A MAGNET FOR HOLLYWOOD STARS, POETS, MUSICIANS, TECH PRODIGIES AND NEW-AGERS, BIG SUR ON THE PACIFIC COAST IS A REGION OF ELEMENTAL BEAUTY. A HUMBLE INN TURNED RESORT, COMPLETE WITH GLAMPSITES, IS A PERFECT PLACE TO FEEL THE MAGIC.
They had skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold … there was ever the unfathomable silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars.”
So wrote the American novelist Henry Miller in the 1950s about Big Sur, the much-mythologised stretch of California coast where he lived for some 18 years in the middle of the last century. Much of his work contains such testaments to its singular beauty, a beauty that overwhelmed and inspired him in equal measure. “It was here in Big Sur that I first learned to say ‘amen’,” reads a sign at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library, an unassuming cabin tucked in a forested gully off the Pacific Coast Highway, the two-lane interstate built in 1937 that follows the coast as it stretches some 150km south to north, from the artists’ colony of Cambria up to the seaside village of Carmel. The road is as iconic as Big Sur itself. Like a long asphalt ribbon, it wraps itself round the flanks of Miller’s exalted hills – actually the Santa Lucia mountains, which rise to 1500m before tumbling spectacularly down to the Pacific – and weaves through the deep dappled shade of Big Sur’s California redwoods. It cuts through 65 million-year-old boulders of granite and limestone; it crosses soaring, elegant steel bridges, and runs parallel to high siltstone bluffs along which cattle graze placidly – sometimes under a vast blue sky, sometimes barely discernible through the curtains of cottony mist that roll in from the ocean; sometimes both within the space of 10 minutes.
In the later years of my childhood, my family and I commuted many weekends from Los Angeles, where I grew up, to our vacation house near Carmel – often along this very highway; and I can say with certitude that having Big Sur on your doorstep doesn’t make you anything like blasé about its grandeur. Its inimitable confluence of sky, mountains and sea has never looked precisely the same way twice, on the hundreds of times I have driven or hiked along it. It is one of those rare places on the planet in which words like “majestic” and “sacred” reclaim their intended resonance. Hence its allure for travellers from the world over – seekers, scribes, and sybarites alike. Hence Miller’s amen.
That unadulterated beauty, coupled with Big Sur’s physical proximity to Hollywood, secured its popularity with A-Listers long ago. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor filmed parts of The Sandpiper at Nepenthe – the cliffside restaurant that since 1949 has drawn a mix of literary and cinematic luminaries, along with a healthy constituency of dropouts and hippies – and were reportedly smitten. So was Clint Eastwood, who bought a home in Carmel, and later became its mayor. Musicians from the Beach Boys to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have retreated to these mountains in search of inspiration (or perhaps just to party); the Miller library’s shady deck has drawn Arcade Fire, Philip Glass and others to play low-key sets. The likes of Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Lillian Ross, and the poet Robinson Jeffers joined Miller in making a protagonist of Big Sur in their writing. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, two giants of 20th-century photography, earned their fame in part by immortalising its crashing, treacherous surf, its bent, wind-conquered cypresses, and the gunmetal and pewter tones of the ocean in winter.