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The Truth About Sleeping Around in Big Sur

If you think navigating Big Sur's famously twisted highway is tricky,just try finding a place to stay. Down here, where rooms are as scarce as they are quirky, you have to know the lay of the land to get it right. And so, just in time for the clear days of Indian summer, a straight-talking guide to where to stay, hike, and eat on the most beautiful coastline in the world.

BIG SUR: $275 AND UP (and up and up)
THE BIG SPENDER'S BREAKDOWN: Ventana vs. Post Ranch
Unless you've stayed at these two grandes dames of big sur, you probably have only a vague notion of what they are actually like. Anything written about either one tends to be breathlessly littered with words like "spectacular," "paradise," and "quiet luxury." That's lovely, but it's not very helpful. Instead, we give you a gush-free, side-by-side look at where to stay when you decide to blow the big bucks.

Ventana Inn & Spa
Origin: In 1975, Larry Spector took the dough he made off Easy Rider and constructed the ultimate dropout pad.
What keeps them coming back: Paths that meander through bursting gardens to trails into the woods.
Defining Touches: No one has devoted this much real estate to communal bathing since, well, the seventies. In other neo-hippie touches, Enya croons at breakfast every day, and the CD in the room is a classical guitar ode to Led Zeppelin.
The Crowd: Recession-proof fiftysomethings who probably came through Big Sur in the seventies sleeping in their VW bus and smoking pot.
Room to roam: 2 acres per guest
Quirks: Our bellman gives the control panel a Fonz-like smack to make the heater rattle to life. He notices the room is missing its slippers, but that doesn't mean we ever get any. Oh, and when the tub drains, it makes the sound of a dying buffalo.
On the shelf in the library: The Origami Handbook
The rooms: 60 rooms sheathed in unfinished redwood are classically of their era—minus the shag rugs and avocado bathroom fixtures. Many are showing their age, but planned renovations promise to give us the high, fluffy, duvet-covered beds we expect at this price.
Supper-time scene: Cielo is a romantic half-mile walk from the inn, and everyone seems to have a happy memory of eating on the deck here. But the food has fewer hits than misses.
The spa experience: After getting lubed up in an ocean-view massage room, wander down to the clothing-optional pool to let the sun warm your newly kneaded muscles.
The big splurge: Without a doubt, 1 through 4—the newest rooms—are tops, and they're easily twice the size of any room at Post Ranch. While the official rate on these babies is $1,000, they sometimes go for as little as $700.
Deals to be had: Rooms still vacant a couple days out are put on the website at a discount—a $450 room might go for as little as $275. In general, it's easier to work a deal at Ventana than at Post Ranch.
The bottom line: Depending on how you feel about the seventies, you'll either find it classic or awkwardly dated.
Want in?: (800) 628-6500, www.ventanainn.com.

Post Ranch Inn
Origin: In 1992, Mickey Muennig's mega-eco-friendly design won over the tree-hugger contingent, and this became the first resort to be built on the coast in almost two decades.
What keeps them coming back:
The biggest eyeful of vast, blue ocean you can imagine.
Defining Touches: Around here, luxury means that in place of TVs, rooms have a real wood-burning fireplace and instead of a golf course, there's a web of nature trails. 
The Crowd: Similar, though it embraces more of the thirtysomething banker and celeb set.
Room to roam: 1.6 acres per guest
Quirks: Don't try wandering to the pool in your flip-flops—it's  way down in a valley, a hefty hike from the rooms.
On the shelf in the library: What Color Is Your Parachute?
The rooms: Every one of the 30 rooms is exactly the same size, but there's nothing cookie-cutter about them. "Ocean houses" hide under a grassy curve of hillside, while "tree houses" stand tippy-toed on nine-foot stilts, their windows high up in the branches of a redwood grove.
Supper-time scene: All fancy seaside restaurants have a nice view, but Sierra Mar, hanging out over a cliff, has the granddaddy of them all. And the food is even better.
The spa experience: Look up from the massage table through the floor-to-ceiling window to see a massive redwood trunk shooting up toward the sky.
The big splurge: The five $935 ocean houses always go first. Why? Total privacy. Huge picture windows face nothing but ocean.
Deals to be had: November to April, midweek rates for mountain-view rooms are 40 percent off, which puts them at $300 and up. But the coveted ocean-view rooms are full price year-round.
The bottom line: Hands down the first choice for the don't-trouble-me-with-the-bill set. 
Want in?: (800) 527-2200, www.postranchinn.com.

BIG SUR: $60-$250
REAL DEALS: There's one for you
Many people have the sneaking suspicion that the only lodging in Big Sur is either dirt cheap (read: camping) or impossibly pricey. But we stuck our heads into every room and every cabin on the coast and found six places where you can get an honest night's sleep.

1 Big Sur River Inn
This one's for you if: you're a yard person, not a house person.
Don't be put off by the lack of curb appeal: From the front, this place has the look of a roadside pit stop, clustered with a general store, a pub, a candle shop, and a restaurant. But around back, where a broad lawn stretches down to the river, it has the luxuriously lazy feel of a private estate. The plain-Jane rooms are nothing to get excited about, but family suites on the river side of the road open up onto decks overlooking the lawn, putting the kids closer to the pool and you closer to the patio bar, where live music on weekends brings in the locals (who count as entertainment in their own right). (831) 667-2700, www.bigsurriverinn.com, $85-$225 (riverside suites start at $200).

2 Ripplewood Resort
This one's for you if: "rustic" isn't a dirty word in your book.
Nab one of the cabins on the shores of the Big Sur River, and you've got yourself a back-to-the-land fantasy. They may be the furthest thing from posh, but they have a certain fishing-shack chic, with '40s-style kitchens that make you want to tie on an apron and whip up a Waldorf salad. Cabins 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9, deep in a shady canyon away from the road, all have decks overlooking the river. Cabins 5 and 6 will do if those are booked, but forget about 10 through 15, which face the road. Anyone who tells you that the Big Sur Cabins or the Riverside Cabins down the road are just as good is playing a dirty trick on you. These are the ones you want—you and everyone else: Summer weekends in the best cabins book up sometime around Christmas. Winters are easier, but don't get any funny ideas about sauntering in without a reservation. (831) 667-2242, www.ripplewoodresort.com, $75-$125.

3 Big Sur Lodge
This one's for you if: you've got the whole gang along.
First of all, the Big Sur Lodge isn't a lodge at all. It's a rambling '60s-style resort where long clapboard buildings encircle a Frisbee-ready lawn and a swimming pool. Airy, light-filled Brady Bunch-style suites come with enough quilt-topped beds to sleep your whole clan, plus a cousin or two. It's all very functional, if not exactly quaint. In some suites, kitchens and fireplaces take you all the way from morning flapjacks to bedtime s'mores. With no TVs, phones, or even radios, you'll have to rely on long novels and ghost stories for nighttime entertainment. The rooms are inside the entrance to the well-trafficked Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, so you're not exactly off the beaten track, but it's pretty cool to start your day with an early walk up to Pfeiffer Falls. (831) 667-3100, www.bigsurlodge.com, $99-$229.

4 Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
This one's for you if: soul counts for more than square feet.
Spend $150 on a room at Deetjen's, and you won't get a $150 room. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. Instead you'll get a snug hideout with no TV, no phone, and no key (all the rooms latch from the inside). The kind of room where when you sneeze you get a chorus of "Bless you"s back from your neighbors. So, why do people return year after year, asking for the same room every time? It's soul, baby, and Deetjen's has it oozing out of every board-and-batten crack. Each room has a name, like a beloved pet, and its own particular set of quirks. Book the $180 Castro cabin, for example, and you'll get a shower-sized bathroom and barely enough room to walk around the bed. But in the morning you'll open your eyes and look up through a skylight over your pillow to a tangle of redwood branches streaked with sunlight. (831) 667-2377, www.deetjens.com, $75-$195.

5 Lucia Lodge
This one's for you if: you're all about the view.
If you stayed at Lucia Lodge more than a couple of years ago, you've got the place all wrong. In the last two and a half years, the Harlans, who own the whole darn town of Lucia, at the south end of Big Sur, have been fixing up their row of ten cliffside rooms, taking them from motel dingy to country cute. If they still seem a little pricey for what they are, just kick open the front door to your room and take a gander at the unobstructed view down the undulating coast. Only Post Ranch has sight lines this good. As the room numbers go up, the vistas get better and the prices pricier. Rooms 7 and up are the ones to shoot for; 1 through 6 are basic as can be and open onto the parking area. Room 10, the biggest and best, sits at the end on the edge of the cliff, with wide-open ocean views on two sides. (831) 667-2391, www.lucialodge.com, $100-$250.

6 New Camaldoli Hermitage
This one's for you if: you're dying for a little peace and quiet.
Just south of Lucia Lodge, a steep driveway marked by a cross winds up, up, up into the hills like it's going to take you straight to heaven. But, as anyone who went to Sunday school knows, you have to get to heaven on your own. New Camaldoli, though, might be a close second for anyone whose head is ringing with the chaos of everyday life. This homely monastic community, with a cluster of cinder-block buildings and a knockout of a location with eagle's-eye views of the coast, accepts a handful of "retreatants" each night. Those who can never find enough quiet at home may find it here, whether or not they're the praying sort. Meals are eaten alone, in a private room with a private garden. Trails head off into the hills in all directions. There is no talking. Whether this sounds like heaven or hell is a matter of taste, but many call six months ahead for it. (831) 667-2456, www.contemplation.com, $60-$70 per person, including all meals.

BIG SUR: $7-$35
HEAVEN FOR LESS: Killer Campsites
The only true bargains in Big Sur are reserved for the hardy camping crowd. As poor as the coast may be in hotel rooms, it is rich in campsites. We give you the dirt on where to sleep in the dirt.

Ventana Campground is a camper's playground, with 40 acres for just 80 spacious spots. When you call, tell them what kind of site you like—off in the trees, close to the bathroom, nowhere near the bathroom—and they'll try to make a match. Or, take matters into your own hands by studying the detailed map on the website. One thing to remember: The campground sits in a redwood-shaded canyon where the sun doesn't often break through. On a hot Indian summer weekend, though, that's not such a bad thing. (831) 667-2712, www.ventanawildernesscampground.com, reservations accepted, flush toilets and showers, $25-$35.

Kirk Creek Campground doesn't have any shade problems. In fact, it doesn't have any shade at all. What it does have is a million dollar view up and down the coast from most of the 34 sites scattered across an open bluff. Pick a spot close to the cliff so an RV doesn't pull in and spoil your view, then hope that no foul weather blows in off the ocean—it's just you and the elements out here. (If Kirk Creek is full, try for a spot at nearby Limekiln Creek or Plaskett Creek.) (805) 434-1996, www.parksman.com, no reservations, flush toilets, no showers, $18.
With 218 sites, the campground at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is so big it encompasses several ecosystems and employs half a dozen campground hosts. While it has a tantalizing smorgasbord of sites—sunny, shady, riverside, hilltop—it also has the high-traffic feel of, say, the Grand Canyon in summer. If the Big Sur Lodge is out of your price range, though, this place has the same great access to day hikes up to the falls and the gorge. (800) 444-7275, www.parks.ca.gov, reservations accepted, flush toilets and showers, $13-$20.

If you didn't get it together to make a reservation, you can often find a place to crash at the sunny walk-in camp at Andrew Molera State Park. Hope you don't mind flashing your assets, though. They allow 24 campsites in an open meadow, with nothing in between you and your neighbors. (831) 667-2315, no reservations, flush toilets, no showers, $7.

The small walk-in campground at Bottchers Gap hides out at the end of a windy eight-mile mountain road. Those who make the drive would be forgiven for finding the place, set under scrubby oaks, less than a knockout. Serious hikers, though, love it: Camping here gives them a head start on ambitious trails that head off into the Ventana Wilderness. (805) 434-1996, www.parksman.com, no reservations, vault toilets, no showers, $12.

The most deliciously hidden spots on the coast are the cliffside Saddle Rock Camp and South Gardens Camp just a ten-minute hike from the road in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The camera-toting hordes walking the trail that overlooks McWay Falls can't see the campsites, hidden under a canopy of old-growth eucalyptus trees right where the falls spill over a cliff to the beach below. (831) 667-2315, www.parks.ca.gov, reservations accepted, outhouses, no showers, $11-$14.


I don't care where you stay, you gotta...

ONE
Get naked in the reopened cliffside mineral baths at Esalen. Normally the public can get in only from 1 to 3 a.m., but if you call and book a massage, access to the baths is included. (831) 667-3005, www.esalen.org.

TWO Down a pile of plate-sized blueberry pancakes in Deetjen's sun-streaked farmhouse restaurant.

THREE Go for a morning walk on Pfeiffer Beach to poke around the tide pools before the wind picks up and the crowds arrive midday.

FOUR Take in a sunset view on the deck at Cielo, Ventana's restaurant, with a tableful of wine and appetizers.

FIVE Beat the afternoon heat by plunking an Adirondack chair right into the shallows of the river behind the River Inn. Take a beer and a book with you.

SIX Dine as the locals do—with some damn fine Mexican food at the Roadhouse.

SEVEN  Hike from a mossy green redwood grove up to a high bluff overlooking the coast on the Ewoldsen Trail loop in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

EIGHT
Grab lunch at Cafe Kevah, downstairs from Nepenthe, where the same views come without the wait.

NINE Swim in your sneaks across the gorge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Then rock-hop even farther up the river.

TEN Treat yourself to dinner at Post Ranch and watch the moon rise slowly over the hills.