At sunset we stopped at Nepenthe, the restaurant named after an ancient Egyptian drug that induced amnesia. A big, terraced place with outrageous views, it was built on the site of a cabin Orson Welles gave to Rita Hayworth. Art and I drank white wine, and the kids had pink lemonade with extra maraschino cherries. Not a Henry Miller (or an Orson Welles) moment, but a lovely one.
It was still light at 8:15 when we crossed Bixby Creek Bridge, the 265-foot-high arch known as the Rainbow Bridge. Far below, the soft, moss-green hills look like an elf world, speckled with vivid patches of Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, yellow lupine, and orange poppies. Of all our stops, Big Sur was the hardest to leave behind. And we wished we'd stayed the night there, at the Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, or in one of the cozy cabins at a hippie holdover like Deetjen's Big Sur Inn.
Wet and Wild
North of Big Sur, on the Monterey Peninsula, the choices about where to stop grow tougher. There's the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row (an appealing, if touristy, complex of shops and arcades) in Monterey itself; the National Steinbeck Center in nearby Salinas; the butterflies of Pacific Grove (if you're passing through between October and early March, when migrating monarchs gather); and the fried artichokes of Castroville. There's kayaking in Monterey Bay, where you're likely to encounter cavorting otters, and hiking or biking on the 18-mile Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail.
Lodging can be expensive here, so we felt fortunate to find Asilomar, a beach and conference grounds owned by California State Parks and built, in 1913, as a YWCA retreat. Its architect, Julia Morgan, also designed Hearst Castle—though at Asilomar she got a chance to work in the Arts and Crafts style she loved. The result is a mosaic of stone and redwood structures that blend into the natural surroundings.
A stay at Asilomar feels a bit like summer camp: the rooms are small and simple but comfortable (many have fireplaces, and ours had a Murphy bed that intrigued both kids); deer roam the grounds; and the staff rings a bell when it's time to eat (family-style, at shared tables in the dining hall). In the high-ceilinged, redwood-beamed main building, there are pool tables and board games. If you're not attending a conference, you can feel like a stray—on one of our two nights there the four of us showed up for dinner with hundreds of elderly nuns. Still, the food was good, in a hearty, nouveau family-friendly way: a salad of watercress, local greens, and mandarin oranges, followed by roast beef and fingerling potatoes and pineapple upside-down cake.
Asilomar has an outdoor pool, but even in July it was too chilly to swim. Instead we waded into the tide pools on the state beach, which you can walk to on a boardwalk through dunes where yellow verbena, sagewort, and yarrow grow thick. The tide pools glistened with life: orange and purple sea stars, swaying anemones, hermit crabs in a perpetual hurry—whole, busy worlds in cunning miniature.