Get away to the Big Sur coast

From land or sea, the Big Sur coastline dazzles. This 90-mile stretch of rugged Central California landscape draws millions of visitors annually, most of whom are content to pull over at Highway 1 viewpoints to catch a quick glimpse of the rocky Pacific shoreline. But I wanted more. I wanted a window on the sea.

The bed


High above the ocean, Ragged Point Inn & Resort offers a spot of green in a landscape of browns and blues. The 17-acre park-like resort (19019 Highway 1, Ragged Point; [805] 927-4502) sits at the south end of Big Sur, about an hour's drive from San Luis Obispo. Founded in the late '50s by Wiley and Mildred Ramey, the inn began as a two-room motel on a lonely stretch of highway. The highway is still lonely, but the resort now includes restaurants, stores, an art gallery, sitting room, gas station and wedding and conference facilities. Best of all, there are 39 rooms, many with floor-to-ceiling windows on the sea. (Rates for a standard room start at $99 weekdays and $139 weekends through March 31.) My room was compact — much more roadside-motel ambience than luxury-resort ambience — but comfortable. And you can't beat the view or the surrounding terrain.

The food

Ragged Point has an outdoor snack bar, an espresso bar and an attractive indoor-outdoor dining room. I tried all three; each was fine in its own right. Many Highway 1 travelers stop at the snack bar, where burgers and sandwiches are priced at less than $10; the dining room's dinner menu starts at $12.95 for entrees and offers seafood, salads and contemporary favorites. My rosemary pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and Parmesan cheese was a comforting winter's-night meal ($16.95).

The find

Whether you spend the night or just take a break from the sometimes harrowing curves of Highway 1, Ragged Point is an excellent place to de-stress. Trails wind along the Pacific under an umbrella of Monterey Cypress trees, benches offer spots to watch whales swim along the coast, and pretty landscaping — full of nasturtiums and other flowers — is a relief to eyes that are road-weary. Best of all, there's no charge to enjoy these amenities (including bathrooms that are open to the public). The first two times I visited Ragged Point, it was to stroll along the sea and shoot pictures from its high vantage point. I didn't become a hotel guest until my third visit.

The lesson learned

Highway 1 is considered one of America's top road trips. I enjoyed it much more when I spent the night locally than I did during other trips when I high-powered it from Los Angeles to Monterey. Watching the fog burn off the ocean in the morning while I ate a leisurely breakfast, then taking the time to visit highlights along the Big Sur coast, offered a far better way to appreciate the area's spectacular scenery.

The tab

With room, dinner and breakfast, the bill for my window on the sea came to a little less than $225, not counting the $60 I spent on gasoline for the trip north or the hand-painted blouse I bought in the Ragged Point art gallery.