It's hard to imagine a place more stunning than central California's Big Sur. This 80-mile stretch of magnificent mountains, awesome cliffs, and surreal, boulder-studded beaches is still sparsely populated, still a region where, as writer and longtime Big Sur resident Henry Miller put it, "one feels exposed -- not only to the elements, but to the sight of God."
For years the area was better known for its beauty than for its accommodations, which were mainly campsites and rustic cabin colonies. But in 1975, the picture changed considerably with the opening of Ventana, a 24-room luxury resort on a spectacular 300-acre piece of land. Ventana has since doubled in size, and six years ago it was joined by an equally upscale establishment, the Post Ranch Inn, which is now on every serious traveler's list of musts.
These young classics share the turf with a venerable holdover from Big Sur's funkier times, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. Despite differences in style and comforts, all three properties have one powerful thing in common: a setting whose rugged beauty is incomparable.
"May I get you a glass of wine?" the receptionist asks me in Ventana's main lodge. He indicates a table set with coffee, tea, cheese, and fruit, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Classical guitar music plays in the background. This is no ordinary check-in; it is an extraordinary welcome. "Your massage is set for six," he says. "Feel free to relax here while we take care of your luggage."
My room, with wood-paneled walls and ceiling, has the look of a gigantic sauna. There's also a tiled fireplace, a windowed alcove for napping and reading, and a big porch that frames a view of mountains, sea, and sky. If only we could do something about that paisley bedspread and the ruffled pillows.
An hour remains until my massage, so I head for the pool (one of two at Ventana) that's downhill from my room. The half-dozen people there all speak, even swim, quietly. Something about this magnificent land inspires silence. There are no children splashing about; Ventana encourages guests to leave the kids at home. At one end of the pool is a clothing-optional Japanese bathhouse divided into men's, women's, and co-ed areas; each has its own hot tub and redwood sundeck. After a soak, I'm not sure I even need a massage. But by the time the therapist arrives in my room and starts working on my neck and shoulders, I know that this sunset session is worth the $90 price tag.
The half-mile hike through the redwoods to the inn's restaurant is auspicious. Equally promising is the multilevel dining room with fireplaces, log beams, and huge windows. But I sense trouble with the arrival of a basket of overly sweet and gooey rye bread. Worse, my crab cake appetizer seems to have come straight from the supermarket freezer. Happily, my main course -- fettuccine primavera with shrimp -- saves the evening.
And breakfast makes my day. This bountiful buffet of muffins, fruit, granola, fresh juices, and heavenly pumpkin and apple Bundt cakes is laid out in the main lodge, as well as in a small library up the hillside, more convenient for guests staying in the newer rooms. Ventana provides large wooden trays so everything can be carried back to rooms (room service will also deliver a scaled-down version of the same breakfast). I, however, can't think of a better place to enjoy this feast than under an umbrella on the patio of the main lodge.
Just beware of the overly friendly crested jays -- not to mention second helpings of that pumpkin Bundt cake.
Hwy. 1; 800/628-6500 or 831/667-2331, fax 831/667-2419; doubles from $215, including breakfast.
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
After the soothing welcome of Ventana, it's rather a shock to arrive at Deetjen's. You make the scary, easy-to-miss turn off Highway 1 and there you are -- right in the middle of everything, with the main lodge on your left and a crowded parking lot and bungalows on your right. In the reception area, which turns out to be the restaurant's bar, the harried hostess points to a nearby cottage.
"Van Gogh," she says. "Upstairs, on the right."
"What about a key?" I ask.
"We don't use them. You can lock your room when you're inside, if you like."
Deetjen's -- a compound of eight Beatrix Potter-like cottages holding 19 rooms and suites -- started as a roadhouse in the 1930's. Now the little resort has a legion of loyal fans who love its spartan style and low prices. My room ($85 a night) is an endearing space decorated with van Gogh prints, "found" furniture, and fluffy down comforters on the two beds. There's a sink; the bathroom is outside the door and shared with the room next door. The walls are paper-thin -- it even says so on the room's information sheet.
Deetjen's regulars also love the inn's dining room. Although the four tiny, tchotchke-loaded salons won't win any decorating awards, the food is superb. The chef -- a local man named Peter Charles, formerly of Ventana (their loss!) -- keeps things simple, sticking to seasonal ingredients. I begin with a steamed artichoke and a delicate Thai pepper-and-carrot salad. The main course of grilled salmon is just as good, and the accompanying zucchini polenta and tiny parsnip pancakes are delicious surprises.
There's no nightlife in Big Sur, so after dinner I settle into my room with a Raymond Chandler mystery. I'm worried about how well I'll sleep, since Van Gogh is practically on Highway 1, but by 10 o'clock the traffic has died down and I barely make it through the second chapter.
The morning is a dream -- foggy, chilly, and infused with the pungent smells of woodsmoke. This is stay-in-bed weather, but I venture down to the restaurant when it opens at 8 a.m. for a proper breakfast -- if you can call one huge blueberry pancake proper.
Before leaving, I investigate some of Deetjen's other accommodations. Two of the most charming share my cottage: Petite Cuisine ($65) is an adorable single in a former kitchen; the Fireplace Room ($145) has a working fireplace and a private deck. Although some of the units are considerably grander -- Creek House comes with an organ! -- my absolute favorite is Castro Canyon ($145), a private one-room bungalow by a stream, with a skylight above the bed that looks up at towering redwoods. No wonder it's popular with honeymooners.
Hwy. 1; 831/667-2377; doubles from $70.
Post Ranch Inn
When it opened in 1992, the Post Ranch Inn was not just another resort: it was a vanguard example of environmentally sensitive architecture. Although they're not particularly beautiful, Post Ranch's strange-looking structures, built of rough wood, stone, and thick glass, fit seamlessly into 98 glorious acres at the edge of a cliff 1,100 feet above the Pacific. Indeed, after you pass the entry gate and start driving through pastures and rolling hills, you might wonder where the resort is. The guest rooms are virtually invisible: some fade into the hillside; others have roofs and walls overgrown with moss and flowers.
My room is a handsome space with bubinga wood walls, slate floors, and an imposing concrete fireplace. The bathroom's huge sunken tub looks out through tall trees to blond and green fields across a valley. As inviting as this room is, the ultimate draw of Post Ranch is the property itself -- it's so spread out that virtually every foray involves a short to medium-length hike (or you can call for a shuttle van). One of my favorite spots at Post Ranch is the Basking Pool, an "infinity" hot tub cut into the cliffside.
Another unforgettable Post Ranch experience is dinner in the dramatic glass-walled restaurant, so cleverly cantilevered into the cliffs that you feel as though you're aboard some fantastic airship. To top it all off, the food is as heavenly as the setting. I'm not disappointed with the $63 prix fixe menu -- from the amuse-bouche of roasted garlic on tiny toasts that begins the meal, to the salad of grown-on-the-property veggies, to the herb-crusted ahi tuna, to the strawberry and rhubarb sorbets.
It's been a perfect day -- but, alas, it doesn't end well. Despite all the award-winning architecture, I can hear every footstep that my upstairs neighbors take. Perhaps the powers at Post Ranch should take a cue from Deetjen's, where guests are gently asked to consider the peace and privacy of their neighbors. Or perhaps I should have requested an upstairs room -- or one of the sod cottages on the ocean.
Hwy. 1; 800/527-2200 or 831/667-2200, fax 831/667-2824; doubles from $365, including breakfast.