In the great American tradition, let's head west to Ventana Big Sur, where the scenic switchbacks of California's coast pause on the edge of the Pacific. This fabled inn has fascinated the free of spirit ever since film producer Lawrence Spector built it four decades ago with the money from Easy Rider. Now an Alila Resort, it's got an Asian-accented spa, yoga classes and Japanese hot baths. But some things remain classically Californian: a gallery dedicated to local artists, a chef who serves up coastal cuisine, a whisper-quiet redwood forest and the same giant skies that have always starred above this remote stretch of wilderness. Your open road awaits...
243 forested acres
Japanese hot baths
Sunset ocean views
$75 resort credit for spa treatments, meals and drinks
In the know
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Start your day off with activity and rejuvenation: each morning, a free yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi class is held in the library at 8am. Explore the 243 acres of Ventana’s land and learn about the history of the area with a free guided hike that leaves from the lobby each morning at 10am
Bring your hiking shoes for the miles of trails on the grounds and in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but leave your walking stick and binoculars at home – each room comes equipped with both for your outdoor adventures.
Your plush bathrobe for wandering around the grounds, from the spa to the pool; hiking boots and yoga clothes for exploring crunchy Big Sur.
Mr and Mrs Smith reviews
The drive south from San Francisco along Highway One (aka the Pacific Coast Highway) is one of the world’s most glorious stretches of roadway. A cruise along this highway, as it hugs the coastline with right-on-the-edge-of-the-world ocean views, is worth a trip to the West Coast alone.
However, Mrs Smith and I also had other plans in mind for our California escape: a pre-baby retreat at Ventana Big Sur set deep in the woods of Big Sur.
The sun was setting just as we pulled up, and the scattering of low-rise timber buildings were lit up in glowing contrast to the darkening sky. Not a bad opening scene, although we were initially wary as we followed the parking signs leading us quite far downhill from the main lodge.
Thankfully a helpful porter, Mario, zoomed up in a golf cart to collect us. He ferried us not only to reception for check in, but then directly to our suite.
We’d booked the superior hot tub suite, which, as the name might suggest, had a sunken bathtub smack-dab in the middle of the floor (mindful of the California water crisis we skipped filling it). The spacious room – with a custom window seat and king-size bed – had everything we could want for, including a fireplace with easy-to-light wood packs.
Stepping out on our private balcony we noticed that the hot tub was already filled, so our water-crisis guilt did not stretch as far as to stop us from submerging ourselves in that for a spell. We eased into the warm water with drinks in hand and watched the stars appear overhead.
Hunger eventually kicked in, and we followed a forest trail for the pleasant 10-minute walk to the restaurant. Given that my wife was five-months pregnant, we were grateful when Mario reappeared with his golf cart to save us the walk at the end of the night. In fact, the hotel is happy to chauffeur you around the grounds in golf carts or further afield to nearby restaurants in Land Rovers.
Inside the restaurant there was a fire roaring in a stone hearth (very welcome as the temperature drops at night), and the wood-panelled interior was just as warm and inviting. The only design misstep was the temporary exhibition by a local artist adorning the walls. I’ve always felt that this kind of conceptualism is better suited to dedicated galleries rather than restaurants.
However, I managed to forget about all of this once our very friendly and knowledgeable server Lionel began bringing the dishes from the three-course tasting menu (there is also a five-course tasting menu and a la carte offerings) to our table.
We dined on local seafood – octopus and sardines among them – followed by house-made pasta with a lamb ragu and a decedent dessert. It was simply sublime.
The next morning (after one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in months thanks to that luxuriously comfy bed) we awoke full of ambition. We bounded off to an 8.30am yoga class in the library – another wonderful wood structure with a fire blazing in the fireplace – with a pro instructor.
Breakfast was served on the patio perched high up on a hill overlooking the coastline and the Pacific Ocean below. We didn’t think it possible, but it was even more delicious than the previous night’s dinner. I piled my plate with tasty bites from the generous spread of fruit, house-made granola, yoghurt and pastries, and ordered the ranchero-style eggs from the menu.
Following our feast, we joined up with a group heading out for a hike around the property. Greg, our informative guide, pointed out the vegetation, wildlife tracks (mountain lions!), and we even spotted a pod of migrating whales just beyond the ocean-facing bluff.
The walk culminated near the lobby in a tight circle of giant redwood trees, known as a fairy ring in Irish culture, where we sat for a few meditative moments of peace and quiet.
It’s shocking to think that we had room for another meal, but we made our way across the road to for lunch at the Post Ranch Inn, after which we declared our ambition spent. We recharged by lounging poolside, napping in hammocks and soaking in the Japanese bathhouses (there are two, and the one to the north end is clothing optional, which is the way to go).
The mellow afternoon was capped with a visit to the spa (of course). My masseuse seems to have been distracted, but my massage was pleasant enough. More importantly, my wife enjoyed a thoroughly relaxing prenatal massage.
That night we took advantage of the hotel’s car service and travelled one mile south to Deetjen’s, a wonderfully quaint old Norwegian-style inn with a seasonal menu that changes nightly. It’s a fixture in the area and a worthwhile trip for an evening out.
There are plenty of adventures – from cycling to hiking – to pursue for the actively inclined. However, happily using my wife’s pregnancy as an excuse, we ventured only as far as Pfeiffer Beach, roughly three miles north of the hotel. The huge rocks bursting out of the surf and the purple-hued sand make this an unusually beautiful place for a stroll or a picnic.
We stopped off for coffee and snacks at the Big Sur Bakery before returning to the hotel to reluctantly say our goodbyes. Serious soaks, walks in the woods, whale spotting and top-tier dining made the Ventana Inn a deeply satisfying rest stop before we continued our adventure south… oh, and into that parenthood thing beyond.
48123 Highway One, Big Sur, California 93920, United States
- Aerobics instruction
- Exercise gym
- Internet services
- On-Site parking
- Room service
Recently reimagined by pedigreed New York chef Paul Corsentino, the Sur House serves a regularly changing menu of imaginative, fresh Californian dishes inspired by the local bounty in a lodge-like dining room or on a breezy, ocean-view patio. Hungry diners can opt for the four-course chef’s tasting menu, though any dish – from a silky beet gazpacho to a buttery osso buco with local mushrooms – can be ordered à la carte. Lunch includes more casual options, such as a pulled chicken sandwich and a calamari and quinoa salad. An extensive international wine list (though we’d suggest choosing one of the excellent local California options) and some top-notch cocktails complement the cuisine. An extensive breakfast buffet of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, yoghurt, granola and the like is served in the restaurant as well. Note that the restaurant is a 10-minute walk from the rest of the hotel, though free golf-cart shuttle rides are available at any time.
If the fog hasn’t come in and brought a chill with it, nab one of the tables at the edge of the patio, with pure ocean views.
Breakfast is served from 7.30am to 10.30am, lunch from 11.30am to 4.30pm and dinner from 6pm to 9pm.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner can all be ordered to your room during the hours they are served in the restaurant.
At the front of the restaurant, the low-key bar serves both inventive and classic cocktails and an extensive wine list – perfect for an aperitif should you arrive before your reservation. Also, a wine and cheese hour is held in the Social House every afternoon from 4pm, so you can sample local California wines as the sun starts to set.
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