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Big Sur

In search of rest and tranquillity? Find it on California's most magnificent stretch of coastline.

Big Sur, California looking north
Photo caption
The Big Sur coast extends for 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon.

Big Sur sits along the California coast, two and a half hours south of San Francisco, five and a half hours north of Los Angeles, and a world and a half removed from both. It was here that writer Henry Miller escaped the "air-conditioned nightmare" of the city and learned to say "amen." And it's here that visitors, watching waves crash on empty beaches or strolling through cathedrals of redwoods, find themselves at a loss for any words at all.

The postcard appearance that is Big Sur's trademark comes from a union of the Pacific Ocean with the Santa Lucia Range. Steep cliffs plunge to rocky beaches. Creeks meander through forests. The land opens up in natural springs. It is a place of spas and healing centers, hiking trails that lead to vistas, and galleries that lure you into hours of browsing. Big Sur's serenity has long attracted artists seeking inspiration and enticed overworked urbanites in search of calm retreat. You can't buy peace of mind here, but you can sample it in a weekend.

The coast of Big Sur extends for 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon. On a brief visit, you can easily become exhausted if you attempt to drive its entirety on scenic Highway 1. For a more relaxing time, focus on a 16-mile stretch between two California state parks: Andrew Molera and, a bit farther south, Julia Pfeiffer Burns. At Andrew Molera, follow the Headlands Trail, which skirts the Big Sur River and leads to a pristine beach where you can walk out to a finger of land called Molera Point. For a more ambitious hike, try the Hidden Trail or the Ridge Trail–Bluffs Trail loop. At Julia Pfeiffer Burns, 80-foot McWay Falls springs from the hillside and splashes on the beach. You can't walk under it—the beach is off-limits to the public—but you can gaze down on it from a scenic overlook, a short walk from the parking lot off the highway.

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a relaxing place to read Miller's work. The author of dozens of books, including Tropic of Cancer and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, lived in Big Sur for 18 years and was also a prolific painter. A short drive south, at the Coast Gallery, lithographs of Miller's watercolors are exhibited in a high-ceilinged room bathed in natural light.

Also heading south from the Miller Library, you pass a cluster of Big Sur institutions. Nepenthe, a rustic restaurant, hangs above the Pacific in a spot with jaw-dropping views. The Ventana Inn & Spa, an upscale resort, offers stress-relieving body treatments. (You don't have to be a guest to get one.) A less expensive option is the Surenity Studio, whose expert therapists deal in aromatherapy facials, craniosacral therapy, and other treatments designed to ease aches and anxieties.

Artists are central to the spirit of Big Sur. At Studio One, local painter Erin Lee Gafill, whose grandparents founded Nepenthe, displays lovely landscapes that capture the tranquillity of her lifelong home. That peacefulness is Big Sur's timeless draw. You come here to laze in the shadow of a giant coastal redwood or to watch the currents smooth the rocks in the Big Sur River. You come here to move at a slow pace that comes as naturally as the waves that carve the coast.

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This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.