California’s Central Coast

Steeped in history, California’s Central Coast is the stuff of the American myth. A clutch of classic hotels, newly invigorated, provide the perfect springboard from which to explore its beauty, says Maria Shollenbarger

The Carmel Highlands seen from the Point Lobos State Reserve on California’s Central Coast
The Carmel Highlands seen from the Point Lobos State Reserve on California’s Central Coast | Image: Visit California

Welcome to Steinbeck country. Or perhaps it’s Ansel Adams country. But then, it could be Oprah country.

The lounge area at Ventana Big Sur
The lounge area at Ventana Big Sur

California’s Central Coast, a native will tell you, is all this and more. It has long attracted the wealthy, the wacky, the ambitious and the ascetic, and inspired poets, writers and artists. Take Steinbeck: the coast’s hay-coloured hills and rocky, kelp-strewn shores are protagonists of his fiction, as richly articulated as Of Mice and Men’s Lennie and George. Henry Miller spent 18 years living in Big Sur, in what is now Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shot part of their 1965 film The Sandpiper. Adams and his contemporary Edward Weston made their names with iconic photographs of this shoreline’s severe beauty and pewter light.

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If the Golden State represents some of the most deeply held tenets of the American Dream – with its pioneers, wild frontiers, outsized nature and freedom to fly one’s flag – then this coast, which spans 300-odd miles from Santa Barbara in the south to Santa Cruz in the north, is California distilled to its most dazzling signifiers: towering mountains, vast ocean, unfettered vistas belonging to every man. As in very few places in the world – South Africa’s Western Cape, maybe, or Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains – “majestic” is a descriptor that can be deployed here with abandon. It’s not for nothing that the Central Coast’s main artery, the Pacific Coast Highway, is one of the world’s most famous road trips.

Bixby Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway
Bixby Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway | Image: Visit California

Politicians and entertainment-industry figures have long called Santa Barbara and neighbouring Montecito their (second) home. Along with the late Reagans, there is Arianna Huffington (a one-time gubernatorial candidate, long before she Huffington Posted); as well as Oprah, there are the Jolie-Pitts and a number of others, who succeed in keeping low profiles because there are just enough of their ilk around to render them slightly commonplace. Santa Barbara is small and architecturally uniform, its galleries, cafés and surprisingly chic shops fitted into pleasing Spanish‑colonial façades along an easily navigable grid of streets. But it, too, is surrounded by an embarrassment of natural attractions, from the wind‑buffeted wilderness of the Northern Channel Islands, a boat ride away, to the vineyards on the hills of Santa Maria that produce California’s top pinot noirs.

Ventana Big Sur
Ventana Big Sur

In the mid‑20th century, when A-list stars would escape to these environs from Hollywood, there were two hotels of choice: San Ysidro Ranch and El Encanto. The former is deeply venerated, if also older and further out of town; its 41 cottages and suites sit in the shadow of the Santa Ynez mountains, in the upper reaches of Montecito. Ty Warner acquired it in 2000 and injected a robust amount into a soft but comprehensive renovation, which brought it back into favour with Southern California’s great and good.

Sierra Mar restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn
Sierra Mar restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn | Image: Kodiak Greenwood

El Encanto, which reopened in March 2013 after a seven-year closure (and flying the Belmond flag, formerly Orient-Express), is now having its turn in the spotlight. Dating from 1918, it became, from the early 1930s and for some decades thereafter, the haunt of a host of marquis names (Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were particularly fond of it). By the 1990s, though, the face it presented – low bungalows clad in white planking, brick terraces, wood trellises draped in climbing roses, all set into the eucalyptus-stippled hillside – had become tired. In 2004, the then Orient-Express Hotels acquired the property for a tidy $26m, closed it and set about a $108m renovation. To the novice eye, besides the addition of some suites where the tennis courts used to be, not much will have changed (but then, at a hotel that has consistently featured îles flottantes on its menu since the 1920s, perhaps that’s the point). A canny refresh of the interiors – some Spanish colonial revival style, some California Craftsman, with fizzy punctuation in the form of works by Damien Hirst and California-based abstract artist Charles Arnoldi – has given it just the energy boost it required to bring it into the year 2014 with its iconic bones, and status, intact. The laid-back, indoor-outdoor charm endures, with French doors thrown wide across the resort, and local wines served in the late afternoon on the big lawn that rolls down the hill in front of the main lodge. The addition of a beautiful spa and fitness centre, tucked below the same building, is a bonus; cycles are lined up on a terrace outside, and on a clear day, from the decks surrounding the elegant new infinity pool, you can see the Channel Islands etched precisely against the blue horizon.

Pfeiffer Beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Pfeiffer Beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park | Image: John Palmer/California State Parks

The true California magic, however – the drama of nature, the enduring bohemian allure – lies to the north. From Santa Barbara, the Pacific Coast Highway briefly traces a route inland through grassy hills peppered with Spanish oaks, before emerging fully at Morro Bay. From here it’s a straight and breathtaking shot, hugging the shore, past the artsy village of Cambria, past Hearst Castle – commissioned in 1919 by William Randolph Hearst and crowning a hill high above Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, on the vast ranch to which Hearst family members still repair for downtime – and up into Big Sur.

Belmond El Encanto hotel in Santa Barbara
Belmond El Encanto hotel in Santa Barbara | Image: Macduff Everton

This is great American wilderness. The Santa Lucia mountain range tumbles abruptly and spectacularly into the ocean here, from heights of more than 1,500m. Around 70 per cent of this area is designated state or national parkland, and is at the centre of one of the country’s largest marine sanctuaries, extending from Marin down to Cambria – a shore length of about 276 miles, with a vigilantly policed seaward boundary some 30 miles out. It’s by virtue of this vigilance that nature thrives. Huge populations of pinnipeds – sea lions, elephant seals, Pacific harbour seals – proliferate (along with the great white sharks that hunt them; they are protected here under the Endangered Species Act). There are almost a hundred species of indigenous sea birds, and the full catalogue of quintessential Californian flora, from coastal redwoods and live oaks to chaparral and Mexican sage. In October and April whales migrate past, en route to and from breeding grounds in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez; one can sit on the terrace at Nepenthe restaurant, high up on a mountain (now a hippy-fun restaurant/boutique/café – the house burger is legendary), and watch them pass, blowing and breaching. The climate changes to often spectacular aesthetic effect: offshore marine layers roll in from the Pacific, pushing or drawing walls of fog that erase the land’s contours with unnerving speed, shrouding the panorama in dense grey-white mystery; two hours later, the sun will burn through it, the hills rematerialising intact. Locals will tell you that you could drive this stretch of road every day of the year, and it would never look quite the same.

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There is no shortage of places to stay here, and all represent variations on Californian hospitality, ranging from the quaint to the zany. They include Treebones Resort, a clutch of glampers’ yurts that trade in light‑footprint sustainability, and Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, whose cabin-like rooms have the corner on funky, out-of-time charm. (While they are far from luxurious, Deetjen’s restaurant is a dream; housed in the original owner’s mullion-windowed workshop, it is the epitome of rustic, crowded with antique farm tables, its wainscoted walls hung with mismatched china plates – a humble setting that belies its surprisingly refined, delicious cuisine.)

The two hotels positioned ideally for exploiting Big Sur’s assets, and the most exclusive, by a wide margin, are located directly across the highway from each other. The Post Ranch Inn opened in 1992 on a 100-acre parcel of a vast homestead owned by the Post family, whose scion, William Brainard Post, established one of California’s first coastal grazing grounds. It boasts what has to be one of the most scenographic settings in hotel‑dom: some 360m above sea level, at the edge of a bluff, the gold and alpine-green folds of the Santa Lucias behind it, the vast expanse of the ocean following the curve of the earth before it. The inn itself is decorated with offbeat sculptures in various metals and painted woods, oriental and dhurrie rugs, and nondescript, vaguely Craftsman-inspired furniture (it falls to the views beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass-paned walls to do the dazzling). The clientele consists mostly of affluent escapees from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and farther afield. Many of them are repeat visitors; some undoubtedly find the romance factor is greatly enhanced by the strict 18-years-and-over policy. The inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar, still packs a punch 22 years after opening, and is a must-book-ahead destination for non-hotel guests.

Just across the road is Ventana Big Sur. Ventana is, in many ways, a lower-key proposition than it neighbour; it’s both older (opened in 1975) and more historically intriguing (it was commissioned by the producer-screenwriter Lawrence Spector and designed by the California-based representational artist-architect Kipp Stewart; Spector also bought the 243 acres Ventana stands on from the Post family, and for years it was a weekend destination for his sometimes raucous industry friends). Whereas the Post Ranch Inn leans out vertiginously over the edge of the North American continent, Ventana is nestled safely in the cradle of the Santa Lucias; its views of the horizon are softened by stands of conifers and rounded hills carpeted in tall yellow-gold grasses. It has always had its charm, but its cachet was reduced with the arrival of its somewhat shoutier competitor, which quickly lured away glamorous guests eager to test out its much-promoted restaurant and, frankly, superior spa.

In 2008, however, Ventana suffered significant damage in a fire and its Chicago-based owners launched a rolling renovation across the entire property, from design to guest experiences, which has recently been completed. There are still old-time aspects, but the sense of overall elevation is tangible. Some formerly dim rooms are now suffused with light, in a combination of whitewash, travertine and local stone; all others have been completely refurbished down to the redwood decks, many with hot tubs and hammocks. Breakfast is served on the terrace in front of the main building: a bounty of organic dairy, house-made cereals and sustainably farmed California fruits, enjoyed in the shade of huge umbrellas, while raptors and sea birds spin lazily below amid the crowns of firs. There are daily guided walks through the resort’s extensive private forest with its own staff naturalists, and yoga in the evenings in a hilltop pavilion; the new spa director brought in the cult Kerstin Florian line of skincare last spring. The latest endeavour is the buzz-generating installation in the restaurant of Iron Chef America regular and diehard New Yorker Paul Corsentino, who despite his corporate, media-savvy resumé (and some related scepticism among locals), is making waves with a menu of locally sourced goods, down to the crab and the fresh goat’s cheese.

From Ventana north to Monterey is a meandering route through something close to paradise. It only takes a few minutes to reach the (unmarked) turnoff to Pfeiffer Beach, where a single lane winds almost a mile-and-a-half downward through ancient forest, terminating in a boulder-strewn, primeval bay, one of the most photogenic places in a state that’s famous for them. Twenty-five minutes’ drive further on is Andrew Molera State Park, which harbours some of Big Sur’s best hiking, ranging from easy perambulations through eucalyptus groves to challenging ridge climbs. The Big Sur Bakery, set on the highway between Ventana and Monterey, is a cult destination among the world’s chefs and food critics; anyone passing in the morning hours would be remiss not to stop for a sampling of its breads and pastries.

After half an hour or so of winding, windy scenes, the mountains gradually smooth out into flatlands, culminating in Point Lobos, a rocky outcrop below the Carmel Highlands, forested with cypresses, its shoreline scalloped with dozens of pristine coves; this, now a State Natural Reserve, is where Adams shot some of his most renowned work. And just past Point Lobos are the towns of Carmel and Pebble Beach, which land you back firmly in Santa Barbara-style territory: majesty and bohemia surrender to streets lined with Range Rovers and faux-Tudor shop fronts. Wining, dining and retail pursuits will beckon; La Bicyclette is particularly good for brunch, and Casanova for a romantic dinner. But don’t be surprised if your mind lingers in the dappled light of the redwood forests or if the timeless sound of waves on stone persists in your consciousness, drowning out the clink and hum of civilisation.

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