A Sur thing

I’d seen pictures and heard the high praise, but it wasn’t until I took what will now be known as The Best Shower of My Life did I realize the true expanse, the allure and the unparalleled beauty of Big Sur.

Before The Best Shower of My Life, which I’ll get to, I wasn’t even sure what Big Sur was—sorta like how I wasn’t sure whether Joshua Tree was an actual tree, which I wrote about for Fodor’s last fall.

Was Big Sur a state park? A town? A road? All of the above? How would we know when we got there? Is there a sign? A border-line?

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Big Sur: South of Carmel, but North of San Luis Obispo

I quickly learned that the one constant about Big Sur is that it’s hard to comprehend or explain without experiencing it first-hand. In just three days, I’d only lightly scratch its fascinating surface. But in doing so, I can now without a doubt confirm the following:

It’s Shangri-La on a coastline.

It’s all dressed up in head-to-toe clouds and rocks and twisty, curvy asphalt roads with absolutely nowhere—and yet everywhere—to go.

It’s magic without the “poof!” and smoke and mirrors.

It’s “ooh” and “ahh” and “wow” and “so pretty” and every other adjective and jaw-dropping reaction you can think to use describe what’s in front, next to and behind you.

More specifics, less poetry, you say?

It’s a town with a state park, a post office and a general store.

It’s where hummingbirds hover midair over hibiscus plants.

It’s where waves crashing into rocks and the “whoosh” of cars passing is the silence.

It’s where condors soar overhead as frequently as pigeons poop on NYC fire escapes.

It’s where the night sky is full of twinkle twinkle little stars.

It’s where there are more monarch butterflies than people.

Of course, that last part can’t really be true as Big Sur is much-frequented by Americans and international visitors alike, whether just passing through or staying for a few days to experience its varied treasures as we did. But—and here’s part of the no-“poof!” magic—because of its winding roads, the campgrounds, rustic lodges and fancy-pants boutique hotels that house said people are all tucked away and out of sight, making it possible to both hide from the world, but be on the edge of it with nothing but a monarch butterfly at the same time.

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Big Sur

It’s also both hard and easy to do nothing in Big Sur.

Hard, because of all the fantastic hikes or natural landscapes literally just around the next curve. Turn down an unmarked road and find this beach (which was technically closed because of the government shutdown, but…shhhhhh)

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Foiled?

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Nah! Unspoiled!

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Warning signs

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…that Lauren didn’t listen to!

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This guy.

Or pull over and park on Highway One’s shoulder to see McWay Falls, where the Pacific is mysteriously greener and bluer than it is just a ways down the road…

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McWay Falls

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Sunny days

Hard, because you can’t avoid Big Sur Bakery, which ain’t just a bakery, but rather a place to order a giant almond croissant with powdered sugar to-go, or a butter lettuce salad with Meyer lemon dressing to eat in the log cabin-meets-West Village dining room.

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Not just a bakery.

Goodies at the Bakery

Goodies to take-away

Can’t very well avoid a restaurant (or several) that hang over a cliff either, and Nepenthe is pure evidence of why. We went for a sunset sip of wine and for the most insane shrimp BLT sandwich for lunch, all the while looking out into this:

View from the top

View from the top

Skipping the historic Deetjen’s, where we dined on a veggie cassoulet and organic chicken by candlelight in a rustic, yet cozy dining room that felt like Grandma’s, is also enough to give anyone a serious case of FOMO.

But now’s where I explain why it could be easy to skip all of the above and do nothing…

Because you could wake up to this just outside your door:

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Sugar Shack strawberries growing on the roof

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The kitchen at Sugar Shack where we did not cook so much.

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Entrance to Sugar Shack, our home for three nights in Big Sur.

You can brew a pot of coffee, put on a hoodie and some thick wool socks and not move. You can open up your laptop—sans WiFi—and find a new shade of green each time you look around at your surroundings.

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If you check in here, you may very well not want to leave.

So, we did a little of both. We hiked, ate and managed to sneak in a visit to the Henry Miller Library, a quirky cabin full of books and notes and posters devoted to the groundbreaking writer who lived and loved in Big Sur. But we also sat back on chairs at the Sugar Shack to star gaze, began a few books and unrolled a yoga mat for a bit of meditative flow, allowing us—individually— to really inhale Big Sur.

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It’s Miller time.

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The coolest bookshop devoted to one fine writer.

And finally, on our last full day, we experienced Esalen, site of the now infamous Best Shower of My Life. For those unfamiliar with Esalen, as I was before my Aunt Jonnie began singing its praises a few years ago, it’s 120 acres of “fertile land carved out between mountain and ocean, blessed by a cascading canyon stream and hot mineral springs gushing out of a seaside cliff” (so says its Web site), where people come from all over the world to exist within the aforementioned while learning about themselves and gaining perspective and guidance on this little thing we lead called life. Oh, and to get naked and sit in those hot mineral springs that “gush out of seaside cliff.”

The thing with Esalen, however, is that doing any of the above without reservations months in advance is hard. Like, Fort Knox hard. You can’t just drop in. In fact, the only way to visit Esalen is to either participate in a (pricey) personal retreat or one of their dozens of varied workshops, volunteer on the farm and garden (which involves a lengthy application process) or book a massage. The latter gives you temporary access to the baths an hour before and after the 75-minute, $165 treatment.

VIP: Very Important Place

VIP: Very Important Place

Since our trip was all rather last minute, getting a massage was really our only option (#FirstWorldProblems) and we only scored appointments because I called back on the day a woman told me to, despite her also telling me “maybe not to bother because appointments rarely open up.” And yet, the Best Shower of My Life happened immediately following the Best Massage of My Life.

The closest thing I have to a photo is this:

Baths off to the left...

Baths off to the left…

Unfortunately, that doesn’t show much, other than a small facility on a cliff. But take my word for it: Inside, and quite literally on the edge of, said facility is where the magic happens. It’s where various tubs and basins are filled with heated water and nekkid people bathing and contemplating and reading and just…doing nothing. Easy is right. The massage I received from a man named Oliver was pretty damn close to perfection. There wasn’t a spot he missed, right up to my armpits.

As for that shower, which you’re asked to use before getting into the tubs, there wasn’t even any shampoo or conditioner. Just some lavender scented liquid soap, several shower heads on two opposing concrete walls (this is a communal situation, people) and the piece de resistence, a sliding glass “wall” that opened to the world. Truly. Just one step to my right and…big drop! Just above it, the sea melted into the sky, making it hard to tell the water from the clouds. I was, as Lady Gaga sings, actually on the Edge of Glory. While those Fire Island showers are pretty damn special, this was…just…wow.

My stay in Big Sur was brief in quantity, but sprawling in quality. Still, surely there’s more I didn’t capture or can’t properly articulate, so I’ll leave you with a poem I found tacked to a wall in a random cabin next to Deetjen’s cause, well, Big Sur is the type of place where poems are tacked to random walls in random cabins. Sometimes you find what you’re not looking for, right?

Ride past those final, fleeting hints of man
beyond the habitations and the hungers
—and then walk…

Walk until silence becomes the canvas
a principle rather than the exception

Where even to think
even to desire
would be to shatter that silence
and render it absurd
—and then sit…

Sit and breathe
and know the aloneness
the at-one-ness
until

it almost consumes you
and then you might
—you might—
see
Big Sur

8 thoughts on “A Sur thing

  1. Many years ago and with two best friends we did this trip…our first as independent women (we were 18) and you brought the whole experience back for me to savor again. We did not explore some of the wonderful places you wrote about which means, a return is more then necessary. Thank you

  2. You’re absolutely ready for Sunset magazine and all Travel Zines, hit the road running girl, thou art a Travel writer, place your energies here, careful of sidetracking, NY Times Travel Section?

  3. Pingback: My 13.5 Best Days of 2013 |

  4. I happened onto Big Sur by accident. Like you I did not expect a spiritual response to its environment. It is not a place you visit. It is a place you explore.

  5. great tribute to one of my favorite places in the world! I stumbled on your blog through google, trying to find the poet for that lovely poem I also discovered on my most recent trip to Big Sur.Just FYI, the springs at Esalen are actually also accessible to the public through their night bath, from 1 am until 3am. It’s positiviely one of the coolest experiences of my life, bathing in the hot springs in the middle of the night with the waves crashing down below you. I highly recommend it 🙂 http://www.esalen.org/page/public-night-hot-springs-access-831-667-3047

    • Hi Susan! Thanks for stopping by! Yes, we knew about the nighttime baths. That would’ve been our plan if the massages didn’t come through, but luckily enough they did. It was bliss, I tell ya! But I’ll be back. And I hope you’ll come visit me on my blog again!

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