Big Sur has been on my wanderlist for years. The name alone takes me away when I pronounce it (just like the words Zanzibar, Fiji or Shalimar..). I love the combination of Big, like everything is so Big in America, and Sur, with that Spanish accent. Our time in Big Sur has the biggest effect on me. I promise myself to come back one day, to live here and contemplate the ocean day after day. When the kids are all grown up maybe..
1 NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco deserves much more than a one night stand. But when you have only that, a room on the top floor of the Harbor Court hotel will do. The penthouse suite is perfect for a family, with magical views over the bridge. Other good choices include: the Phoenix Hotel – a hip alternative but it has no communicating rooms, and The Proper hotel, which was recently renovated. Ashley at Hither & Tither leaves an hour away from the city, and has lots of good posts on her blog.
With a short amount of time in the city, and for a first time visit, i’d go to the essentials ie: get up early (to avoid the tourists) and hop on a tram going up and down the city. So much fun and a classic. Walk to one of the Saturday farmers market for breakfast, hop to the Embarcadero to see the seals (I am amazed that they haven’t moved since I first saw them as a teenager!). Visit the Alcatraz prison .. or watch Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood.
San Francisco is known for its excellent restaurant scene, but you’d need quite a bit of time and patience to try a few. Angler is located next to the Harbor hotel and it’s a gem of a seafood place, rather upscale, with delicious cocktails. With more time, I would have have loved to feast on dim sums at Yank Sing. I like the farm-to-table ethos of Bi-Rite, with several locations of cafes, ice cream parlours and markets.
From San Francisco, we head straight to the Pacific Coast Highway. I am glad that we’re driving North to South. It allows us to be on the ocean side of the road, with the incredible views. Thanks for the tip Gwyneth:)
Passing Santa Cruz, we get a crash course in cutting and eating live abalone at a farm on the coast. We eat yummy fish tacos at Cemitas in Davenport, a sleepy and rather uninspiring beach town 1h30 before Monterrey.
I have one regret (I know .. should never have regrets .. non, rien de rien, je ne regrette rien). I really wanted to spend time in Point Reyes, north of San Francisco! Sleeping in one of the colourful cottages at Nick’s Cove , eating more fish tacos at The Siren Canteen , chilling on the beaches near Bolinas…
3 NIGHTS IN BIG SUR
We hit Carmel in the golden hour on our way South,. I love catching the pulse of this little town as families leave the beach, sand in their feet, queuing at the ice cream parlour. We’re real tourists but we blend in. We too know how to queue patiently for an ice cream. We shop for hoodies and other essentials, knowing that we won’t find much during our 3 days in Big Sur. Carmel is a cute little spot. It has made its name a long time ago by the movie stars and the moguls who play golf and hide away in the coastal mansions. Small town America meets chic retreat.
We take the road again, passing the bridge that I have seen on and on in the intro of Big Little Lies (cannot wait for Season 2 on Netflix!!).
I feel emotional being on the Pacific Coast Highway just then, with the sun falling quickly into the Pacific Ocean. It’s all quite surreal to have imagined a place in your mind so many times, to have seen it in movies, and to be right there. Wowza, that sunset is beyond words.
It was tricky to decide where to base ourselves in Big Sur, there are so many wonderful options.
Glen Oaks is chic glamping, with the option of pretty rooms as well cottages. The Tree Bones resort is another good choice to stay in the woods. Ventana is a larger resort with different options of accommodations. If you’re not sleeping there, at least go for a meal on the terrace overlooking the ocean.
If money is not part of the equation, and the kids stay at home (they’re not allowed!), then check into The Post Ranch Inn. I’d love rent the Wild Bird house one day for a family celebration. It is an architect house built for himself and his family, incredibly positioned at the tip of a cliff. But all in all, I would go back to Deetjenn’s in a heartbeat.
Deetjenn’s is an old-fashioned inn with timeless charm. It’s been owned by the same family since Helmuth and Helen Deetjen started welcoming guests in the 1930’s. A gem in the true sense of the word. No wifi, no phone reception, no TVs, no A/C, no keys to the door. And that’s exactly why everyone loves it and keeps coming back. We had two rooms (not connected) and it was a perfect set up, with sounds of the river flowing nearby.
Partington Cove and the Tanbark Trail take you to a wonderful little cove. It’s not too hard, you pass by a tunnel and end up in a rocky area. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a very easy walk and has a photogenic waterfall. The Ewoldsen trail s a 6-mile loop under ancient redwood trees. Pfeiffer Beach is at the end of Sycamore canyon Road. You pay a small fee to enter. It’s a good idea to stop by Big Sur Bakery for a little picnic on the beach. Andrew Molera park is another good one. There are so many more that it’s good to go with the flow.
We see so many wales on our tour with Monterrey Bay Whale Watch that we can’t keep track of the number. The marine biologist on board shares interesting stories but I somehow imagined that we would see the whole bodies of whales in the water (I know.. a whale can’t fly, right?!) so I leave slightly frustrated. The children love the experience and that’s what matters, right?!
In another life, I will check into Esalen Hot Springs for a meditation course or all day massages and courses. They do have programs for families but I think it requires a whole different state of mind than the one we are in during this trip.
Everyone recommends that we have a meal at Nepenthe, not as much for the food as for the view. Don’t ask me why, but we end up missing our table reservation – because of a basket ball match that we catch on the small TV of the Big Sur Deli. Arghhhh. I cringe and I almost cry, but c’est la vie. Nepenthe, well be back.
I find consolation in the large store next to Nepenthe where I finally buy myself a Pendleton blanket, something I have been dreaming of for a long time. I make vague attempts at visiting The Post Ranch Inn for cocktails or for an easy lunch, but I quickly udnerstand that children are not so welcome. We head to the majestic terrace of the Ventana Big Sur Hotel instead, and have the longest lunch with the children running around nearby. Perfect. We have a few meals at Deetjenn’s as the gigantic breakfast (people come from all over for bkfast at Deetjenn’s!) and the romantic dinner are incredibly good.
Leaving Big Sur, we stop on the coast to see the (very stinky!) 17,000 elephant seals near Hearst Castle (which we do not stop to visit because I figure that we have prettier castles and better art collections in Old Europe!). It makes for a good pitstop before heading further South to San Luis Obispo where the wildly wacko and tacky Madonna Inn expects us for the night.
1 NIGHT AT THE MADONNA INN, SAN LUIS OBISPO
Coming from the wide expanse and the overwhelming beauty of Big Sur, it’s a shock to the system to check into the Madonna Inn resort for the night. But we all love it! From the pink tennis court to the crazy restaurant decorated with Easter bunnies everywhere, to the wacky interiors of our very large room. I feel straight out of a set of the 1970’s Dallas TV series.
The children keep going back and forth between the basketball court and the swimming pool. I want to take a pictures of every thing around me. I am not sure whether to cry or to laugh at the elaborate decors, from the bedrooms to the cafe to the restaurant full of Easter everything. This place is quite something. No wonder it has attracted LA movie stars and bachelorette parties since 1958. Some come back over and over. I am glad we stayed here at least once in our life.
We book dinner in the world famous steakhouse of the Madonna Inn but feel too overwhelmed by the scene and decide to head to town. People queue for hours in front of Goshi, inside San Luis Obispo. We have pizza instead at Giuseppe’s. People say that SLO has the highest coefficient of happiness in the US, thanks to the barter trade mentality of the people who live here. There is definitely an easy vibe here.
The next day, on our way down to Santa Barbara, we pass by Solvang, an old Dutch community near Buelton, where tourists post in front of the old mills. We also stop for lunch at Anderson’s pea soup, a legend of a dinner that has been serving the same recipe of pea soup for almost 100 years. It’s like being in a movie again.