In Big Sur, a simple beauty

In Big Sur, a simple beauty
Treebones' yurts are furnished with a comfortable bed and chairs, pine floors, electric lights and a portable heater. (Craig Nakano / LAT)
Once upon a time, a young couple purchased a hillside parcel on the southern Big Sur coast and dreamed of retiring there someday, turning an abandoned lumberyard into a family-run bed-and-breakfast.

For design inspiration, the couple recruited Cal Poly San Luis Obispo environmental architecture students, who used the B&B as a class project. Their recommendation: The inn should intrude as little as possible on the land. Its buildings, the students said, should be circular, in harmony with offshore winds and in keeping with the round tree trunks that peppered the grassy slopes. Nature, they said, should reign.

The final plan called for oversized yurts, circular tent-like cabins that would provide the rusticity of camping but the comforts of a country inn. They would allow guests to commune with nature. And they would be affordable — at $105 a night plus tax, a sort of poor man's Post Ranch Inn.

The project was saddled with delays — getting permits, financing the couple's dream, sweating through construction. Twenty years passed.

Finally, in November, John and Corinne Handy opened their yurt B&B. It's called the Treebones Resort, and it's my new favorite place on the Central Coast.

I made the trek to Treebones last month with my partner, Todd, arriving around 9 p.m. on a Friday after the 280-mile drive from Los Angeles. One of the Handys' friendly property managers loaded our luggage onto a golf cart for the short ride to Yurt No. 7, on a bluff.

The structure itself was campground-simple: a lattice skeleton made of Douglas fir, plus a round wall and roof made of insulated vinyl and acrylic-coated polyester. Not exactly Fallingwater.

The beauty was in the details: rattan easy chairs and table perfect for playing cards, bedside sconces for easy reading, royal red curtains to draw over the five windows, a deck that looked straight out toward Pacific blue.

We dropped our bags and set out for a walk under a half-moon low on the horizon, glowing yellow and orange. Stars beamed down from space like a million flashlights, guiding us along a trail that passed most of Treebones' 15 other yurts, all dark and seemingly vacant.

We heard voices, though, low chatter mixed with hearty laughter, so we kept on. The source turned out to be not fellow guests but elephant seals, clamoring on distant rocks for their own precious piece of coastal real estate.

Back at No. 7, we spoiled ourselves with a slothful routine: Play cards in the yurt. Listen to waves on our deck. Count shooting stars from a grassy knoll. Repeat.

Thus began our weekend of not-so-roughing it, coddled at a glorified campground where linens, bedding and breakfast were provided and communal bathrooms were more akin to an upscale athletic club (faux-stone tile, adjustable shower heads) than any state campground.

Which, according to John Handy, was the intent. The accommodations here were patterned after yurts at Oregon state parks, with some differences: polished pine floors instead of linoleum, comfortable beds instead of foam bunks and niceties such as washbasins.

The only drawback we encountered was the lack of a full-service restaurant, which sent us to the Whalewatcher Cafe in Gorda and Ragged Point Inn 12 miles south of Treebones for mediocre dinners (one-star food, two-star service, three-star prices).

Overall, though, Treebones delivered a novel ambience, one in contrast with traditional B&Bs intent on re-creating a stereotype of the perfect home.

"Now people go to places for an experience, for something different," Handy said in a phone interview later. "One of the students at Cal Poly was writing his thesis on great architecture as a matter of vista and refuge: You have a vista that is awe-inspiring, but you can step back into a cocoon and be safe inside."

Much of the weekend we cocooned to our hearts' content, unwinding in the absence of TV, Wi-Fi or cellphone service. We hung out in the cozy great room, warmed by its fireplace and view. I took a dip in the pool and hot tub, both heated year-round and ringed with a band of light that shifted colors like the illuminated towers at LAX.

A beach, a hike and lunch

We started each morning with waffles, orange juice and a sketch of the day's adventures. Treebones' location one mile north of Gorda is a decent base from which to visit popular state parks such as Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Pfeiffer Big Sur and Andrew Molera. During our two days, though, we decided to blaze less-trampled trails.

A couple of miles to the north, a precariously steep, crumbling dirt path led us toward Jade Cove, so named for the pieces of nephrite jade that occasionally wash up during low tide. I'm not sure who looked more idiotic: the two soaked jade hunters getting blasted by the high tide or the travel writer trying to photograph the jade hunters without getting blasted by the high tide.

Farther north on Highway 1 we pulled into Limekiln State Park, where the fern-lined Kiln Trail meandered along a creek amid a jumble of boulders and fallen trees. We hiked for half a mile, our steps softened by a thick pad of redwood needles, until we reached the remnants of four limestone kilns built in 1887. Here, workers smelted stone into powder, a component of the cement used for construction in Monterey and San Francisco.

The operation ceased in 1890, after all surrounding trees had been felled to fuel the kilns. Today the crumbling towers of iron and brick are dwarfed by resurgent coastal redwoods.

We drove a couple of miles farther north Saturday to Lucia for lunch. Nepenthe may be the best-known restaurant on this coast, but I prefer the vantage point at the Lucia Lodge, perched above a pretty cove. We skipped the $12 sandwiches in the lodge restaurant in favor of $6 sandwiches from the adjacent market. Chips, Cokes and the view made for a fine picnic.

North of Lucia are more Big Sur landmarks: the Esalen Institute, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, the Henry Miller Library. On Sunday we buzzed by them all, including Nepenthe, the property formerly owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, now the site of $7.25 baskets of French fries.

We had a more humble lunch at the Big Sur River Inn. Our balsamic chicken sandwiches with side salads were fine, but most of our attention was focused on figuring out which parents were letting their small child streak naked across the restaurant's shaded back lawn. (Answer: a couple who emerged in full tie-dye regalia from a VW bus.)

Had we more time, we would have strolled the rugged shoreline at Garrapata State Park. Or we would have spent more than a couple of hours at Point Lobos State Reserve, in my mind one of the state's most stunning spots.

As the sun set at Point Lobos, we walked along the headlands, our feet sinking into the powdery, khaki-colored sand, our eyes peeled for sea otters in the teal-colored surf.

Near a point called Devil's Cauldron, the barking of California sea lions reminded me of our first night at Treebones. The distant chatter of elephant seals. The pounding of waves. The unearthly quiet that otherwise enveloped the place.

That's the second thing people notice at Treebones, John Handy said. First is the view. Second is the quiet. Third, the stars. On clear nights, he said, "we can see stars forever."

The Handys still live in Long Beach, where John is senior vice president for product development at El Segundo-based Mattel. But he and Corinne hope to move to Treebones someday and live in the circular house they built on the hill. That's the dream, at least — and after one visit, I can see why.

Craig Nakano is an assistant travel editor.

Budget for two

Expenses for this trip:

Treebones Resort
Two nights with tax: $232.05

State parks admission: $6.00

Whalewatcher Cafe: $61.43

Lucia Lodge market: $21.58

Ragged Point Inn: $78.12

Big Sur River Inn: $36.10

Point Lobos entrance, map: $9.00

Other meals, snacks: $14.58

Gas: $43.06

Final tab: $501.92


Treebones Resort, 71895 Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920; (877) 424-4787, .

California State Parks, . Limekiln State Park, (831) 667-2403. Point Lobos State Reserve, (831) 624-4909.