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Getaway Guide: Romantic Road Trip To Big Sur

(credit: Liz Laing)

Get back to nature and escape to the wild and rugged coastline of Big Sur, which offers stunning views of the Pacific along miles and miles of dramatic cliffs. Visit a few "jewels" of California's state park system and walk among the redwoods to discover secret beaches and waterfalls. Soak in natural hot springs, pamper yourselves with a massage or spa treatment and enjoy a romantic dinner for two perched above the endless blue ocean ("To infinity and beyond," as Buzz Lightyear would say.) Enough kid talk, this weekend is for adults only.

How To Get There

From Los Angeles, take the 101 North to San Luis Obispo. From there, stick to the coast and take Highway 1 North to Big Sur for about 100 miles. The total distance from Los Angeles to Big Sur is about 300 miles.

If you've never done the drive along Highway 1 (California's first scenic highway), you're missing out. It's easily one of the most beautiful drives anywhere with panoramic ocean vistas along every bend of the craggy Big Sur coastline. The views of the Pacific are simply spectacular.

(credit: Liz Laing)

JUCY Rentals Los Angeles

13820 Hawthorne Blvd
Hawthorne, CA 90250

Instead of taking your own car, have some fun and rent a JUCY Champ campervan, (basically a minivan that's been converted into a mini RV), complete with a fridge, two gas stove tops, a sink and two double beds that sleep up to four people, one of which is located in the "penthouse" (aka pop-up tent on roof). During the day, a table and two bench seats provide a perfect place to play a game of cards or share a meal. A built-in DVD player provides hours of entertainment during a long drive and a cozy "movie in bed" at night.

JUCY campers, which began in New Zealand have recently launched three locations in the U.S., are not only cool, but practical, too. You can sleep in your camper a couple of nights and then treat yourself to a luxury hotel for a couple more. Mix it up. Pull over and take a nap, if necessary. Pull down your blinds, pop in a movie and you've got your own little "love nest." The beds are comfortable and you won't have to pitch a tent or bother driving a huge, gas-guzzling RV. Be warned: your green and purple JUCY mobile will attract attention with its colorful exterior and innovative design. Go ahead, make 'em jealous!

Where To Stay

(credit: Liz Laing)

Ventana Inn & Spa

48123 California Hwy 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2331

If you're looking for a quiet, secluded and beautiful stay, look no further. Nestled on a hillside, framed by redwood forests and overlooking the ocean, the Ventana Inn & Spa is a luxurious resort offering the ultimate in accommodations for those seeking a romantic getaway or relaxing vacation. The spacious suites and guest rooms are elegantly rustic and gorgeous with natural materials and stonework. Book a room with a fireplace for extra coziness and a private outdoor Jacuzzi where you can look for the constellations in the starry night sky.

Located on 243 acres of meadows and wooded hillsides, 1,200 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the Inn provides a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere where you can swing in a hammock, soak in Japanese hot baths, stretch in a yoga class and explore the property on a Guided Discovery Walk. Don't miss the afternoon wine and cheese reception – a great way to relax after a hike or swim. For further relaxation, indulge in the Couples Spa Experience, which includes a bubble bath for two followed by side-by-side massages and chocolate (ask for Giles, who gives an amazing massage).

It's a short walk to get to The Restaurant at Ventana, where a complimentary and sumptuous breakfast buffet awaits you each morning. (The morning walk through the forest and meadows is a great way to start the day.) Dinner at Ventana is a must. Executive Chef, Truman Jones, grew up on a farm, so it's natural for him to use seasonal, fresh and locally grown products in his cooking.

What To Do

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(credit: Liz Laing)

Pfeiffer Beach

Sycamore Canyon Rd
Hwy 1
Big Sur, CA 93920

The secret's out, just don't tell too many people about this secluded beach that can be challenging to find. There isn't a sign for Pfeiffer Beach on Highway 1, so you'll have to look for Sycamore Canyon Road (unsigned) that will lead you to the beach, about 1 mile north of the Ventana entrance on Highway 1. Look for the only paved, ungated road on the west side of the highway between the post office and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Turn west on Sycamore Canyon and drive slowly along the narrow road for 2.2 miles to the parking area.

Pfeiffer Beach is one of the most photographed spots in Big Sur, with its wide sandy beaches, dramatic rock arch and purple sand. Don't get it confused with the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, just a few miles south (yes, that's three Pfeiffers!)

(credit: Liz Laing)

Andrew Molera State Park

Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2315

Besides being a popular camping site, Andrew Molera State Park is the largest state park on the Big Sur coast. Miles of hiking trails wind through grassy meadows, riverbanks and the beach, which is a photographer's dream. The river's mouth meets the ocean, reflecting the sparkling sunlight and blue sky above.

For an easy hike to the beach, take the Andrew Molera State Park's Beach Trail, which takes you alongside the Big Sur River. Stunning views of the shoreline from the coastal bluffs can be seen when the trail meets the Bluff Trail.
Besides hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking are popular here, as well as surfing and fishing. A somewhat primitive walk-in trail camp is located about 1/3 mile from the parking area.

(credit: Liz Laing)

Julia Pfeiffer State Park

Big Sur, CA 93920

Named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a legendary pioneer woman of Big Sur country, the park features McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that drops from granite cliffs, cascading to the beach below, which can be viewed from the McWay Waterfall Trail (only a half-mile trail). You can also pull over and view the falls from the side of the road about 100 yards north of the entrance.

The Julia Pfeiffer State Park should not be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (a "mini Yosemite"), the most popular camping destination in Monterey County. Both tent and RV campsites are set up along the beautiful Big Sur River and provide easy access to hiking trails. Make reservations in advance through Reserve America. A list of campgrounds and RV parks is found here.

(credit: Daniel Bianchetta)

Public Night Bathing at Esalen Institute

55000 California 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2724

The Esalen Institute (known simply as Esalen) is a residential community and retreat center, offering self-improvement classes and workshops, devoted to personal and spiritual growth with activities such as meditation, massage and yoga. Esalen offers more than 500 workshops a year, plus conferences and residential work-study programs. It is easy to be inspired by the beauty of the location, situated on 120 acres of rugged coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains sharply rise above the ocean.

A well-known feature at Esalen are the cliff-side natural hot spring baths, which were used by the natives more than 6,000 years ago and are still known today for their healing and restorative properties. Now you can become a "native" and soak in the baths with other locals during public "night bathing," from 1 a.m. – 3 a.m. Reservations must be made in advance by calling 831-667-3047 and making a $25 credit card payment per person.

This is the perfect situation to park your JUCY camper and take a nap before your bath. You'll be woken just before 1 a.m. to join the group of other bathers (20 max) and a guide will walk you down to the baths. Clothing is optional and it's not a big deal whether you wear a suit or not – whatever you're comfortable with. It's very dark at that hour and difficult to see others, anyway. The darkness provides the perfect backdrop to an amazing show of stars (the best I've ever seen!). Conversation is easily kept to a minimum as the roar of the crashing of the waves speaks volumes. Sweet nothings whispered in your ear are another story and should be encouraged by your loved one.

Where To Eat

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(credit: Liz Laing)

Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn

47900 California 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2200

The location alone is awe-inspiring. Where else can you have a fine dining experience perched over the vast Pacific Ocean, surrounded by such beauty? Winner of the Wine Spectator's prestigious Grand Award, Sierra Mar doesn't disappoint. The prix fixe menu gives you two choices: the traditional four-course menu, which changes daily, or the nine-course experience, a Taste of Big Sur. Executive chef, John Cox, is a culinary artist and his creations are so beautiful, you might be tempted not to eat them.

You might find dishes such as Kumamoto oysters with cucumber, basil seeds and lime, heirloom cauliflower ceviche with charred jalapeño sauce or a Robinson Island wagyu with exotic peppercorns, spring onion and hedgehog mushrooms. Desserts usually have two choices, including one for chocolate lovers. The other could be an Oro Blanco Crémeux olive oil cake with mescal meringue, raspberry sorbet, topped with smoked white chocolate and salt croquant. The dining experience at Sierra Mar is one you won't soon forget.

(credit: Nepenthe)


48510 California 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2345

In between your adventures, be sure and stop for lunch at Nepenthe, a Big Sur institution since 1949, that's known for it's casual alfresco dining and amazing views of the Pacific. Nepenthe means "isle of no care" in Greek and that's exactly the kind of place Lolly and Bill Fassett envisioned when they created the restaurant. Weary travelers find respite as they gaze out over the ocean, sipping their drinks and refueling with a roasted beets salad and their famous Ambrosia burger. Berry lovers will love the triple berry pie with raspberries, strawberries and boysenberries.

The restaurant has a unique architectural design, created by Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Native materials were used in the construction, such as redwood from the canyons and adobe bricks (made by Lolly!). This special place has attracted poets, lovers, artists and travelers, looking for that quintessential California experience. I think they found it at Nepenthe.

(credit: Liz Laing)

Big Sur River Inn

46840 California 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
(831) 667-2700

Another great place for lunch is the Big Sur River Inn, built in the 1930s as the first resort in Big Sur for visitors to dine, get gas and stay overnight. (It still operates as an inn today with 20 guest rooms and riverside suites.) Enjoy your lunch on the extensive patio, which overlooks plush green lawns and the Big Sur River. While waiting for your meal, take a seat in one of the large wooden chairs in the river and dip your toes in the cool current. Years ago, guests started this tradition by taking their chairs down to the river and now it's become the Inn's logo and trademark. Originally known as the "Apple Pie Inn" in 1934, the famous pie is still on the menu today and the ridge behind the Inn is still known as Apple Pie Ridge.

If you're lucky enough to be at the Big River Inn on a Sunday afternoon, you'll be treated to live music on the deck, featuring all kinds of jazz, folk, zydeco and world tunes. It's one big party and "backyard BBQ" for those who want to sit on the lawns by the river.

When you're ready to hit the road, pop into the General Store and pick up a bottle of local wine, camping supplies or a scenic calendar to remind yourself of this truly special place on California's central coast.

Liz Laing is a writer, web designer and photographer who lives in Los Angeles. Her latest projects may be followed on Liz Laing.

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