In Big Sur, California dreamin'

BIG SUR, Calif. -- The Great Deluge of 1998 ended symbolically on May 21, when the California Department of Transportation announced the reopening of storm-ravaged California Highway 1 through Big Sur. At least that's what I took the announcement to mean (I'd just moved here from New York). So to celebrate, I bought a car, the first I'd owned in 20 years; packed a bag and headed north.

I'd been to Big Sur before, but never in a new black Miata convertible. And never before was I so aware of what the Big Sur coast is: one of California's chief beauty spots, one of the world's. There the land meets the sea along the steepest coastal slope in mainland America, with the westernmost ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains hugging the ocean for 90 famous miles from San Simeon to Carmel.

Geologists say that this breathtakingly jagged littoral is the result of collisions between huge floating land masses called tectonic plates. Anyone who looks at it would say so, because clearly these plates are not getting along.

But many things set the place apart, such as the artists, writers and millionaire dropouts who have run away to Big Sur and never come back. Because it lies at the overlap of two ecological territories--the cool northern Oregonian and the warmer Californian to the south--its plant and animal life is unusually abundant--including, above all, the great coast redwoods, which spring up in nursery groves along moist private canyons no farther south than about Salmon Creek. Guarded by the secretive Santa Lucias and a citizenry that tolerates only a minimum of development, Big Sur remains, to the average tourist's eye, almost as pristine as when condors flew freely over it and the Portuguese explorer, Juan Cabrillo, sailed by.

And then there's the highway, built in fits and starts between 1922 and 1937. As funds dried up or flowed, work crews from state prisons were enlisted (shortening their sentences by two days for every three days worked), and 36 canyons were spanned by bridges. Part of Highway 1's northern section follows the route of the old dirt road that linked the homesteaders in the Big Sur River Valley to Carmel, a trip that took 11 hours by wagon as late as 1920.

Even so, the coming of the paved road was rued by many who lived in this gorgeously lost cubbyhole, including Big Sur bard Robinson Jeffers, in a poem called "The Coast-Road." "Where is our consolation?" it concludes. "Beautiful beyond belief the heights glimmer in the sliding cloud, the great bronze gorge-cut sides of the mountain tower up invincibly, not the least hurt by this ribbon of road carved on their sea-foot."

Ironically, during El Nin~o's brutal pummeling this year, it was the highway that was hurt the most. Slides, plugged culverts and undermined roadbeds developed in 40 spots along the coast, locking in the little community of Big Sur for more than three months and requiring a massive reconstruction effort.

Caltrans made it a priority to get the road in passable shape before Memorial Day, but a week before the reopening the skies opened again, briefly closing one of the worst patches 13 miles south of Carmel at Hurricane Point. Just before I left I learned that I could take the convertible through, though lanes remained closed in about 10 places, with flagmen directing traffic from both the north and the south.

I pondered long and hard about the route because I wanted the trip to be perfect. Taking U.S. 101 north to San Luis Obispo, where Highway 1 strikes off for the coast, seemed the shortest, most direct approach--310 miles from L.A. to the Ventana Inn, where I planned to spend my first night in Big Sur.

But if I stayed inland all the way north and got on Highway 1 at Carmel, I could make a more elegant circular route (about 380 miles to the Ventana), catching the best views from the driver's side of the Miata in the southbound lane.

Then I heard about a third option, the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which cuts across the rugged heart of the mountains in Los Padres National Forest about 20 miles north of Paso Robles. Accessible from 101 at the hamlet of Bradley, this paved country road passes by lonely Mission San Antonio de Padua in the Hunter Liggett Military Reserve, dead-ending at Highway 1 just south of 5,155-foot Cone Peak. Through the winter it remained an open lifeline, for use by Big Sur residents only.

But Caltrans said I could drive it now, provided I had a reliable car and didn't mind perilous switchbacks. Before I moved to California from New York, I never thought of driving as a pleasure. But heading to Big Sur in a sports car is a joy ride--like having a fling with someone young and inappropriate.

I left town under clear blue skies, early on the Tuesday after the Memorial Day weekend. With a cup of Starbucks at hand and a James Taylor tape cranked up loud, I had decided California was beautiful by the time I hit Thousand Oaks. By San Luis Obispo, I was in the zone, listening to a Cuban band called Los Mun~equitos de Matanzas--which may explain why I missed the first turnoff for Highway 1 altogether.

So I let the car tell me what to do, and it turned off on Route G18 at Bradley, which leads eventually to the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. I bought corn chips and a packaged tuna sandwich at a gas station along the way, and picnicked beside blowzy yellow roses in the still garden at the Mission San Antonio, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1771. Mozart seemed right for the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which posed no challenge even to a wimpy driver like me. At the road's crest, intersected by the Cone Peak Trail, I did something I'd long been meaning to do: I took the top down, so that descending the mounded ridge brushed with purple lupine and goldenrod, I could feel the Pacific wind messing up my hair.

My trip meter read 297 miles when I turned north onto Highway 1 near Lucia, and flagmen waved me to a standstill three times before I reached the Ventana Inn, while trucks maneuvered at the very brink of the precipice. Poor, wounded highway.

But even if traffic occasionally stops, the views never do. I like it best near the Esalen Institute, where I was sad to learn that a mudslide had done $2 million worth of damage to the cliff-side baths. Onward, though, to arrive at the Ventana Inn well before 6 for a $125 massage.

I'm no sybarite, but on my three-day trip to Big Sur, it was no holds barred. So I'd reserved rooms at the three most expensive spots on the coast: the Ventana ($295), the Post Ranch Inn ($365) and Deetjen's Big Sur Inn ($165), all of which sit along a five-mile stretch of road just south of the Big Sur River.

The old, red Post family homestead greets travelers at the turnoff for the Ventana Inn, yielding to a pretty lane that winds past the restaurant and gift shop, through a grove of redwoods, and then up into the hills, where Ventana's two-story guest quarters of weathered cedar with latticed railings and sharply pitched roofs command sterling views.

In the main lodge, which also has accommodations, guests clustered around the complimentary cocktail table. I got an upgrade to a $365 room after looking at one for $265 that didn't please me because it was above the reception area. In the coming year the inn plans to add a full-service spa and redecorate its guest rooms.

Meanwhile, spacious No. 18, where I spent the night, had the air of a spring garden, with a pink-sheeted king bed, rattan chairs, a window seat and a porch looking right into birds' nests perched among oaks and bay laurels. The fireplace was ready to light--which is the first thing my masseuse did when she arrived with her portable massage table and little bottles of herbal oil.

"What hurts?" she wanted to know. For the next 90 minutes, nothing at all. Afterward I soaked in the Japanese spa, dressed for dinner and followed the looping daisy-lined path to the restaurant, where I ate at the bar next to a couple from England. The service was efficient, if not exactly personable, and the bluepoint oysters and local rockfish on a bed of leaks I ordered were tasty--but not the source of my most intense pleasure at the Ventana. That came on the walk back, when for a long moment out of time I locked eyes with a gray fox.

The next night in the cozy candle-lit restaurant at Deetjen's, I met a well-heeled man from Texas who said he'd been coming to the coast for years and wouldn't dream of staying anywhere but Deetjen's. The place definitely has its aficionados, due to its authentic old Big Sur charm. A registered national historic site, its idiosyncratic redwood cabins cluster around the rim of shady Castro Canyon, cobbled together in the 1930s by the inn's founder, Helmuth Deetjen.

I stayed in "Stokes," named for Grandpa Deetjen's handyman. It was dark and small, with Calla lilies at the front door, a plump duvet-covered queen bed, a wood-burning stove and rustic bath decorated with an appealing jumble of old bottles and lamps, dingy paintings and mirrors.

But the highway was a little too close, I could have done without the rat trap I discovered behind the stove, and I got the feeling that the staff wished the guests had stayed home--particularly when I couldn't get anyone to let me into the restaurant the next morning, even though it was time to open and I was standing in the rain. It rained for two days while I was in Big Sur, but I didn't care because watching fingers of fog feel into the canyons and Turner-esque storm clouds break over the sea is a deeply calming way to pass the time.

Nor did the inclement weather stop me from going barefoot at Pfeiffer Beach, horseback riding through meadows of Queen Anne's lace and morning glories in Andrew Molera State Park, taking in a photography exhibit at the Henry Miller Library around the bend from Deetjen's, and joining a three-hour tour of the Big Sur Lightstation. The lighthouse, built in 1889, sits atop a great rock surrounded by water on three sides, like Mont St.-Michel at high tide.

I even hiked up to Buzzard's Roost, a promontory in the western section of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, thinking it a fine thing to set out during a downpour because you don't have to worry for a minute about whether it will rain. Once I grew tired of the gray weather, though, and asked a clerk in the gift shop at Nepenthe, Big Sur's most popular view bar, what she did all through the long, wet winter. She smiled so broadly I could tell she'd loved every minute of it, and said, "I sat in front of the fire with kitty."

There was no kitty in my room at the Post Ranch Inn, where I stayed on my last night in Big Sur. But the staff was pleasantly attentive, and once I'd been taken in a van to my chamber in a building called Middle Butterfly, I found that there was everything else to make life blissful: home-label sea kelp body lotion for use after bathing in the deep Jacuzzi tub; a porch with two Adirondack-style chaise longues facing 3,397-foot Mt. Manuel; a CD player; fireplace; and a refrigerator stocked with cheeses and chocolates you don't have to pay extra for.

The inn has 30 rooms, but they aren't rooms really. Scattered across the last ridge before the Pacific, they are architectural fantasies in myriad forms: sod-roofed burrows with ocean views, treehouses set on struts and eclectic contraptions of metal and wood--such as the one I stayed in--that manage to suggest modern sculpture and shacks built by Big Sur settlers at once.

This isn't exactly gimmickry, because the inn occupies a 98-acre tract of land claimed by W.B. Post in the 1860s and salutes the past by naming guest quarters for Big Sur homesteaders and raising produce for its restaurant in a cottage garden.

Still, you see strange, decadent things at the Post Ranch Inn: guests wearing their plush terry cloth robes on walks though the woods to the fitness room 10 minutes below, and German tourists smoking cigars in the "basking pool." There are a few activities, such as yoga, stargazing and garden talks, but the main offering is indulgence.

I resisted at first, but finally succumbed at supper in the Sierra Mar restaurant, where nothing but a picture window separated me from the Pacific. The four-course, fixed-price dinner a gastronomic extravaganza. I started with grilled artichokes in arugula-pine nut risotto, plus mussel chowder, followed by exotic mushroom pot-au-feu with fiddlehead ferns. Dessert was blackberry tart a la mode, which I carried back to my room.

Small wonder, then, that I left the inn carrying a couple of extra pounds which weren't in my suitcase. Never mind. The sun was shining again by the time I drove out of Big Sur, down Highway 1, until it vanished for a while at San Luis Obispo. But I expect I'll be going back, now that my car knows the way.

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