Thursday, May 15, 2008

Big Sur: Nirvana with NoCrowds

Day 3 San Luis Obispo to Big Sur
Wake up early. No time for breakfast. Jump in the car. Race to Hearst Castle. This was not the leisurely meander up the PCH we had in mind but I was worried about making our 9:00am non-refundable, non-exchageable tour reservation.

“Mom, why are we doing this? We’ve got way better castles back home and it’s going to be crowded. This is going to make you crazy, I can tell.”

Eloise had a point. Even making the reservation the day before had made me a little crazy. To see anything at Hearst Castle you must reserve one or more tours at specific times and even though it was off-season, it was hard to find a convenient slot. Still, the advice I had been given by everyone was “Whatever you do, don’t miss Hearst Castle.” In the end, there was nothing to do but submit to the process, pay the $36, get up early and head for La Cuesta Encantada ( the Enchanted Hill) as William Randolph Hearst liked to call his 90,080 square foot castle in the clouds.

Here’s the thing. Even though it’s a hassle and crowded, it’s worth it. Don’t be put off by the Visitor’s Center with its pedestrian gift shops and food courts. The fun begins when you climb into “the magic school bus” that takes you up the 1,500 foot hill overlooking the Pacific. As you drive along, the crazy, medieval, gothic, Moorish monster mansion, built over the course of 30 years by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan, looms larger and larger. Finally, you are deposited at the entrance where you meet your tour guides. The tour lasts for a little over an hour and does a great job of telling the story of all the people who played a role in creating the world’s grandest showplace. The tycoon, the architect, the mistress and the celebrities all come to life through the impressive narrative skills of the guides. Yes, the whole thing is a scandalous monument to material excess but just like the original Hearst guests, we were having too much fun to care.

Back in the car, Eloise and I began to make our way along the most spectacular section of the PCH, the 90 mile Big Sur coastline which stretches from San Simeon to Carmel. The winding road shoehorned precariously between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean is as wild and untamed as the magnificent craggy coastline. There are no traffic lights, no signs, no fast food and only three places to buy gas along the entire stretch. Guide books point out that rock slides, road closures and traffic accidents are common occurrences although we experienced none of that. The Big Sur Chamber of Commerce (what commerce?) calculates that there are less than 300 hotel beds in the entire area. I was in a state of NoCrowds nirvana.

“Look Eloise, is this not the most gorgeous, undeveloped, uncrowded stretch of road you have ever seen in your life?”
“It’s great Mom. How long until we get to our hotel?”
“Not too long, but first I want to stop at the Henry Miller Library.”
[Silence from the back seat.]
Don’t worry, it’s not a real library. It’s more like a Henry Miller experience. He was a really interesting writer who lived around here and a friend of his turned his house into a memorial to Henry Miller except he didn’t like memorials so it’s kind of a cultural happening. You can get a cup of tea and we don’t have to stay too long.

As it turned out, we stayed all afternoon. Eloise played ping pong in the garden with anyone who found it hard to tell a little girl “no”. We chatted with fellow travellers. Eloise met a teacher from New York and they discussed schools. I read “Travels with Charley”. We looked at books, the Paris and Beat Generation memorabilia, the crazy, larger-than-life crucifix made out of computer monitors. We sat in the sun and drank tea. On the way out, I asked Eloise what she thought of the whole thing. “Mom, Henry Miller was one wacky guy.” As we got back in the car, I imagined a much older Eloise, sitting in a literature class and holding forth on the Tropic of Cancer’s place in the American literary canon. Right then I made a wish that she would remember that once, when she was small, she spent a perfect afternoon hanging out with her old Mum at Miller’s anti-memorial memorial. I really hope she does remember.

Late in the day, we finally made it to the Big Sur River Inn, just down the road from the library and the most northern of the lodging possibilities. We had intended to stay at Deetjen’s, built by a Norwegian immigrant in the 1930s and now on the National Register of Historic Places which is run on a non-profit basis by the Big Sur Inn Preservation Foundation, but we way underestimated the demand and tried to score a room late in the day with no luck. I also considered booking into the Esalen Institute, home of the Human Potential movement where Hunter Thompson was once the caretaker, but I was sure this hippie camp for boomers would be wasted on Eloise. Ditto for naked bathing in the Esalen hot springs baths which is open to the public from 1am to 3am. We couldn’t afford the upmarket Ventana and Post Ranch Inns (a pity since Playboy Magazine voted the Post Ranch the sexiest place on earth) and all the other mid-range options were booked.

In the end, the Big Sur River Inn suited us fine. Besides, we didn’t have a choice. Dating back to 1888, tucked under towering redwoods and overlooking a picturesque creek, the main building is a rustic place with a laid back vibe. Our room, which was in the motel-like section across Highway One, really wasn’t great – poorly lit, Spartan bathroom, interesting odors, close to the road – but imbued with the bonhomie that comes from amazing surroundings and good company, we didn’t care. And there were some nice touches to offset our disappointing room: funky Adirondack and willow chairs were placed in the creek (yes, IN the creek) which was a popular place to read. We had a pleasant dinner and even better American breakfast in the atmospheric dining room. We loved the old fashioned General Store next door where guys in pick-up trucks would pull in to buy their coffee. With all that said, the next time we’re in Big Sur, we’re reserving three months ahead and going to Deetjen’s.

Before leaving Big Sur, we wanted to check out the beach. I had read that the Pfeiffer beach was hard to find so that sounded perfect. According to the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, the trick is to locate unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, which is not so tricky once you know that it is the only paved, ungated road west of Highway One between the Big Sur Post Office and the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The drive down the single lane winding road was slightly exciting and the beach was wild, gorgeous and freezing. What a contrast from the well behaved and accessible beaches of southern California. Pfeiffer Beach with its funky access, roaring wind, crashing waves and towering boulders is a beach for rebels and bandits. We climbed rocks and wrote in the sand but finally, it was so cold we couldn’t stand it anymore so back in the car and off to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The Facts

Hearst Castle
750 Hearst Castle Road
San Simeon, CA 93452
Tel: 800 444 4445
Advanced reservations strongly recommended

The Henry Miller Memorial Library
Highway One ( a quarter mile south of Nepenthe and a quarter mile north of Deetjens)
Tel: 831 667 2574
Open every day except Tuesday from 11 to 6

Big Sur River Inn
Highway One at Pheneger Creek
Big Sur, CA 93920
Tel: 831 667 2700
Toll Free: 800 548 3610
Fax: 831 667 2743
Pfeiffer Beach
Mile 63.2N (1 Mile South of Big Sur State Park)
Access via (unmarked) Sycamore Canyon Road
For more info call 831 667 2315

1 comment:

  1. Big Sur is one of the most beautiful stretches along the PCH. Don't miss the beautiful McWay Falls with its 80ft drop straight to the beach.