Big Sur Delivers
What can I say? Whales.
No sooner had we driven past the sign on Highway 1 welcoming us to Big Sur when my eyes caught a glimpse of something toward the horizon. A giant splash. No, blowhole spray! "Good eye!" Jake commends as he sharply pulls off to the shoulder. We hop out of the rental car and run across Pacific Coast Highway toward the edge of a gravel cliff, one thousand feet above sea level with the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean gleaming beneath the late afternoon sun. There in the distance we spot the whale, a high-gloss black back rising from the sea, reflecting the sun back into our eyes. Next, a second whale behind it. And then, two glorious breaches, one after the other. We stood in awe, feeling like the luckiest people on the planet for having caught such a performance at that exact moment.
Whales, plus those are ALL SEA LIONS
Such was our introduction to the magical land of Big Sur. And though we didn't know it yet, these were only the first of about one hundred whales we would see over the next two days.
Big Sur had been at the top of my West Coast bucket list since I moved out here, so as soon as my schedule freed up (ah hem I quit my job), it was the first trip I planned. We actually began our California coastal road trip at - of all places for two local Venice Beach residents - LAX. Originally, I had wanted to fly from LA into San Jose, and drive south down the coast, taking our sweet time. But the one-way car rental was 3x more expensive from San Jose-LA than LA-San Jose, and thus the first decision of the trip was made. North we would drive, spending one night in Central Coast wine country's Paso Robles, then two nights in a log cabin along the Big Sur River, with a $70 flight to bring us home at the end of the 4 days.
When the day came, we went to LAX to pick up the rental car at 9 a.m. Unfortunately the LAX rental car scene is in fact quite a scene, and we stood in line for an hour to pick up the car (regrettably not a convertible, a fact I would silently lament the entire drive, but what with the joblessness I was determined to keep this trip affordable). Okay, 10:30 a.m. and we're off! Except that traffic on PCH came to a complete standstill about 20 minutes into the drive. How odd, I thought to myself. Well, at least we can eat our messy breakfast sandwiches while stopped, ever searching for the silver lining. I check the traffic Google Maps and see that the road is wide open in about 1/4 mile. Just kidding! It turns out that in 1/4 mile PCH is actually closed - cops are turning around all traffic in front of Pepperdine due to a downed power pole. And the only option is a 30-mile winding detour through the Santa Monica Mountains and canyons, featuring some serious cutbacks. Detour it is! On the bright side, it's a magnificent drive for those unafraid of heights, and we even took a slight detour off the detour to drive around scenic and unexpected Malibu Lake. The diversion also served as a reminder of fodder for future local adventures within the canyons, as we passed Cielo Wineyards, The Old Place Cornell restaurant, and Cornell Winery. Noted!
We pop back out north of the PCH closure and continue onward, two hours delayed at this point. With the afternoon shrinking in front of us, the idea of stopping for lunch in Santa Barbara is out, and it's looking like we'll arrive in Paso Robles in time for one winery visit instead of two. No problema. Our drive takes us through picturesque Santa Ynez Valley, and I make a mental note to leave time on the next trip to stop at the inviting Paradise Store for some BBQ, a glass of wine, and live music amidst olive groves, as well as the charming town of Los Olivos which appeared seemingly out of nowhere, a glimpse of one perfect street straight off the main road.
Three hours and one additional road closure (this time the 101 freeway) later, we finally make it to Paso Robles, pulling straight in to Eberle Winery for that first glorious sip of red wine at their complimentary tasting and wine cave tours. We buy a bottle of their Sangiovese and enjoy it on the patio and lawn, overlooking the rolling vineyards bathed in sun. The Airbnb lodging I found for the night is only five minutes from here, and there's another winery in between. We decided to squeeze it in (another complimentary tasting) at the advice of our Airbnb host, but it was godawful. Imagine Cancun - for 40-year-olds - with a western theme? It was more a bar with babies than a winery, and though I applaud their mantra that the only wine tasting rule is to "have fun", it wasn't exactly what we were in the mood for. The good news is Jake was introduced to the power that comes with dumping unworthy wine into spit buckets.
So with the rest of our Sangiovese on hand, we pass Merlot and Burgandy Lanes, arriving at - yes - Champagne Lane for the evening. The house is set up on a hill overlooking vineyards, complete with a hammock and bistro table in the garden. I'm immediately drawn to the dirt road leading up through the vineyard behind a gated off area, and as I approach to take a photo, our host hollers down that we can "squeeze through the gate" and walk up. Thanks for the tip! It's now sunset, among the vines, at the top of a hill, 360 degree views, and I'm in my happy place (despite the fact we finished our wine earlier and I can't help but notice that there are grapes, grapes everywhere, and not a drop to drink).
That sunset stroll was definitely the highlight of our brief time in Paso Robles. Surprisingly there are not many good restaurants in the area (or at least none I could find), so we had an unexciting meal downtown ("Lombardi's" and "bistro" don't really go together, I should have known) and rested up for tomorrow's adventures.
It's an early start for us, so we chat with our hosts in the morning over a glass of OJ (they warn that though Big Sur is technically about two and a half hours north, it usually takes their guests six hours after all of the stops), pet the horses next door, and hit the road. Scenic Route 46 West takes us past winery upon winery, so we stop at a couple to round off our Paso Robles visit, and Jake rightfully declares how great it is to be the first and only ones at the vineyards. As he calls out the ever-changing landscape (high desert! coastal forest!) we pull into Jack Creek Farms to check out the goods, brush up on our lasso skills, and pick up two turkey, cranberry, and walnut wraps for $4.50 each (which came at just the right time, as I was in the middle of a panic that we were spending too much money and had just imposed a $5 per person lunch limit).
Route 46 meets Highway 1 meets the ocean at Cambria, and it's so pretty here at my newly dubbed intersection of Hawk City and Pelican Highway so let's just stop for a few minutes and take in the view and eat our cheap lunch. Ten minutes back on the road, and what is that enormous house on top of that hill? Heart Castle? Let's go! We take a tour of the ostentatious manor, led by a dead ringer for The Dude. When asking Jake to close the door behind the tour group, he identified Jake as "the guy with the guns on his shirt". What? I'm thinking to myself. Jake most definitely does not have guns on his shirt. Jake later explained that he had correctly identified the type of surfboards on his shirt as "guns" - boards with a narrow pointed nose and tail. Ah. Two hours after I had last mapped our route and we've shaved approximately three minutes off of our driving time. I'm beginning to understand our hosts' aforementioned warning.
The stretch of highway still ahead of us is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, and I'm filled with excitement. Cue the whales! We've crossed the southern border of Big Sur! At this point, every cove looks like it 100% harbors mermaids (both of the Ariel and Peter Pan varieties) and every twist and turn unveils a new must-stop-and-take-a-photo view. When we spot whales for the second time, we're treated to a full-on feeding frenzy, straight from a Discovery Channel documentary. Sea lions, dolphins, dive-bombing birds, and whales, all feasting in one giant circular spectacle. We watch the whales leap and aggressively slap their fins and tails against the water, stunning and corralling the fish, creating hysteria on the surface, and I imagine all that is just below. We stood there for maybe an hour, transfixed by Pacific Blue, until it was time to move on--and stop five minutes down the road. This pattern continues up the coast as we slowly make progress toward our cabin at Ripplewood Resort. Cell service disappears completely, the sun sets, and eventually we pull into Nepenthe restaurant for dinner (an excellent burger), enchanted by their strung lights and the rising moon. We had fair warning the drive can take six hours; it's now twelve hours since we first hit the road and we're...almost there. It's 9 p.m. and I'm beginning to wonder if Ripplewood will even be open to give us our cabin key, because I happen to know that this rental car seat only reclines about 3/4 of the way and it would not make for a comfortable sleep. Luckily, this was awaiting our arrival (with a note that "your cabin is open"):
Cabin key taped to the reception door
I'm immediately in love with our cabin. It's quaint, clean, the bed is comfortable and the sheets smell wonderful. Since this was my "budget Big Sur trip", I chose Ripplewood Resort's least expensive cabin at $120 a night, which meant no kitchen (mini-fridge though!) or fireplace, but it was all we needed. Jazz music drifted over from the restaurant next door, so we drop our bags and wander over to The Roadhouse. They are closing down for the night, but the bartender graciously lets us have a glass of wine while he waits for a few lingering patio diners to leave. The restaurant's interior is very natural, modern, and crisp (very similar to Community Table back home in Connecticut), and the menu sells us on tomorrow night's dinner. We walk the 20 steps back to the cabin after our glass and drift off to sleep, comfortably tucked in beneath redwood groves.
Monday morning brings a delicious breakfast across the street at Ripplewood's cafe, where I particularly enjoy a creamy potato gratin over the region's semiannual visitors' guide on the patio. Already feeling slightly overwhelmed by my growing list of Big Sur can't-miss sights, I brush up on their recommendations (which thankfully and reassuringly includes "nothing"), while Jake familiarizes himself with the local fishing regulations. Nonetheless, I am determined to knock a few sights off my list so after breakfast we head up to Pfiefer State Park (not to be confused with Pfiefer Beach or Judith Pfiefer Beach) for an interior hike. Upon arrival we realize there is a $10 parking fee, which could prove detrimental to my daily budget should we hit up three or so parks today. Jake rolls down the window at the ranger's booth and inquires whether there's a fee to come in on foot, and the ranger cordially declares that "it is free to walk into a state park". Bingo! There are numerous turnouts all along Highway 1, including one directly across the street from the park entrance. In the absence of any "no parking" signs there, we ditch the car, grabbing the ripe and fragrant California peach we picked up along the way, and happily stroll in, wondering why anyone would ever pay to park.
There's something magical about Big Sur, in case you haven't already heard. The air smells of pine or cedar or a mixture of those and more, and from the first few steps into our shaded hike we know we are somewhere special. Coastal redwoods fantastically twist and soar upward toward the spotted blue sky. There are fallen and burned redwood trunks of massive proportion, and squirrels to match. I spot a marvelous blue jay twice the size of their East Coast counterparts and much darker, with a lustrous navy sheen illuminated by a small sunny patch on the forest floor, and I need a picture immediately. I whisper this to Jake, the camera carrier, but he fumbles to grab the camera while holding the peach. Thinking it was just the pit, I slap it out of his hand in my haste to capture this exact image, but alas, most of that glorious peach had yet to be consumed, and I watch Jake's wide-eyes follow it tumbling down the hill collecting dirt. "The best peach he's ever had", I vow to one day replace it as we watch the blue jay victoriously fly away.
With the forest exploration under our belts, I'm now seaward bound. I had read about McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall which spills directly on to the beach. Slightly discouraged by The Roadhouse bartender's tidbit that you can't actually access the beach there (only hike to the overlook) because it's private land, I'm intrigued by an inconspicuous access path (sans entrance fee) we drive past along the way. A state sign reads "no diving"at the top of the gate, so surely it must lead to the beach. Stop the car! This is our new plan.
Once down at sea level, we first explore an unexpected pedestrian tunnel to the left, which opens brightly to a cove and a natural rock jetty and sea otters galore! Back through the tunnel and further down the path toward the shoreline, I get my very own private waterfall after all. Here, a mountain brook trickles down its pebbled pathway, converging finally with the commanding Pacific waves and creating a beautiful synchronistic water rhythm, both mellow and powerful layers at once. Realizing we are in total isolation, I strain my neck to look upward back toward PCH and my minds drifts to the possibilities that we could either a) be attacked by a mountain lion (I had just seen footage of a beach-bound cougar traversing an unsettlingly-familiar-looking stretch of rocky shoreline) or b) be washed away by rouge wave, but I'm slightly comforted by the many rock sculptures built by previous visitors - testaments to survival.
And dinner at The Roadhouse, it would turn out, was ridiculously delicious, starting with the butter accompanying the buttermilk biscuit. It's the kind of butter you want to just want to take home and put on every meal you come in contact with again. Salty, soft, hints of lavender and honey...okay maybe the lavender and honey part was more in the biscuit itself, but still. All of this followed by an at-once crunchy and moist fried chicken with mac-and-cheese (a plate-playground, I say) and then a warm banana caramel cake that would change any banana-hater's mind, undoubtedly. Did I mention our cabin was a ten-second walk home? Perfection.
Fully equipped with our sandwiches from one of the general stores along the way (still budgeting people; sadly, I cancelled our lunch plans at the glorious Post Ranch Inn after calculating how many sandwiches we could buy in place of a $200 lunch), we begin the steep descent down an enchanting forested path. A hairpin turn reveals a grove of pine trees backlit by the glistening sea, and it looks straight out of the opening credits of Beauty and the Beast. Between this, the mermaid coves, and the fact that I can't stop singing "shining, shimmering, splendid" in my head every time we catch the Pacific vista, I'm beginning to think this trip has become some subtext of a study in all-things Disney princesses.
On the drive back to the homestead, we pull over at yet another picture-perfect turn-off to admire yet another frenetic pod of feeding whales. What a moment, perched high upon heavenly earth, face toward the late afternoon golden sun, feet dangling off the cliff's 90-degree edge, listening to the positively mesmerizing sounds of blowholes and breaching whales' resultant slaps. I could have sat there for hours, but...the sun sets and dinner beckons.
Tuesday is our departure day, but our flight isn't until 7:30 p.m. so there is still more ground to cover. The plan is to make a quick scenic stop at the Big Sur River mouth, then continue north to complete the 17-mile coastal drive through Pebble Beach and maybe have lunch in Carmel or Monterey. This entire well-intentioned plan comes to a screeching halt during the first activity, though, when I spot a monster rainbow trout lazying about in the leafy, watery shadows along the river bank. All energies shift toward Jake grabbing his fly-fishing gear and nabbing that trout, or perhaps an equal-sized cousin. The surrounding area is so peaceful and natural, I cannot protest to spending the afternoon here. Jake wades into the river, and I find a comfortable branch from which to climb and take it all in while each cast of Jake's fishing line recalls the whoosh of a whale's forceful exhales.
See Jake fish?
All good things come to an end, and sooner than later it's time to beeline it up to San Jose airport. It's an age-old complaint: the trip was too short, but I have a list of what to see next time, including the surprisingly intriguing Henry Miller Memorial Library, and the less-surprisingly intriguing natural hot springs at Eselan retreat center, which are open to the public nightly from 1-3 a.m. (mental note to try and make reservations in advance, they were full during our stay). Additional notes for next trip: drive north-to-south instead of south-to-north (better passenger views) and RENT A CONVERTIBLE! You know, since money will surely be no object and I'll be staying at the Post Ranch Inn. But if I can't spring for $1,200-a-night, I'd be just as happy with a $140 Ripplewood cabin - with a fireplace.
Nope, I'm not leaving this cabin. Sheets...smell...so...clean...