It may have just undergone a massive renovation, but Ventana Big Sur still maintains its enviable hippie charm. Christina Ohly checks in to check out.
BIG SUR, California – I thought I knew the California coast, having spent plenty of time everywhere from LA to San Francisco, from Carmel to Montecito. But Big Sur — in all its pristine, dramatic glory — came as a bit of a Zen surprise. I was expecting golf courses, hiking, and biking but instead discovered the ultimate in glamping — tents with amenities set within a stunning redwood forest — and sunsets over the Pacific that are among the most beautiful I've ever seen.
Ventana Big Sur was originally opened in 1975 and, although it has been reinvigorated by Alila Resorts & Hotels, it still has a refreshingly wonderful hippie vibe. The 59 rooms, suites, and villas spread across low-slung wooden buildings don't challenge the natural surroundings, but rather meld into the mountains beyond. Every accommodation has been updated with state-of-the-art electronics, luxurious bathrooms, and natural materials like locally sourced wood and stone, and all take advantage of the expansive Central Coast and valley views beyond. This is made even easier because most rooms have decks with either a small hot tub or hammock — a perfect way to end a day of full exploration.
The communal buildings — a central Social House-cum-reception area, a Glass House gallery, and Sur House restaurant — continue the pared-down aesthetic, offering quiet spaces to relax, sip wines at the tasting hour, or just read a book.
Ventana is a place to go when you want to disconnect. And it's relatively easy to do so, because, while you'll get online on property, there is no coverage in the vicinity. If I'm being honest, the thought of this freaked me out at first. No Instagram?! No Waze?! But I soon got into the Big Sur flow, which is all about nature, good food, an even better massage, and just getting lost. If only for 36 hours.
Rates from $675 per night. Redwood Canyon Glampsites are $325 per night. For an additional resort fee of $100, glampsite guests can access Spa Alila, Social House, two outdoor pools, and the fitness center.
Set on California's scenic Central Coast, 140 miles south of San Francisco, Big Sur is a throwback to another era, one with no cell phone towers, or mega hotels. The “town” features just a few restaurants — cool ones, of course. In addition to foodies, the area is a draw for hikers, campers (the real kind), and VW microbus drivers.
This is the most relaxed place I've visited in….well, as long as I can remember. Truly chill. Even the décor is understated: white linens, seagrass baskets, and macramé hangings. Even at full capacity, Ventana is a quiet place. And so blissfully dark at night, which makes for incredible stargazing. This is not a place for young children, but rather for grown-ups in search of solitude, a glass of cabernet, and a little tai chi.
This Place Is Perfect For
Ventana is ideal for couples and people who want it quiet. Nature lovers are spoiled for choice by simply sitting on their decks, going on Flora & Fauna hikes, or taking a falconry lesson. Ventana is excellent for epicures, too. Executive chef Paul Corsentino sources much of his farm-to-table cuisine from the garden just below the infinity pool. And this being wine country, oenophiles will find many distractions in Ventana's spectacular 10,000 bottle cellar.
What's on Site
You won't want to leave the premises because the facilities, including the Social House, with its library and bar; Spa Alila, with indoor/outdoor massages and soaking tubs; and the infinity edge Meadow Pool are so enticing. Even better, however, is the clothing-optional Mountain Pool with adjacent Japanese onsen baths, a throwback that really reminds you you're in Northern California.
Sur House, at the very top of the resort, is the place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I liked having to walk a quarter-mile to and from meals along the well-lit stone path. After a forager's omelette filled with mushrooms and spinach and a fresh green mountain juice one morning, I strolled back down the trail and was met by three deer. We all just stopped and stared at each other for several minutes — with no fear, as one might typically expect. It was one of the more perfectly peaceful moments I've ever experienced.
Lunch and dinner are also winners and are ideally eaten outside on the sprawling terrace overlooking the rugged coastline with firelight at night. Culinary highlights include cured ling cod, grilled ora king salmon, and an elevated take on classic s'mores.
Number of Rooms
59 rooms, suites, and villas.
Excellent free WiFi and a minibar stocked with locally sourced snacks like purple heirloom potato chips, Thai spiced nuts, and dark chocolate covered popcorn. Phone chargers and a first aid kit round out the selection of everything you might have forgotten. The coffee maker is brand new and toiletries are appropriately New Age-thoughtful, made by Alila specifically for the property, in aesthetically pleasing, eco-friendly glass bottles.
I am hard-pressed to find a drawback. Maybe that there weren't any gummy candies in the minibar? I am stretching here. Ventana is pretty blissful. For two days. After that, I need a little more action.
The warmth of the staff was the most outstanding feature of Ventana. Everyone is clad in fleece and jeans, and they're fiercely proud of their preserved part of California. A few other details of note: deep copper soaking tubs in the outdoor spa cabanas. Beautiful glamping tents kitted out with amenities like lanterns, heated blankets, and DIY s'mores kits. Soothing Japanese baths.
What to Do Nearby
Leave the property — very occasionally — for meals at one of the outstanding nearby restaurants. Breakfast at the Big Sur Bakery (www.bigsurbakery.com) is a must: The “cop” donuts are the most decadent, delicious things I've ever tasted. I had a memorable dinner at local institution Djeeten's, an old inn and an incredibly cozy restaurant that serves killer crab cakes with chipotle aioli and a fish of the day (swordfish when I went) atop creamy coconut milk rice. The atmosphere here is totally romantic, and the food is NYC-level good.
A lunch at nearby Nepenthe – perhaps the most iconic place in the area – is another highlight. The colorful cushions that line the outside patio and the striking views over the ocean are the stars, but the Famous Ambrosiaburger with house sauce is excellent, too. The wine list is comprised primarily of smaller, family-owned makers and features California's finest vintages.
For the ultimate in ocean view dining, head down the road to Post Ranch Inn, the area's only other luxury property, to eat at Sierra Mar. Set atop a cliff, the multi-course meal includes dishes like tart apple salad with Big Sur chèvre, roasted duck, and toasted hay ice cream with huckleberry crumble. The food is beyond delicious, but you come for sweeping vistas.
Good to Know
Make sure you bring all of your toiletries and maybe a few extra snacks, as you'll have to drive to get a toothbrush or that necessary bag of M&Ms. It's also good to know that there is no cell service surrounding the area, which makes navigating here in the dark challenging. In fact, the roads are winding, so you should try to arrive in the daylight.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There: San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is less than two hours away, and the drive along the coastline is lovely. You will need a car if you want to explore nearby parks or Esalen Institute, but otherwise Ventana is happy to drive diners in their house Range Rover to any of the area restaurants or convenience stores.