Almost countless creatives have written about or fell in love with this extraordinary destination – Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac are just two. A spellbinding stretch of California coastline, the Big Sur (as it's known), is a haven for adventure-loving romantics.
Related article: Romantic road-tripping in California
Passing sky-thrusting coastline, wild waves and time-forgotten forests, the infamous Highway One here travels through some of California's most captivating landscapes. No wonder tumultuous lovers Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles purchased a cliff-top cabin while navigating the highway – at every twist and turn, there's something utterly spectacular to see. Dreaming of taking the ultimate road-trip? Take a spin along the famous Highway One to California's Big Sur...
The road well travelled (and for good reason!)
This 193-kilometre road from San Francisco to Big Sur is a bucket-list drive for couples longing for the wind in their hair and salt in the air. Romantics will approach the winding drive from San Francisco through Monterey to Carmel and on to Big Sur in a convertible; realists will take a four-wheel drive to explore the plethora of side trails that lead to hidden coves.
Highway One was built in the early 1900s by cheap convict labour. Prisoners were lured by a thirty-five-cent-a-day wage and the promise of reduced sentences to risk their lives constructing over thirty bridges, including the famous arched Bixby Creek Bridge. The result is an exciting driving route protected on one side by the Santa Lucia Mountains and perching cliff-side with endless ocean views where the sun drips golden hues onto the horizon come sunset.
The journey begins
From San Francisco there are two ways to reach the heady heights of Big Sur. Hit Highway One and head along the coastline or go inland for a spot of outlet shopping at the Gilroy Premium Outlets mall (you’ll need half a day) before popping out near Monterey just in time for the gated Seventeen Mile Drive through Del Monte Forest from Pacific Grove to Carmel.
Enter Seventeen Mile drive from the Pacific Grove gate and head past the the Inn at Spanish Bay with private homes on one side and wild rugged coast on the other. Painters dot the inlets with easels as they try to capture the essence of this coastline and public binoculars and picnic spots provide perfect moments to take a load off.
Nature and urban wealth collide along this stretch as the road cuts through the exclusive golfing communities of Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach and envy-inducing mansion deed titles owned by captains of industry, silicon valley moguls and Hollywood royalty. The oceans here are filled with otters, seals and a plethora of bird-life (with the occasional pod of whales, no less).
You'll also come across the iconic Lone Cypress Tree here, situated between two golf courses that welcomed the likes of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Tiger Woods. It's a famous sight for a reason – the scene looks straight out of an old-world oil painting. Prepare to join the crowds, though, if you're seeking the perfect holiday snap.
Exit Seventeen Mile Drive at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a fairytale oceanside village more famous for having had Clint Eastwood as mayor than for the home-baked hospitality they should be known for. Carmel is built for lovers, with narrow tree-lined lanes of gingerbread-looking houses, Spanish-inspired mission buildings and cottages offering bed and breakfast lodgings.
It’s all very “have a nice day” in this whimsical village, so it’s good to know you’ll find some locals with spice holding up the piano for sundowners each night at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Bay Ranch restaurant – pull up a chair here if you get the chance.
Another Carmel icon you can't miss? If you like to be in amongst the action, bed down at The Cypress Inn. A dog-friendly boudoir owned by the late Doris Day, it's inhabited mainly by couples and their pooches – very sweet. The Spanish Mission-inspired abode features nightly jazz and tinkling of the ivories with canapés and cocktails – a good place to start your night.
Seeking somewhere cosy for your next meal? Restaurateurs, the Gaston family, are a big deal in these parts and also own La Bicyclette, a bistro with a giant wood-oven that serves the best breakfasts in town. Expect hedonistic delights like crusty sourdoughs and bowls of warm milky coffee.
Head into the highlands
Carmel can get crowded, especially on weekends, and not all accommodation comes with a view. A little way up Highway One in the Carmel Highlands you’ll find the Hyatt Carmel Highlands with what has to be the best views in town. Treat yourselves to one of it's Ocean View rooms – sleep with the curtains open and wake to a Pacific vista worth staying in bed for.
But back to the road. There’s not much civilisation past Carmel and on to Big Sur, and there's nothing wrong with than – an open road with plenty of side bays to stop and inhale the view or wander down to remote beaches for a closer look. If you’re in a convertible take the top down. This is big redwood country, home to mammoth trees that take a family hand-to-hand to hug. It is also home to mountain lions and poison ivy, so be on your best behaviour.
Beautiful Big Sur
Big Sur is more a way of life than a destination. There’s no solid town per se, there’s a bakery (a real must stop) and some art galleries, even the Henry Miller Library that often doubles as a live music venue.
If you set your sights for one spot, though, make it the Nepenthe Restaurant. The story goes that Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth bought the tiny cabin here on a whim and never returned. The Hollywood connection doesn't stop there, though, with the restaurant serving as the set for the 1965 film The Sandpiper, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Today, it's a family-owned restaurant that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. For an unforgettable afternoon, sip something delightful while taking in the view, in the shade of the towering Santa Lucia Mountains.
Big Sur is also cowboy ranch country, land steeped in ranching and trade history, with many ranch families still involved in the community. The six-star Post Ranch Inn here started its days as a family ranch and one of the area’s first homesteads. Each of the hotel's guest-rooms and villas are named after a Post family or Big Sur pioneer. Let’s just say, make The Post Ranch Inn your final stop because once here, the idea of leaving is akin to chopping your left foot off with a garden spade. You won’t want to do it.
Hand over your car keys and kick off your shoes, you won’t be needing them here. Post Ranch Inn is built for couples, with a series of villas hanging off the side of a cliff and opening out to ocean views that will leave you misty-eyed. Some come with hot tubs and plunge pools, while others hang in the trees. There’s no television here to distract couples from nature’s own entertainment, but there are acres of walking trails filled with deer and even a yoga yurt. There’s also a kitchen garden, a day spa for pampering, an impressive wine cellar and a glass restaurant that makes the most of the location. A fabulous reward for making the journey, no?
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Image credits: Unsplash, www.missionranchcarmel.com and www.nepenthe.com