Monday, March 22, 2010

Big Sur, California

Despite having seen most of the state while growing up and living in it as an adult, California still surprises. Over and over it reveals itself to me, reminds me of its beauty, and still makes me think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It had been a number of years since I'd been to one of my favorite spots: Big Sur. Robert and I recently spent a long weekend there and I fell in love all over again. There is something magical in the Big Sur air. Everything about the place appeals to me. The remoteness, the residents still living like it is 1968, the overwhelming natural beauty. We approached the area by car from the north; as soon as we drove into the valley where Big Sur starts we entered a lovely time warp. There is little to none cell phone coverage (bliss!). We stayed at Deetjen's Inn where there is no television, no Internet (more bliss!), and no locks on the doors. It was just the break I'd needed and was looking for from all the noise of modern society. It's amazing how quiet it can actually be without all the technology we surround ourselves with. I'd been hearing about Deetjen's for a number of years from my friend Jill, an American living in London who goes whenever she's in California. I am so glad we chose to stay there.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, 48865 Highway One, Big Sur, California, 93920, (831) 667-2377,

Built in the early 1930s by Norwegian Helmut Deetjen, Deetjen's is world famous for its rustic charm and quiet isolation. The story goes that Helmut left his native Norway to get away from the 'authorities'; when he discovered the remote Big Sur coast he decided to stay. He and his wife Helen Haight bought several acres in Castro Canyon which offered the privacy and seclusion he sought. Starting with a redwood barn made from materials from the canneries along Monterey's Cannery Row, 'Grandpa Deetjen' went on to build more structures all constructed using local, scavenged redwood. The inn now comprises twenty rooms and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years it has been visited by numerous famous names from old Hollywood, (Rita Hayworth, Orsen Welles, Kim Novak) to such writers and artists as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston.

We stayed in 'Edy's Room'; only big enough for a bed, and a couple of chairs and small tables but so full of charm that the lack of space was quickly forgotten. The room was cozy against the chill temperatures outside, and once inside I found it hard to leave. The doors only locked from the inside which at first gave us pause but as long as we were careful to take valuables with us was not an issue. This lack of locks fits right into the laissez-faire Big Sur attitude. For an additional bit of intrigue the room is supposedly haunted by Edy's
ghost. Reading through the journals left behind by prior guests
we learned of possible ghostly sightings. If she was around during our stay she didn't let us know. While we were at Deetjen's we ate a dinner and a breakfast in the quaint dining room; the food was hearty and filling in keeping with the Deetjen's spirit. Now that I have been I look forward to going again soon.

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Highway One, Big Sur, California, (831) 667-0520,

I used to go to Big Sur on a very regular basis when I worked in the restaurant business in San Francisco in the '80s. Jeremiah Tower, chef and owner of Stars restaurant, was once chef at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur. Because of that connection, I always stayed at Ventana -- an upscale resort nestled against the Big Sur mountains just above the fog line. I usually ate in the Ventana restaurant. I also generally stayed put and enjoyed the beauty of Big Sur from on high. This time was different. Robert and I jumped in and really experienced it. We drove, we looked, we hiked and we explored almost every inch. One of the places I knew I'd be visiting was the newish Big Sur Bakery which I'd read about in the Los Angeles Times. I was quite intrigued by the story of three Los Angeles chef friends who chucked their urban-city lives to open a bakery and restaurant in the rustic wilds of Big Sur. It sounded so wonderful to me. Michelle Rizzolo, Philip Wojtowicz and Mike Gilson met while working in such Los Angeles restaurants as Campanile, La Brea Bakery, Joe's Restaurant, and Mélisse. At Big Sur Bakery Michelle handles all the baking and pastry making; Philip is responsible for the kitchen while Mike handles the front of the house. Using a wood-fired oven they bake bread every morning to be sold in the bakery and used in the restaurant. Many dishes on the restaurant menus are also cooked in the wood-fired oven; they honor the local, sustainable, organic credo as well. The trio has published a cookbook, 'The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year In The Life of a Restaurant,' about their first year in business in Big Sur. We had two meals both deeply satisfying. The wood-fire pizza ('Traditional wood fired tomato & cheese pizza') and salad ('Salad of seasonal organic mixed greens with shallots, herbs, roasted carrots, toasted sunflower seeds, and lemon poppy seed dressing') we shared after hiking to a waterfall was just what we needed to fuel up for our next adventure. The dinner we ate one night was the perfect antidote to the cold rainy weather outside. There is a dearth of good, reasonably priced eats in Big Sur so the cozy, rustic charm and hearty food of Big Sur Bakery is a most welcome addition. If I lived in Big Sur I'd be a regular patron.

Part of what I like about Big Sur is its hippy-bohemian vibe. We saw more hitchhikers in three days then I have seen in thirty years. The people we saw out and about, wandering down Highway One on foot, bicycle and car, in shops and restaurants, and at the beach often seemed to be aged hippies of yore, throwbacks to the '60s and the earlier Beat Generation, or for the younger generation -- modern day 'hippies.' The whole Big Sur vibe reminded me so much of growing up in the '60s and '70s along the Central Coast of California where these types were the norm. Hitchhikers thumbed rides freely; men had long hair and beards; everyone wore tie dye T-shirts, peace signs around their necks, and bell bottoms. It was an awesome time to be a kid; so much was happening. I felt a bit of this energy in Big Sur. A place where Beat author Jack Kerouac spent time; and where 'Tropic of Cancer' -- it's 1961 U.S. publication date led to an obscenity trial -- writer Henry Miller lived from 1944 to 1962. Naturally, one of my favorite places we visited was The Henry Miller Library.

The Henry Miller Library, Highway One, Big Sur California, (831) 667-2574,

The library reminded me of City Lights Books in San Francisco's North Beach; a once fertile gathering place for Beatniks, subversives and hippies. Not just a library or a place to sell books but a meeting place; a place to find like-minded souls; a place to hear poetry or a lecture, to see a performance, or attend a workshop; a place to get back that counter-culture, hippy vibe lost long ago. The library does all of that while keeping the spirit of Miller alive. It's seemingly the nexus of all that Big Sur energy. Magnus the current 'librarian' holds court at the cashier's desk answering questions; passing on Miller tidbits, facts and history; and explaining upcoming activities at the library. Again, it felt as though I was stepping back in time. I loved the poster for 'Celebration At Big Sur' -- a counter-culture concert featuring some of my counter-culture heroes: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Crosy, Stills Nash & Young -- hanging in the library. The poster (see below) says 'Celebrate with...' and I'm sorry I didn't get to.

After we left the Henry Miller Library we ventured down the road to another famed Big Sur location, the can't-miss 'Nepenthe.' A restaurant and bar perched above the Pacific that offers breathtaking views down the Monterey coast. I'd been years ago on a hot summer day, and sat outside on the deck with a cold drink looking south down the coast. My memory of the view and the place has remained strong over the years. The weather was wet and cold the day Robert and I went but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Nepenthe Restuarant, 48510 Highway One, Big Sur, California, 93920, (831) 667-2345,

'Nepenthe' means 'isle of no care' in Greek. Original Nepenthe owners Lolly and Bill Fassett and their five children settled into a cabin on the property called the Log House in 1947. The Log House's most recent owners had been Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles neither of whom lived in the house due to their filing for divorce soon after they bought it. Once settled in the Fasset's proceeded to slowly build what is now Nepenthe. The original vision was for 'an open-air pavilion with good food and wine and dancing under the stars.' A place where people from up and down the coast would come and forget their cares.' [from the Nepenthe website]. Lolly opened the Phoenix Shop, now a gift shop, so local and traveling merchants could show and sell their wares. The family lived an idyllic Bohemian life surrounded by artists, crafts people, writers, performers and travelers. Like the Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe is still a gathering place for thinkers and creative types both those living locally and those traveling through; as well as for the endless stream of tourists traveling down Highway One who stop in for a drink, some food and the bewitching view. Nepenthe is like the cream on top of the Big Sur bohemian pie. One does have to wonder if Big Sur would be 'Big Sur' without Nepenthe. I have to say that it would not -- Nepenthe is such a part of the history and fabric of Big Sur that without it, it would be something else entirely. [While relatives of Lolly and Bill run the day-today of the restaurant], granddaughter, Romney Steele, has taken over the running of Nepenthe and has [recently] published a book about the history and food of the famed restaurant: 'My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur.'

Easlen Institute, 55000 Highway One, Big Sur, California, 93920, (831) 667-3000,

There is one other remarkable and fun thing that we did in Big Sur that I want to mention: visiting the hot springs at the Esalen Institute. Esalen, an organization and retreat center, "...was founded in 1962 as an alterntaive educational center devoted to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called the 'the human potential,' the world of unrealized human capacities that lies beyond the imagination." [from the Esalen website] Now comprised of twenty-seven acres perched on the cliffs above the crashing Pacific ocean, the institute holds a wide range of classes, workshops, and retreats offering introductions to Gestalt, massage, sensory awareness and meditation. And then there's the natural hot springs that pour forth from a seaside cliff. Because the institute allows registered guests top priority in using the hot springs, they are only open to the public from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. I'd heard about the springs before, and I knew admittance was in the middle of the night, but Robert and I still wanted to go. We took a nap and went. We are so glad we did. The springs are set atop a cliff right over the ocean. While soaking in the hot springs we watched the waves crashing on the rocks below us, we looked out into the dark sea, and at the stars twinkling above us. It was a magical two hours. Two hours that I hope to experience again. In fact the whole weekend was a magical experience I hope to experience again. One I also highly recommend.

Upcoming Posts: Interview with Chefs John Stewart & Duskie Estes, owners of Zazu & Bovolo restaurants in Sonoma County. Cochon 555 Napa, a write up of the amazing pork festival that I went to in Napa. Reviews: My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur by Romney Steele, The Spirit Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices by Sara Engram and Katie Luber and Kimberly Toqe.

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  1. Great recap of an awesome weekend spent up North. There is so much to do there and the Big Sur effect does take over making you soak it all in without a care...

  2. What a terrific weekend getaway, beautiful place!

  3. Thanks for the mentioning of my book, My Nepenthe and generous description of the restaurant and culture of place. Just wanted to make one correction-I don't run Nepenthe; my cousin and aunt do–so it's definitely still in the family. Lovely descriptions of the other hot spots too. Best wishes, Romney

  4. Thanks Robert & Natasha! It is SUCH an amazing place. Can't wait to go back.

    Romney: apologies for the error; I thought I'd done all my research. I have corrected the error in the post. Thank you so much for reading and commenting on the post. Much appreciated. The book is fantastic. I cooked four recipes from it this past weekend and they were all delicious. I look forward to making more.

  5. Your post brought back all the Big Sur magic to me, Charleston! I want to go again...

  6. Next time you are here (when, oh, when will that be?!) we must go together, Jillston! Thanks for the comment. :-)

  7. Really enjoyed the stories and the photos. Going to put Big Sur on my vacation list.

  8. You know, I feel as though I've just been on vacation in Big Sur. Thank you for that, Charles. What a magical ride it is living in this state. We are so large, there is so much to see - you can literally vacation to different spots a few times a year and feel like you're in a foreign place.

    We've not stayed in Big Sur, but have been all around it. Had one of the best weekends of our lives in the Carmel area, which honestly felt like a dream in and of itself. It ended at an artichoke farm, where we bought more florets than we should have, and ate every one of them.

    I love our state, and your blog is a constant reminder of how great it is to live here. Thanks for sharing your vacation with us. God bless California - no matter how out of balance we can be sometimes.

  9. Thanks Phil & Katrina! You should definitely try to go to Big Sur at some point. It's definitely one of the those 'bucket list' type places. One of many in California.

  10. Great post! I haven't been to Big Sur for over 20 years and this makes me want to hop in the car and go!