Three miles south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the New Age Esalen Institute (888/837-2536) takes its name from the Esselen Native Americans who were wiped out by European colonizers. Founded in the early 1960s by free-thinking Stanford University graduates inspired by countercultural pioneers like Gregory Bateson and Alan Watts, and set on a breathtaking cliff-top site overlooking a 180-degree coastal panorama, Esalen offers a variety of religious, philosophical, and psychological workshops, but most visitors are drawn to its incredible set of natural hot springs (open to the public 1am-3am, $30 per person, reservations required), right above the ocean. Call for information on overnight “personal retreats,” or to make reservations for massages or the hot tubs.
The southern reaches of the Big Sur coast are drier and more rugged, offering bigger vistas but fewer stopping places than the northern half. The road winds along the cliffs, slowing down every 10 miles or so for each of three gas station-café-motel complexes, which pass for towns on the otherwise uninhabited coast. The northernmost of these, 9 miles south of Esalen and 25 miles south of Big Sur village, is Lucia Lodge (831/667-2708 or 866/424-4787, $200 and up), which has wonderful ocean views, a small restaurant, and 10 creaky cabins.
High on a hill just south of Lucia, marked by a slender black cross, the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage (831/667-2456, $135 and up) is open to interested outsiders as a silent retreat. Rates include private rooms and veggie meals. The mix of contemplative solitude and natural beauty is hard to beat.