic resorts along the coastal highway. Twelve-hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean sits Post Ranch Inn, a sanctuary for the soul. The resort is ideal for romance, relaxation, or rejuvenation. These 39 rooms provide rustic elegance, comfort, and privacy with unmatched views of the ocean and mountains.
The Post family was among Big Sur’s first pioneers, and this world-renowned landscape has been intertwined with the family for generations. Under their stewardship, the 100-acre Post Ranch has evolved from a working ranch into one of the most acclaimed luxury resorts in the world.
The coast-side rooms seem to be built into the mountain with houses curving around old-growth trees. Some are built on nine-foot stilts to protect the delicate roots beneath. Parts of the resort are made of reclaimed wood, glass, steel and stone to show a sense of harmony with nature.
The architectural visionary was C.K. (Mickey) Muennig. At the University of Oklahoma, he was drawn to the principles of “organic architecture” and captivated by the wild beauty of Big Sur during a visit in 1971. He became the area’s leading architect. His vision for Post Ranch Inn embraced luxury, sustainability and the natural beauty.
The fresh Pacific sea breeze awaked our palate. We set off to the Wine Spectator Grand award-winning Sierra Mar restaurant, which offered fine dining with a daily changing menu and with endless ocean views. Taking our seats, we kept a lookout for whales as our first course arrived. Chef Elizabeth Murray’s salad of heirloom lettuce mix, a garden harvest and microgreens showcased fresh sustainable ingredients. Next, she combined local grilled prawns with quinoa, avocado, roasted bell pepper, red onions and herbs - all from local purveyors. We finished her main tasting menu with eggplant cannelloni with white beans, Alfonzo olives, garden-cultivated mushrooms, and fresh basil.
Just across the street from the Post Ranch Inn is another Big Sur classic: the Ventana Inn. Shut by the long forced isolation, many workers were reassigned to its sister property, Carmel Valley Ranch, yet many choose to hike the two-mile foot path to the keep the operation running. Today the Ventana is reimagined. Our first stop was the brand-new large deck with the ocean and canyon in the distance. We enjoyed cocktails as the sun set over the Pacific and the moon rose above the mountains. We moved into The Sur House restaurant where we met up with executive chef Paul Corsentino. Before Big Sur, Corsentino was executive chef of The National at The Benjamin Hotel in New York City, where celebrated chef and restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian mentored him in the philosophies and techniques behind his signature cuisine. He assisted Zakarian in winning the fourth season of Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef, Super Chefs” in 2011 and made multiple appearances alongside Zakarian on “Iron Chef America.”
“After bringing more than a decade of cosmopolitan city experience to the serene landscape of Ventana Big Sur, I take pride in working closely with Big Sur’s local fisherman, foragers and farms to craft coastal American cuisine that showcases the vibrant, seasonal bounty of California’s Central Coast,” he said.
After choosing a vibrant Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands, we settled in to watch the chef’s culinary artistry. We started off with a tuna crudo with crushed smoked pineapple, yuzu and ginger sesame vinaigrette. To our delight, a perfectly prepared foie gras and chicken liver mousse accompanied by concord grapes, croissant, endive and grape confit had our senses dancing with gastronomic pleasure. Arriving next to our fireside table was the chef’s squid ink fettuccine. This extraordinary red wine-braised octopus with arugula and puttanesca sauce was executed with precision. Ora King salmon is also a must try with roasted salsify, spätzle, yellow pepper sauce, and red cabbage puree that had to be a favorite of the evening. For the fini, a lemon tart topped with huckleberry sauce, featuring yogurt cake, meringue, and a rich streusel cream concluded our day of culinary bliss. We reclined on our suite’s spacious king-size bed and get cozy in front of the wood-burning fireplace to relax and enjoy the stunning views.
We had heard about a special camping experience, so the next day, we just had to explore. Ventana Big Sur offers an elegant twist on outdoor living: a brand-new glamping Bath House. It offers teak-enclosed showers, heated floors, full hotel amenities, marble vanities, and even gleaming restroom facilities. This isn’t camping; it’s glamping. Guests sleep on a custom-designed glamping mattress and premium linens in a safari-style canvas tent. Enjoy the views of a 20-acre canyon, light up the firepit, make s’mores and tell stories, or just let the landscape do all the talking. Experience the full splendor of Big Sur, while still relishing all the amenities and services of this world-class resort.
We made our way back north via Highway 1, where the sky, the sea, the mountains, and the Redwoods converge. Untamed and rugged, the region offers a space of solitude and a reminder that our planet is precious and we should treat it likewise. For those who maintain this special part of the universe, we extend our thanks, and going forward we hope others will find a renewed sense reverence and respect for the venerable Big Sur. As Jack Kerouac, author of the novel Big Sur, states, “Something good will come out of all things yet - And it will be golden and eternal just like that - There’s no need to say another word.”
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