Just Back From

Just Back From: Big Sur

by Katie Mendelson
All photos by Katie Mendelson

Brooklyn-based garden writer Katie Mendelson took advantage of a long weekend to get a nature fix in Northern California. She ate, she hiked, she can't wait to go back.

Was it your first time? I had driven through on a family road trip up the coast of California when I was a teenager. But even though I remembered the scenery, I really had no idea how dreamy it was. So basically, yes.

How long were you there? Three days.

Who were you with? My boyfriend.

Why did you go? My boyfriend wanted to visit California's Central Coast where he grew up, it was my 27th birthday, and we had a long weekend.

California Coast

Champagne Room at Deetjen's

Where did you stay? In the Champagne Room at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. It's incredibly cozy — rustic cabins draped in wisteria and rose bushes and equipped with fireplaces and wood stoves. The beds are soft and comfy, and the food is to die for. But it's not, they readily admit, for those who are noise-sensitive. The walls and floors are paper-thin and supremely creaky. So if your upstairs neighbors are early risers, you'll be up with the sun. But when you spend the dawn hours in bed while a fire burns in the wood stove, this is a not-unpleasant, easily forgivable occurrence.

What's the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go? I adored Deetjen's and think everyone should stay there once. But it's expensive for what you get, like pretty much everything in Big Sur. (We filled up our gas tank at a cool $6.50/gallon.) I'd recommend nabbing a spot at a local campsite like Big Sur Campground, where you can inner tube on the Big Sur River, and splurge on meals at Deetjen's and Big Sur Bakery or an outdoor massage at Esalen. The real reason to go is for the area's scenery and spirit. No need to break the bank to enjoy that.

What did you do? We spent a night and a day in Carmel Valley with my boyfriend's cousin and friends, passing a rainy morning with a long breakfast at Toast and checking out estate sales under the expert lead of Lisa Salzer, who was shopping for Lulu Frost, her gorgeous, vintage-inspired jewelry collection. We stopped at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve to hang with sea lions and picnic in the cypress grove.

In Big Sur, we browsed the Henry Miller Memorial Library; hiked Tanbark Trail, a six-mile trip that included redwoods, wildflowers, and endangered California condor spottings; and said, "this view is UNbelievable" to each other way too many times.

To ease the transition back to New York, we made a pre-flight stop in Berkeley, where we watched the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge from the top of the city's terraced Berkeley Rose Garden and had a dream-come-true, still-making-my-mouth-water dinner at Chez Panisse.

Were you there for the right amount of time? Yes, though another day wouldn't have hurt.

How did you get there? We flew to San Francisco and rented a car. This was essential for the spectacular drive down the Pacific Coast Highway as well as for stops at In-N-Out for animal-style burgers and black-and-white shakes.

Hiking the woods

crazy flowers

Katie Mendelson

This was especially great: There's a bench tucked on the side of a hill above Deetjen's that you can hike to and drink wine at dusk. Also, the guest book in our room was chock-full of gems, including tales of Big Sur alien abductions, marriage proposals, and angry rants about heavy-footed guests stomping around overhead.

This wasn't: We were there on Memorial Day weekend, so it was definitely prime time for tourists. But aside from the trailheads and lunch hour at Nepenthe, a high-traffic, cliff-top restaurant, it was generally pretty quiet and easy to forget that it was busy season in Big Sur.

Favorite meals: An incredibly cozy and decadent dinner of filet mignon, bacon-wrapped pork, and BYO-Cali cabernet sauvignon at Deetjen's. Beers at the the stunningly beautiful Post Ranch Inn, where the restaurant, Sierra Mar, is perched on a bluff 1,200 feet above the Pacific. Dinner at Chez Panisse was just sort of indescribably good: grilled asparagus, parmesan-topped arugula, and fava bean toast to start, pork shoulder and polenta, and a cherry galette.

the crab

modernist house

the big sky

What's the local specialty? Laid-backness. Friendliness. I left a favorite scarf at Nepenthe and didn't realize it until I was halfway back to San Francisco. When I called, they offered to UPS it to me at their expense. Because I live in New York, I was convinced that they were messing with me. They were not.

One thing you didn't get to visit but wanted to: I was dying to soak in the natural hot springs at Esalen Institute, an oceanside retreat center. The hippie mecca opens its mineral baths, which are perched on a cliff directly above the Pacific, from 1-3 a.m. for nudity-encouraged dipping. The springs were closed for Memorial Day — crushing.

Any surprises? How easy it was to get there and back in three days. We flew from New York on Friday afternoon and took an easy red-eye home on Monday night (thanks, Ambien). It was a full but relaxing long weekend.

Would you go back? Yes, of course! Though my next trip to California will be exploring what's north of San Fran. Point Reyes is first on my list.


Let's talk about stuff.
1. Glad you packed: Layers. Sweaters and pants for chilly mornings and nights, short sleeves for sunny afternoons. And, as mercilessly as I mocked my boyfriend for bringing them, binoculars.

2. Wish you'd packed: A field guide to California wildflowers.

3. Didn't need: A bathing suit. We snuck into Ventana Inn for a dip in the clothing-optional pool and hot tub.

4. Brought back: A guide to mushrooms and a feminist manifesto purchased from the Big Sur library book sale. Perfectly appropriate cultural souvenirs.

What was your favorite moment? The whole drive between Carmel and Big Sur is pretty Instagram-worthy — Garrapata State Park, Bixby Bridge, Point Sur lighthouse.

You can't stop thinking about: Falling asleep to the sound of the fire crackling in the wood stove. The view from the Post Ranch Inn. Moving to San Francisco!

big waves


Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
48865 Highway One
Big Sur, CA 93920


See all the locations mentioned in this story. (Google Maps)

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