River Inn Lawn

In which we reach our destination and take in some of the more noteworthy establishments the area has to offer.

Note: This is a four part series that’s been running the better part of this month.

You can access part one here.

You can access part two here.

You can access part three here.

It’s not unusual for works of fantasy to take place in imaginary lands. In these types of stories, authors often use the fictional construct of a portal or passageway that connects the real world to the imaginary one in order to allow characters access.

Portals come in all shapes and sizes. Probably the most famous is the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which the titular hero tumbles down. The wardrobe (closet) in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (a concept reimagined to great effect in Syfy’s fantastic TV series, The Magicians) may be a close second. Norman Juster’s classic children’s fantasy, The Phantom Tollbooth uses a—I bet you can guess—as the passageway to an intriguing new reality.

Entrance to Big SurGiven its remoteness, and at times otherworldly ambience, it seems appropriate that drivers get a bit of that portal feeling when approaching Big Sur Proper. Your car’s been out in plain view for quite a few miles, with the wide blue Pacific on one side and the unencumbered rise of the Santa Lucias on the other side when Highway 1 begins to descend. It happens relatively quickly. The sun disappears. The ocean’s gone. You’re at the bottom of a redwood forest. You’re the threshold of Big Sur’s heart, the Big Sur River Valley.

Let’s keep going.

Big Sur Business District

The Big Sur business district (in the loosest sense of the word) doesn’t extend far beyond either side of Highway 1. As a result, you’ll find many campgrounds, natural reserves, and parks to visit. There’s also the Ventana Wilderness, which incorporates the Santa Lucia Mountains and dozens of interesting trails. We once hiked the 11 or so miles through the wilderness to Tassajara Hot Springs and back again in the same day. Splashing around in the natural hot springs was pretty cool and the scenery was amazing, but we were wiped when got back to our campground.

Anyway, Big Sur is home to a variety of lodging types, but you won’t find an overabundance of them. Wikipedia estimates that there are only 300 motel and hotel rooms between Carmel and Hearst Castle, which is about 66 miles south of Big Sur. Visitors come here for the isolation, unique low-key dining establishments, and artisanal goods. The irony is, given that there’s only one way in and one way out, the place can get pretty jammed up on the weekends and in the summer, resulting in the kind of stress that is the exact opposite of what people come to experience.

That’s one of the perks of being a local that works at SSCS. We’re here on a Wednesday in February, so we’ve got it pretty good. It’s quiet enough that we’ll probably hear the rustle of redwood branches in the air around us and the gentle lapping of the Big Sur River as it rushes over and around the rocks and roots that intermingle with it.

So let’s keep proceeding.

The first major hub of activity accessible from Highway 1 comes up on your right, The Big Sur River Inn. Besides a small number of rustic rooms, there’s a pretty good restaurant (we say this from experience, we’ve had at least three Valentine’s Day dinners there), a general store, and a small shopping hub. However, there’s no question that the Inn’s biggest attraction is the vast green lawn spreading out from the back of the property right up to the Big Sur River. Large wooden chairs are provided that you can enjoy on the grass or pull right up into the water if it’s a hot day. The restaurant has a deck that looks right out over this landscape. The atmosphere is unparalleled.

Big Sur Patio

The left and right sides of Highway 1 are scattered with other small, non-pretentious inns that fill up fast during tourist season. There’s Ripplewood, which features a restaurant and a village of cabins down by the river off of the highway:


Up on the right, not too far further, is another wood-themed destination, Fernwood. It, too, has a general store and a restaurant, along with a small, unique-looking motel:


When it comes to lodging, however, you should know that Big Sur is more than simply back-to-basics, small scale retreats. It’s also home to some of the most luxurious (and pricey) resorts in the state (oddly enough, there isn’t really anything available between the two extremes). One of the most picturesque of the high-end destinations is a place that takes its name from the wilderness abutting it, the Ventana Inn and Spa:

Ventana Main Door

World renowned, the Ventana Inn accommodates visitors with a wide variety of lodging options, including villas, suites, and cottages, all of them exuding elegance. The grounds aren’t so bad, either:

Ventana Inn Grounds

The Ventana Inn is on the southern edge of Big Sur. Before we finish this post, though, we’d like to put in a word for the Big Sur Bakery, a craft bakery that has a reputation for quality that extends far beyond the Big Sur River Valley, just as its menu extends well beyond baked goods. We happen to like it, not only because it’s in a peaceful location off the road, but because it’s picturesque, looking exactly as a bakery in Big Sur should:

Big Sur Bakery

Nepenthe on a HillOne thing you need to know. Just because we seem to have reached the end of our ultimate destination, doesn’t mean the attractions have come to an end, and we’ve got more pictures to prove it. For example, just what is that we spy high on a ridge top in the distance?

Maybe, just maybe, you’re going to have to join us next Thursday to find out. Until then, Happy Easter!

To continue to the epilog, click here.