Big Sur is more than a destination; it’s a state of mind. The mecca of earth mothers and zen surfers, this woodland meets ocean perch has become far more than a highway stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is the wellspring of a holistic approach to living and a free flowing style, a modern movement grounded by the pioneering environmentalism and off-the-grid romance of its old timers.
Big Sur is a place to experience nature in multisensory ways—the roaring surf of the Pacific, the stillness and tangy scent of the redwoods, the bubbling of the natural hot springs, the moody fog that envelops the cliffs in summer. Young adventure seeking pilgrims, new-age free spirits and mystics, and urbanites looking to disconnect from Silicon Valley just 90 minutes to the north seek out this still-wild strip of coastline that Tasmanian-born artist Francis McComas once called the “greatest meeting of land and sea.”
That first glimpse of the craggy, jagged meeting of land, ocean and an enchanted forest as you drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is one you will never forget. Here, a few things you can do to augment the natural high along the route.
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1) 8:30 a.m. Sur is for surfing
After a hearty breakfast burrito in the magnolia-shrouded garden at Deetjen’s Restaurant, drive south to Sand Dollar Beach, where you’ll find some of the best waves in the area. This crescent-shaped beach is a longboarder’s dream spot, and a great place for beginners so there is no excuse not to don a wetsuit and paddle into the Pacific.
2) 12 p.m. A low-key lunch at a legend
By now an established American classic, Big Sur Bakery is known for its pastries (get the mocha cookie and the pecan sticky bun) and American comfort-food with a California woodland twist (the mushrooms-peas-Gruyère veggie strudel). More community hub than mere coffee spot, the town’s namesake bakery is also its nexus, for locals and visitors alike.
3) 1:30 p.m. Modern earth mother essentials
Wander into Mother Botanical & Shop, just by the bakery, to find all your modern earthly essentials—Ylang Ylang CBD Facial Serum, The Mushroom Tarot cards, and How To Love by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Then have a peek into the little gallery, which features the works of local female artists.
4) 2 p.m. Nurture with Nature
To not hike down to the iconic 80 foot-high McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which flows year round over granite cliffs and spills directly into the sea, is to not experience the power of the place at all. Known the world over for its soft purple sand and pink sunsets, it’s a wonderful spot for picnics and long walks. In the winter months, the benches at the end of the Overlook trail see whales majestically migrating south.
5) 4 p.m. Ancient hot springs for the New Age
Esalen the insitute is a center for well-being and their cliffside hot springs have been in ritual and healing use by the indigenous Esselen people for more than 6,000 years. They helped to bring New Age therapy into Modern Age America and the Institute still offers a range of tested and true mind-body-spirit workshops and classes. Moon worshipers take note: Esalen also offers public night bathing ($35 pp) from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Advance booking online is required; reservations often run weeks in advance. Baths may be closed due to Covid-19. We recommend checking their site for latest updates.
6) 7 p.m. Panoramic sundowners and supper
If you are going to do ‘sundowners’ then you might as well toast sunset at what seems like the edge of the earth. The firepit on Nepenthe’s aerial terrace, perched 800 feet above the thundering surf below, offers a certain kind of misty eyed Californian panorama. Founded by Lolly and Bill Fasset, who came to Big Sur in the late ‘40s, the restaurant was constructed from redwood and bricks made by Lolly herself, and, according to locals, has remained every bit as charming and laid-back as it was during their time. Their famous Ambrosia Burger—a ground steak sandwich served on a French roll with special “Ambrosia Sauce”—is still the thing to order (and might well ruin you for any other).
7) 9 p.m. Cabin fervor
Return to Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn for a nightcap by the fire. Tucked among redwoods on the land side, this National Register of Historic Places-designated inn is a rambling collection of locally-milled redwood cottages dating back to the 1930s. Deetjen’s had to contend with devastating damage from the 2017 mudslides, but they’ve since proudly re-opened, offering 16 rooms for overnight stays, each unique and none of them short on quirks. There’s no Wifi. No phones. No TVs. But that’s the beauty of a stay here. You won’t regret booking a room like the Antique Apartment with a wood-burning stove. One of the best times to visit is in March, when the wisteria is in full bloom. All reservations must be made by phone.
Alternatively, for those hoping to camp, Fernwood Campground & Resort is a great affordable option where you can stay in heated ‘adventure tents’ with queen beds, or set up your own tent. And some of Big Sur’s best hiking trails are accessible from the campground, like Buzzard’s Roost Trail, which follows the Big Sur River and climbs through shady redwoods to an exposed sunny ridge with incredible views of the Pacific and the surrounding Sycamore Canyon.
Ben Hannon Hubley works on PRIOR’s content & editorial team, after having worked at the New York Times in Beijing. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and speaks Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. He is based in New York.