California coastal highlands provide awe-inspiring show To Sur, with Love

August 07, 1994|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to The Sun

Our hikes are a little different," warned Steve Harper, a naturalist who was leading a wilderness trek out of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif.

How different could they be? You put on boots, you huff up hills and through muck. You ooh and ahh and kvetch . . .

"We bow to the trees."

Now wait just a minute.

"What if I can't find a tree I respect?" I joked, but nobody laughed.

Nature is serious business here.

Whether you're trekking along forested ridges and bonding with the vegetation, cantering across one of the wild beaches on horseback or simply gazing out on the Pacific from a cushy cliff-top resort, nature is the star attraction throughout this 90-mile expanse of coastal highlands that stretches roughly from San Simeon, 260 miles north of Los Angeles, to Carmel, 130 miles south of San Francisco. The performance is so magnificent, that, in truth, bowing would not be an excessive gesture of appreciation.

We spent five days sampling three dramatically different styles of Big Sur vacations, from rustic to royal.

We booked simple lodgings deep in the woods at the laid-back 1930s Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, where the dining room was as likely to be filled with locals as tourists, chowing down on hearty fare and catching up on news and gossip in equal proportions. Our room, once occupied by the legendary Norwegian homesteader Helmut "Grandpa" Deetjen himself, came complete with Grandpa's old pot-bellied stove, a slew of scratchy old classical records and a scratchy old phonograph to play them on, and journals of the old man's musings about life -- and after-life.

We joined the aforementioned "Big Sur Wilderness Experience" at Esalen, known popularly as the "Harvard of Human Potential," which runs hundreds of weekend self-awareness workshops, from Gestalt psychology to couples massage to inner golf. Our consciousness-raising nature outings were followed by huge buffets in the institute's dining room and communal soaks in a cliff-side hot tub.

Finally, we pampered ourselves at 500 bucks a night in one of the oceanfront bungalows at the swank, year-old Post Ranch Inn, perched on a bluff 1,200 feet above the sea. When fog blotted out the expensive view, and lashing rain made venturing out unappealing, we holed up in front of our wood-burning fireplace, slathered each other in jasmine-scented oil, and, assisted by soft music wafting from the room's Nakamichi tape deck, dutifully practiced Esalen massage maneuvers.

The common thread throughout our trip was time each day given over to exploring the woods, beaches and cliff trails for which Big Sur is justly famous. Starting in Los Angeles and driving slowly up gorgeous coastal Highway 1, with an overnight en route in trendy seaside Cambria, we were deep in Big Sur's Santa Lucia Mountains by late afternoon our second day on the (( road.

We had only 60 miles to go from Cambria to the heart of Big Sur, but distance and time rarely jibe in this captivating region. Just minutes after pulling over to photograph the most beautiful seascape we'd ever seen, we'd stop again to snap an even more dramatic shot, and then another and another. My companion finally begged me to close my eyes for a while so we could get to our lodgings before dark.

We pulled into Deetjen's Big Sur Inn in plenty of time to stash our suitcases in the redwood cabin marked "Grandpa's Room" and get in our first Big Sur hike, at Andrew Molera State Park, a few miles north. At the park entrance we paid a $4 car fee and were handed a trail map with several routes to a secluded beach where the ocean and Big Sur River meet. We chose an easy one-mile stroll along a sandy path flanked by wildflowers. The view at the end of the line was everything we had hoped for -- a wide expanse of sand, and at each end of the beach, towering cliffs curving out to a roiling, deep blue sea.

No wonder so many artists and writers migrated to this magic land over the years, seeking inspiration and solitude. (There wasn't even a passable road through the region until state Highway 1 was completed in 1937.) Here, playwright Henry Miller, poets Robinson Jeffers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, singer Joan Baez, and countless others had composed impassioned works.

Dinner was another visual feast. We had heard that the best view in Big Sur was from Nepenthe, an informal restaurant high on a cliff with outdoor decks overlooking the Pacific and adjacent mountains. Devouring fresh Pacific salmon while soulful jazz played over the loudspeakers, we thought surely life was perfect -- until a guy behind us whipped out a cellular phone and loudly began negotiating stock deals.

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