I wrote this article for Zagat, originally published September 4, 2015. The article and all photos are by Virginia Miller.
For many, Big Sur is a spiritual place: that sparsely populated coastline of Central California cradled by the Santa Lucia Mountains, with redwoods and dramatic cliffs lining the Pacific. Being as remote (and stunning) as it is, restaurants are few, and they aren’t exactly food lover’s destinations save for pricey fine-dining options, like Sierra Mar or Ventana Inn (we covered their $20 million dollar revamp last year). Similarly, hotels attached to each of those places come with steep price tags. Here are a few different ways do Big Sur without breaking the bank.
Staying in Big Sur typically entails shelling out for a pricey hotel or going the low-budge camping route. But more recently, a middle ground has emerged with options in the $200$350 a night range. Glen Oaks Big Sur boasts retro-eco flair, with a number of housing options, including these charming, cozy cottages. The cabins (pictured: Big Sur Cabin with twin clawfoot tubs on its enclosed patio) down by the river are nestled among ancient redwoods, protected and quiet, each with individual fire pits and s’mores sets. Here you can enjoy the benefits of camping but with snug, modern rooms and heated bathroom floors. Adirondack chairs dot the woods and Glen Oaks’ private stretch of river so you have plenty of spots to sit and read or reflect uninterrupted.
47080 CA-1, Big Sur; 831-667-2105
Up the hill on Highway 1, Glen Oaks’ Adobe Motor Lodge is a converted 1957 lodge with 16 eco-friendly rooms complete with microwave and mini-fridge, Jenga and Scrabble sets and yoga instruction cards.
47080 CA-1, Big Sur; 831-667-2105
For food lovers, Glen Oaks Big Sur is also home to Big Sur Roadhouse open to all on Highway One but an easy jaunt through the woods if you’re staying at one of the cabins or across the street if you’re at the Motor Lodge. Here, you’ll find high-quality food from chef Brendan Esons in a comfortable setting without tasting-menu expense.
There is a range of international and local wines (try a crisp Folk Machine Riesling from the Santa Lucia Highlands) and California state beers on draft, best enjoyed from this patio with fire pits under a full moon or near the indoor fireplace when it’s chilly.
Note the specials often heavy on fresh seafood at Big Sur Roadhouse, like a gorgeous yellowtail crudo with Asian pears (pictured) or Marin wild king salmon over saffron risotto. Regular menu highlights include plump, sautéed prawns ($16) on olive oilfried white bread made in-house, laden with Big Sur heirloom tomatoes and feta cheese (like a glorified, California version of Texas toast) or ridiculously good, free-range chicken ($28) over wild rice, stuffed with macadamia nuts and dried stone fruits in an anise ginger broth. Save room for housemade ice creams in changing flavors like buttered popcorn or lemon poppyseed.
47080 CA-1, Big Sur; 831-667-2370
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Luxurious sunset: sipping beers and cocktails (generally $18 each) from the Sierra Mar with that breathtaking cliffside view.
Post Ranch Inn, 47900 CA-1, Big Sur; 831-667-2800
Reserve ahead for popular weekend brunch at Big Sur Bakery, which is cozy inside but roomier outside with communal tables.
You can walk into the cafe area for Acme coffee and pastries to-go or dine in for a glass of funky, dry Vigneto Saetti Lambrusco ($11) and other natural wines paired with the popular three egg, two cheese and bacon breakfast pizza ($24; pictured).
47540 CA-1, Big Sur; 831-667-0520
Nepenthe is famed for its cliffside views and famous visitors including Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Peep the same casual view at the order-at-the-counter Cafe Kevah downstairs with an expansive deck. It’s not really about the food here (think old-school breakfast burritos and uninspired egg dishes) but that invigorating view is worth a stop for coffee and baked goods.
48510 CA-1, Big Sur; 831-667-2345
Despite the narrow, difficult road to drive down to the beach, no visit is complete without seeing the sun set from Big Sur’s magical Pfeiffer Beach.
Choose an alternate inland (rather than coastal) route home after you pass through Carmel into Carmel Valley, if only for lunch or brunch at Lokal, hidden in a strip with a menu that belies its gourmet sensibilities. Besides killer duck-fat fries and craft beers on draft for only $3.50 a glass, chef Brendan Jones turns out fantastic, generous salads like a twist on an Italian panzanella salad ($17) packed with perfect tomatoes and watermelon in summer or one of the best B.L.T.s ($14; add the avocado and make it a BLAT) you’ll ever have.
13762 Center St., Carmel Valley; 831-659-5886