Big Sur: The Sky With Diamonds
Geographically, administrative or natural borders do not define Big Sur. It is not a town, and population-wise it is the opposite of big. Even its name is an awkward Spanglish combination of “Big” and “South” (from el sur).
And yet, this enormously beautiful wild stretch of land on the Central Coast of California is on every self-respecting traveler’s list.
Rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, and redwood and cypress groves between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean represent for many the very spirit of California: free, untamed, and generously endowed with all kinds of natural wonders.
To experience the unique charm of Big Sur—namely a succession of state parks, roadside restaurants, and lodging accommodations along California’s Highway One—my husband and I embarked on a weekend road trip with an overnight at the Glen Oaks Big Sur motor lodge.
Upon check-in and a brief settling in one of the Redwood Grove cabins, we picked up a detailed local map from a friendly front desk attendant and hurried to Pfeiffer Beach, known for its dramatic rock formations and purple sand.
Fooled by the warmth, calm, and serenity of the redwood grove that surrounded our cabin, I left my coat inside and immediately regretted it on the shiny, wind-swept beach, viciously pounded by foaming, raging ocean waves.
Going all the way back along a one-lane winding road to pick up the coat was out of the question. While slowly moving uphill and yielding to every passing car, we would have surely missed the sunset.
Tightly wrapped in my husband’s thick jacket, I hid behind a wall of jagged rocks and watched angry blue waters rhythmically throwing white lace of foam on the beach. And suddenly I saw it, the purple sand! Ancient crumbling rocks around the beach indeed had green and purple hues, and under constant pressure of wind and tide were shedding amethyst—and alexandrite—colored dust all over the place.
The sunset soon dissolved into a dense marine layer of fog, and we headed back to make the hardest part of the drive while it was still light outside.
For dinner, we walked from our cabin to Big Sur Roadhouse, a newly opened restaurant. (Actually, it is the first newly opened restaurant in Big Sur in more than a decade.)
A part of Glen Oaks Big Sur, the restaurant belongs to Tracy and Basil Sanborn, third-generation local residents devoted to the preservation of the area.
Reclaimed wood and metal and artwork by local talent prevail in the restaurant’s sleek design, and local organic fare reigns in the kitchen.
Solid polished redwood boards are used for a bar and tables, multi-colored sustainable bamboo covers the floors, and former wine barrels now serve as armchair backs. Modern light fixtures composed of steel and copper, a cozy fireplace, and walls adorned with colorful contemporary paintings make Roadhouse an elegant and welcoming place.
Executive chef Matt Glazer, who was raised in New Orleans, and chef de cuisine Brendan Esons put a kind of Cajun-Pacific fusion fare on the menu by using fresh, regional California ingredients in traditional Louisiana recipes.
Big Sur seafood gumbo is made with Oregon Bay shrimp, not with Gulf prawns, and Monterey Bay seabass po’ boy retains its heritage by way of house-made Creole mustard, not the blackened catfish.
I liked my half hen-under-a-brick main course of a perfectly fried young chicken with mashed sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts sautéed with figs, bacon, apple cider, and maple syrup.
For the sweet finale, pastry chef Carissa Fritts created the most decadent Meyer lemon upside down cake with lavender and blueberry swirl ice cream and honey whipped cream.
After dinner, we stepped outside into a dark fairy-tale forest filled with some magical light. I looked up. There was no moon in the blue velvet sky. Incredibly bright, it was all covered in diamonds. Familiar Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, and the Pleiades disappeared among myriad other stars, so closely grouped together there were no more constellations, just a solid crust of shiny cosmic specks streaming down their steady light through the crosshatch of redwood branches.
Since there are no cities, big or small, in the vicinity of Big Sur, and therefore no sources of electricity, the starry sky here is rightfully considered the most beautiful in the United States.
A fire pit by our cabin filled with dry wood and paper cuttings was a nice touch. Two hours by the fire under the stars with a thoughtfully placed s’mores kit in our kitchenette passed like in a dream.
The next morning, we had a traditional Cajun breakfast at our now favorite restaurant. My husband’s Roadhouse Breakfast consisted of a fried egg atop wilted greens and white grits accompanied by two plump sausage patties. My soft and crumbly biscuit sandwich contained sausage, egg, and bacon and was smothered with gravy.
In broad daylight, we explored the wooded expanse of the Glen Oaks property. The 1950s motor lodge, lovingly preserved and renovated by its current owners, has eight cabins in the redwood grove, 16 hotel-type rooms, and two cottages behind the hotel building.
These romantically secluded accommodations are hard to get in high season but well worth the wait and gorgeous year-round anyway.
There are Big Sur and Little Sur cabins—the former farther away from the rest, usually preferred by the newlyweds. The latter are grouped by two to accommodate an extended family or two couples of friends. Large Sycamore cabin is in the very heart of the grove with plenty of space for everyone. Twin Forest View and River View cabins overlook the Big Sur River that rolls by the redwoods and over rounded boulders like a shiny ribbon.
After checking out, we drove straight to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Julia Pfeiffer was a daughter of pioneer farmers in the area, and she helped her parents on their cattle ranch. At the age of 40, she married a neighboring farmer and added his last name, Burns, to her own.
Since there were never too many people living in Big Sur, it so happened that three different places are named after the same woman: Pfeiffer Beach, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
We chose the latter for its easy trails with astounding views and McWay Falls, named after a local rancher.
We parked our car and joined an international crowd speaking in all imaginable languages on a trail to the waterfall.
On every turn of the trail old eucalyptuses half-obscured the shiny ocean coves with pristine sandy beaches surrounded by rugged cliffs teeming with bickering birds.
When we finally situated ourselves on an observation landing, a picture of pure beauty unfolded in front of our eyes. The thin waterfall was streaming from a saddle-shaped rock into a lagoon of clean turquoise by the unapproachable glistening sandy beach. Pines and cypresses, shaped wildly by the incessant wind, framed the entire picture.
We stayed in awe on a steep cliff watching the fall and the lagoon and inhaling the fragrant air until the new wave of nature lovers swept us away and back to the trail.
Glen Oaks Big Sur is located at 47080 Highway 1 in Big Sur, California. For more information and reservations call (831) 667-2105.
Big Sur Roadhouse is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. For reservations call (831) 667-2370.