Nothing seemed amiss as the crowd of children pressed against the weathered wooden fence posts to get closer to the elephant seal pups taking their first dips in the Pacific. It was eerily calm given the number of (human) kids and the intensity of their jostling for position—each staring intently, mouth open at various degrees, observing a mother’s love to help her baby survive.
It was primal. It was unfiltered. It was—as a jealous male seal smothered a newborn pup to get the attention of his disinterested mother—a horror film.
“Mommy, come quick, the daddy is trying to squish the baby!” a shriek cut through the white noise of crashing waves. Then more screams as each kid stared at a lifetime of therapy, unable to look away. The entire boardwalk overlooking the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery quickly descended into a tornado of hands over eyes and ears and evacuations back into the rental cars.
Fortunately, there was a Pixar-approved ending as the mom charged the intruder and nudged her grateful pup towards the ocean to resume his swimming lessons amidst the 6,000 or so elephant seals that call this area home from December to March.
The rookery is a worthy launch pad for a Big Sur family adventure along one of the world’s most epic drives and the best part of terrain between L.A. and San Francisco. The multi-day journey—all the more memorable if you approach it from the south, starting in L.A., and not from the north (San Francisco)—can take anywhere from three to seven days. The views are clearer and—more importantly for anyone not addicted to adrenaline—you drive on the inside of the cliff for the hairiest parts of the nearly 220-kilometre journey from San Luis Obispo to Monterey.
San Simeon and Hearst Castle
Once you pull onto California State Route 1 from the inland US 101, just north of San Luis Obispo, the first stop—about 8 km from the town of San Simeon—is Hearst Castle, home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, back when newspapers made money. Designed by architect Julia Morgan—the legendary California architect who designed hundreds of homes in the state and helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 quake—construction stopped on the 165-room estate in 1947 and was donated to the State of California in 1957 when it was turned into a state park. Most tours last two to three hours.
As you pass the seal rookery, shortly after pulling back on Highway 1, the Big Sur of Kerouac and National Geographic documentary fame reveals herself as the dry, low coastal hills explode into winding ascents along the narrow two-lane highway. It’s right around this point that you start thanking your intuition—and a certain in-flight magazine—that you didn’t approach Big Sur from the north, where in some parts white-knuckled drivers have but a narrow gravel shoulder as the only barrier between their gobsmacked family and 120-metre drops onto the jagged beach rocks below. Good thing the plentiful lookouts allow many opportunities to rest fried nerves and fill up the memory card.
Lower Your Blood Pressure
If you need to relieve some of that tension professionally, drop by the famous 1960s embodiment of Big Sur soul—the cliff-edge retreat of Esalen.Perched high above the Pacific Ocean outside Lucia, Esalen is criss-crossed with paths and dotted with organic vegetable gardens and pavilions stocked with radiating instructors of all ages who instruct classes on everything from yoga to psychological group process. And (as if you had to ask) clothing is optional at the hot spring and its several tubs. The property turns 50 this year, so get your freak on in late September and early October as Esalen welcomes back the dreamers who helped build it.
If you prefer to keep your clothes on, skip the hippies (somewhat) and grab a bite with a view at another Big Sur icon: Nepenthe Restaurant, 20 km north of Esalen and a favourite for travellers since 1949. Owned by the same family for more than six decades, the views—courtesy of big wooden tables positioned perfectly to breathe in the Pacific below—are unsurpassed. Lunch is at 11:30 a.m. and dinner, with some of the best sunsets in the Golden State, starts at 5 p.m. For a more formal meal, Ventana Inn and Spa, just a few minutes up the road, serves local fare in local surroundings—all polished logs, river stones and windows. The 243-acre property is probably the poshest resort en route with Japanese hot baths and a sprawling spa—some rooms even come with a fireplace and hot tub.
Coast with the Most
To either end the day—or start it off in true Big Sur style—keep your eyes open for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park about 15 km past the Ventana Inn, where more than 2,100 acres of coastal redwood-forested mountains await. Even if you’re spent, make sure to hike the trail to the 25-metre-tall McWay Waterfall. Just a bit past that, in the Los Padres National Forest, an unmarked road (technically Sycamore Canyon Road) plunges into the coastal forest west towards Pfeiffer Beach, a raw, enormous mash-up of sand dunes, windblown cypress trees and jutting rock faces worth a couple of hours of beachcombing.
Big Sur City
The biggest settlement on the entire drive is the village of Big Sur itself, which hugs the eponymous river and sits in a lush valley of giant trees. Tiny markets, simple restaurants and a handful of rustic hotels keep the 1,000 or so residents happy and keen to share their forest kingdom with visitors.
The Last 50 km
The canopy gradually thins and sheer rock faces give way to at least a half-dozen parks and reserves that do their best to coax you off the road as you cross Bixby Creek Bridge (which itself is an engineering marvel). Soon after, you’ll loosen the grip on the wheel as you hit the bluffs closer to Carmel-by-the-Sea and its fiercely proud famous residents ranging from Clint Eastwood to Brad Pitt. If you can resist the wide, empty beaches, flower meadows and poetic lighthouses, then the north part of Big Sur is easily done as a day trip from Carmel and Monterey—even in the outside lane.
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