Big Sur is a sparsely settled 90-mile mountainous coastal strip only about three miles wide. It starts some five hours drive north of Los Angeles and ends four hours south of San Francisco, but its gorges and cascades, redwoods and eucalyptus, make it feel much farther from the rest of the world. When my husband and I planned a coastal road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I imagined cruising along Highway One in an open convertible, the Mamas and the Papas's "California Dreamin'" streaming from the car radio. But we found a different California — not the sunny south, no orange trees nor starlets, but a getaway vacation spot that was chilly, damp, isolated, and strangely attractive: winter in Big Sur.
Very few people choose to live here. There's a single post office and a smattering of shops, gas stations, restaurants, and spas. Most houses are tucked beyond view into the slopes above or below the highway. Stringent regulations restrict building and forbid the mounting of billboards. In winter, when even the public bus service ceases to operate, Big Sur appears nearly deserted. And that's the way residents like it.
"Big Sur," the manager of Deetjens Big Sur Inn, Bruce Neeb, said proudly, "is a magnet for oddballs."
Since the 1920s, those eccentric personalities have included photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, writers Henry Miller, Robinson Jeffers, and Jack Kerouac, and the builders whose offbeat inspirations have become tourist destinations.
We entered Big Sur from the southern tip with a visit to the castle built by publisher William Randolph Hearst. The introductory film shown to visitors discloses that as a boy, Hearst vowed he'd have a palace like the ones he saw during a trip through Europe. He chose San Simeon, Calif., the mountainous spot where he used to camp with his family, because he loved its wildlife and unspoiled natural beauty. Hearst then spent decades marshaling armies of men to erect a mansion in the middle of all that natural beauty. He installed swimming pools and statuary, gilded Roman mosaics, vast Renaissance tapestries, and even a screening room that includes an armchair and lap robe for each viewer. The publisher poured his heart into every detail of the project, fanatically controlling the kingdom inside his castle. (Guided tours by reservation only, hearstcastle.org.)
Not far from Hearst Castle, we stayed at what appeared from the façade to be a standard roadside motel, but turned out to be surprisingly pleasant accommodations. Rooms at the Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort feature a fireplace, French windows, and even a complimentary box of delectable chocolates. And when we walked through the room and ventured out back, we stood on sand, just one small dune above the Pacific (cavalierresort.com).
Later we headed north on Highway One, which hangs off the mountainsides, overlooking the Pacific, sometimes with a sheer drop of 1,000 feet or more below. This stretch of highway is the only way to drive the length of Big Sur. In winter it may become impassable because of rainstorms, floods, fog, mudslides, or avalanches. Even in good weather, the highway is only two lanes and precariously winding. We passed a solitary cyclist laboring up a steep gradient and imagined him hurtling down the other side. The only other creatures for miles were grazing zebras, descendants of Hearst's private zoo.
Our destination was the private kingdom of another contributor to the Big Sur mystique, Helmuth Deetjen, who emigrated from Norway in the 1920s, leaving behind a mysterious past as an engineer, an artist, and possibly something shadier. He and his wife settled high above the sea in a little redwood canyon, in a cabin he constructed with his own hands from scavenged local wood. On occasion the couple put up passersby in their chicken coop because until the highway was completed in 1937, there was no way a person could safely travel in the dark. Gradually he built a cluster of one- and two-story rustic cabins, most with wood burning stoves or fireplaces; he also built the legend of "Grandpa" Deetjen, a curmudgeon who loved cheap red wine, pretty women (the legend hints at Garbo), music, and solitude. When he died in 1972, the place was taken over by the Preservation Foundation, which has gradually added heat, electricity, and indoor showers while maintaining for this national historic site what Mr. Neeb calls "the myth of nostalgia."
Deetjen's has no televisions, radios, or phones, and cell phone service is nonexistent. Instead visitors can hike, surf, or kayak, although the currents can be dangerous. The inn has a cozy restaurant and we stayed two nights, eating marvelous Pacific fish dinners served with local wines, and serious pancake breakfasts (deetjens.com).
Perched high on the mountain, 10 minutes north, is the restaurant Nepenthe, founded in 1949 by Californians Lolly and Bill Fassett, who with their five young children made construction a family project. Nepenthe is a local hangout with fine fare — a dessert of berries gives new meaning to "pie in the sky" — but the main attraction is the place itself. At the very top, a glass-enclosed dining room encircles a huge freestanding hearth, and outside, patios and terraces face the sea (nepenthebigsur.com).
The charming town of Carmel is at the north end of Big Sur. In the late 1700s, Father Junipero Serra trudged thousands of miles through unfamiliar landscape between Carmel and Mexico, establishing California's string of mission churches. The stone church at Carmel, with its gardens and sea view, was his favorite. We made a detour to visit another of Father Junipero's missions, at San Juan Bautista. With its adobe walls painted in colorful designs, the church has been in continuous use since 1797. In the nave, each December, El Teatro Campesino performs a musical re-enactment— in Spanish and Aztec — of a miracle that the Virgin Mary performed for a simple Mexican peasant.