The Carmel, California, poet Robert Jeffers once stated, “The noblest thing I have ever seen is Big Sur,” and we have to agree: Windswept cliffs and towering redwoods hover above the mighty Pacific Ocean. Then it all disappeared as fires and flooding forced locals into exile. When the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge begun to fail due to heavy winter storms coupled with devastating wild fires a year prior, government officials closed the stretch to begin an intensive eight-month reconstruction, with crews working six or seven days a week. On October 13, 2017, reopening brought much needed traffic back to this postcard-perfect region. As the community and engineering teams worked to reconnect the tourist-driven economy of Big Sur, many found that the seclusion helped to reestablish a sense of identity and purpose as they were forced to use ingenuity and teamwork to survive months of isolation. News of the reopening was a welcome relief for the small town of Big Sur, and as former residents of nearby Monterey, we were anxious to revisit this very special part of the country.
Big Sur is a sparsely populated unincorporated area of Northern California with some of the most incredible coastline in the world. Winding our way along the pulse-quickening narrow stretch of Highway 1 gave us a deep appreciation for all who have worked so tirelessly in re-opening the highway. We looked forward to seeing the iconic landmarks and inns that make up this intriguing area and to see firsthand how residents coped with their island-like existence. Known for gorgeous campgrounds, inspirational hiking trails, and secluded beaches, Big Sur averages a million tourists per year on along this two-lane stretch of highway.
After our awe-inspiring coastal drive, we stop by the Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant, established in 1934 when Ellen Brown opened her home along the Big Sur River to serve meals and a slice of apple pie to travelers. As it was so many years ago, this place embodies Brown’s hospitality with its rustic pine lodge décor, roaring fireplace, and vintage photos of area development. General manager Rick Aldinger informed us that he was relieved be in business once again but also added, “Our forced seclusion did give us time to reevaluate how we were going to do things going forward and helped us to reset and reflect.”
We took our seat near the blazing river-stone fireplace on a damp Halloween afternoon and were ready to try some heartwarming dishes. The winter beet salad proved to be a hearty autumnal dish with rosy beet chunks, delicate slices of juicy pear topped with generous amounts of spicy arugula, pungent goat cheese all tossed with zesty lemon vinaigrette topped with crunchy candied walnuts. BS BLT, classic sliced California sourdough bread with smoked Applewood bacon, locally grown tomatoes, lettuce, and avocado with zingy chipotle aioli, satisfied our hunger pains. The servers were setting tables adorned with freshly cut Jack O’ Lanterns, indicating it was time for Halloween celebrations. Tonight we were here to partake in the Halloween Bal Masque celebration at the legendary Nepenthe restaurant, but first we needed to check into our accommodations at the Glen Oaks Inn.
We had booked one of the inn’s ultra-modern cabins nestled in the Redwood forest. Opened in 1957, Glen Oaks Inn offers contemporary luxury meets Mother Nature, by utilizing organic, recycled, and renewable materials. Turning down a secluded road shrouded by dense forest, we found the Redwood Grove. Inside were Redwood bark-tiled wall coverings, European birch-style furnishings, and an efficient kitchenette painted in bright orange with lime green accents but the outside world beckoned. The fall foliage glittered with vibrant oranges and yellows, and invigorating fresh air filled our lungs. Just as we veered down the leaf-strewn path we came upon the second largest Redwood in Big Sur, just steps from our cabin.
Unpacking our masks and costumes, we anticipated an evening of fun and celebration for this annual event dedicated to fundraising for the Big Sur Volunteer Firefighter Brigade. Eager to get the party started, we donned our masks and drove a short way to the restaurant.
Opened in 1949, Nepenthe has always attracted creatives, vagabonds, and seekers. The word nepenthe is derived from Greek, meaning “no sorrow,” and who could be unhappy here with jaw-dropping views of the Pacific surrounded by the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains? Just below the restaurant, The Phoenix gift shop sells an extensive array of local artisan wares. A cast of Halloween characters came streaming in: a 10-foot jellyfish, scantily clad maidens, and ghostly ghouls. The beat of the DJ’s records put our costumed tribe onto the dance floor while a Balinese snake charmer captivated the crowd with her boa constrictor.