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Big Sur? Yes Sur!

Big Sur, California. Photo by Dena Timm

By Richard West

Late summer. Heat. Ennui.  Your imagination as empty as a Magritte sky. When your usual brisk pace changes to a Willy Loman posture shuffle.  The month when your days of wine and roses turn to days of whine and neuroses.

Don’t despair, the remedy is at the end of the continent: Big Sur, one of the nation’s most soothingly beautiful cool-to-chilly regions in the summer, 150 miles south of San Francisco.  It begins south of Carmel-by-the-Sea and runs 80 miles south, where the Santa Lucia mountain range and towering redwood groves meet the Pacific Ocean along Highway One.  Rivers, creeks, soaring condors, beaches, mountain hikes, fancy hideouts, where noise is as rare as constipation in India.


Deetjen's Big Sur Inn.


Since 1970, I have roamed Big Sur, always staying in the incomparably funky-romantic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, tucked in Castro Canyon on Highway One—Shangri-lodge. Twenty rooms (11 with fireplaces) originally built in the 1930s by Helmuth Deetjen, an immigrant Norwegian carpenter.  Room 13 is a favorite: two beds, kitchen, bath, wood-burning stove, a day bed beneath a window with gurgling Castro Canyon Creek below. Décor:  odd antiques as if David Lynch was asked to design the little house on the prairie, throwing in a McCabe and Mrs. Miller vibe. No TV, no radio, no lock or key (but doors can be locked from the inside) in any room.  And don’t forget to read the visitor journals in each room…hilarious, moving, sometimes sexy, sometimes vulgar.

What I love about Deetjen’s is the  intimacy of it, the humanity of its proportions, the absence of arrogance, gloss and glitter. It feels, and is, human.  Rooms that have been enjoyed and loved for decades,  leaving voluptuous auras.  It’s also nice that the inn serves the best food between Carmel and San Luis Obispo. I lip-smackingly recommend the lamb or pasta entrees.  Dinner begins at six in four rooms with softly-playing classical music, a wandering Fabio, the resident cat, and a crackling fireplace.

The terrace at Nepenthe. Photo by Dena Timm.

Using Deetjen’s as the mileage- base, a few don’t-missables:

Nepenthe, a half-mile north, a gorgeous gift shop-restaurant 808 feet high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific whose top level large patio faces south with a 40-mile view down the Pacific coast and indoor seating area has  a big fireplace and wraparound oceanic views.  Suggested order: the Ambrosia Burger.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur. Photo by Dena Timm.

…Pfeiffer Beach, 2.4-miles north. Turn left on Sycamore Canyon Road two miles down to a beach-cove where waves crash into huge black rock towers, some with carved-by-the-sea tunnel and arch,  and surfers sometimes mix with seals.  Picnic in the purple sand beneath cliffs watching the sea’s ever-changing monotony that hypnotizes.

…There is no town of Big Sur but two miles north of Deetjen’s, there’s a small post office, restaurants, shops, galleries, a gas station, and motels along a six-mile section of Highway One. The deli-bakery’s perfect for picnic (cheeses, ready-made sandwiches, etc.) and wine purchases .

…Pfeiffer State Park, four miles north with the Big Sur River running through it and hosting many wonderful hikes including one to a lovely waterfall. Also here near the softball field, the 1,100-year-old Colonial redwood, one of the tallest measured trees on earth.


Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

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