The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
Esalen and Lucia
Three miles south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the New Age Esalen Institute (55000 Hwy-1, 888/837-2536) takes its name from the native Esselen Indian tribe 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 1pm-3am), 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 (62400 Hwy-1, 831/667-2718, $150 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, is the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage (62475 Hwy-1, 831/667-2456, around $120 a night), 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.