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Spring Travel: Natural Wonders

Off-the-grid exploration in Big Sur, California

Giant redwoods, ocean views, hot springs, and a chance at rejuvenation await at this Northern California spot.

At Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach, you’ll find the so-called keyhole rock and purple sands.

Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

At Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach, you’ll find the so-called keyhole rock and purple sands.

PFEIFFER BEACH is one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in Northern California — but getting there isn’t easy. It lies just off Highway 1 in Big Sur, a rugged and isolated stretch of coastline 150 miles south of San Francisco. Even once you’ve located the unmarked road leading down to the beach, as I do on a drizzly Saturday in December, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Specifically: One and a half miles ahead, I encounter a white placard marked “Hazardous River Crossing.” Just behind it, the road dips. During drier months, the topographical change may not mean much, but today the roadway is interrupted by a 20-foot-wide swift-moving stream, its depth unknown.

I consider gunning the engine of my rented Chevy and driving on through, Dukes of Hazzard style. Up ahead, though, I see a more prudent couple have parked their car and removed their shoes to ford the stream. (Apparently chivalry isn’t dead: The boyfriend piggybacks the girlfriend across.) I follow their lead, parking, de-shoeing, and crossing the knee-deep rivulet. Up ahead, past the parking lot, I reach the beach. The sand is a luminescent purple, the color drawn out of the rocky cliffs above. Tangles of thick, ropy seaweed dot the beach. It’s too cool to swim, and this area has notorious riptides, so I walk north, enjoying the sound of the surf and a break in the rain.

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Quiet walks, cool air, and the opportunity for reflection: For decades, these have been the primary draws of this slice of California. Big Sur isn’t really a town — it’s more a collection of state parks, beaches, and simple storefronts that straddles Highway 1 as it winds 90 miles south from Carmel-by-the-Sea, a ritzy enclave near the Pebble Beach golf course, to the old Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Cellphone service is sporadic, and the roadway is often blocked by rock slides or downed trees. Those elements combine to give Big Sur an off-the-grid feel. It’s a destination that demands a flexible itinerary, so if the road is blocked for an hour, there’s no harm done.

***

BIG SUR IS ALSO KNOWN for its water — not just the ocean, but geothermal hot springs and mountain-fed waterfalls. The rainy season stretches from December to March — and apparently it has begun just as I start the two-hour-plus drive down from San Francisco. I’d planned to spend a solo day and a half hiking and exploring the region, but clicking the windshield wipers to high, I spend much of the drive contemplating drier backup plans.

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By the time I arrive, however, the rain has stopped, so I seize the opportunity to hike. Big Sur has nine different state parks and countless hiking options, but I opt for Pfeiffer Big Sur (831-667-2315, www.parks.ca.gov), a 1,000-acre expanse with a large base lodge. Guidebooks list its Valley View Trail as an easy 3-mile jaunt among giant redwoods. In fact, several stretches are steep and rocky, and I reach the top winded and sweaty. Ordinarily this climb rewards hikers with a spectacular view toward the ocean, but today all I see is fog. I loop south, though, and find a different payoff: a great view of Pfeiffer Falls.

After an unremarkable lunch (tacos) at the Big Sur Tap House (831-667-2197, bigsurtaphouse.com), I drive south to the Esalen Institute (888-837-2536, esalen.org). Esalen was founded in the early 1960s and bills itself as “the birthplace of the human potential movement”; early guests included Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Hunter S. Thompson. Today the center contains a campus of cottages around a dining hall and offers a mix of workshops like Psychedelic Medicines and the Mind, Conscious Grandmothering, and Self-Hypnosis: Learning and Teaching.

Visitors who prefer R & R to self-actualization can book an afternoon massage. I arrive an hour early and follow a path down to a concrete and teak bathhouse containing a changing area and showers. To the left are the “silent” tubs (no talking); to the right are the open-air “quiet” tubs, where guests chat. All are fed by the springs. In keeping with Esalen’s hippie vibe, the dress code is “clothing optional” (during my visit, only employees are clothed), and my fellow soakers include an organic goat cheese farmer. The stone-lined tubs are decidedly low tech — to make it warmer, you remove a stopper to let in more of the vaguely sulfurous water — but the setting is spectacular. Sixty feet below, the Pacific slaps against the shoreline, and there’s a near 180-degree ocean view. At one point, the woman sitting beside me pulls out binoculars to watch for whales.

Eventually my soak is interrupted by Christiane, my massage therapist. She leads me to a room in the bathhouse with three massage tables. The room’s western side is open to the Pacific, which crashes rhythmically just below. Wrapped in a sheet, I clamber onto the table. The unhurried 75-minute session, which costs $165, feels twice the length of a standard hourlong massage, but it’s also differentiated by the technique. Esalen has its own brand of massage, which features long strokes, deep pressure, and relaxing stretches. At one point, it feels as if there are three hands working on my back; I sneak a glance and see Christiane has her leg on the table, holding my arm in place while kneading me with both hands. Later, she climbs on the table and uses her weight to press my hips into a deep stretch. Like a top-notch fireworks show that fools you into thinking this blast has to be the grand finale (but it’s not), every time I think the treatment is going to end, it just gets better. Afterward I return to the tubs; by now the sun is down, and even the “quiet” tubs are silent but for the sound of the waves below.

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WHEN IT COMES TO food and lodging, Big Sur has two distinct flavors: extremely high end or affordable/rustic. The former category includes Post Ranch Inn (831-667-2200, postranchinn.com), a cliff-top resort with 39 rooms, a full spa, and nightly rates that go from $595 to $2,485, and the Ventana Inn & Spa (831-667-2331, ventanainn.com), a no-kids-allowed retreat where rooms run from $600 to $1,350 per night. Both feature acclaimed restaurants, and I briefly consider splurging for dinner. “You’re just paying for the views,” one local scoffs upon hearing my plans. “Go there for a drink at sunset. Sit at the bar and get an appetizer. Then go somewhere else for dinner.”

I’d botched that plan by being facedown on an Esalen massage table as the sun fell, but by 7 p.m. I’m seated at the bar at Nepenthe (831-667-2345, nepenthebigsur.com), a glass-walled restaurant perched on an oceanfront cliff. It’s too dark to admire the view, but parched from the hot springs, I gulp lemonade and try an appetizer of Brussels sprouts, bacon, and dates in a mustard cream sauce.

For a main course I head north to Fernwood Tavern (831-667-2422, fernwoodbigsur.com), a bar that smokes its own meat. The tavern is one of a half-dozen bar-and-grill-style places that are the primary culinary alternative to the fancy lodge restaurants. I try a house-smoked chorizo burger and debate whether to linger to hear the band that starts at 9 p.m.

Instead, I head to my cabin at Big Sur Campground & Cabins (831-667-2322, bigsurcamp.com). My accommodations are simple: knotty-pine walls, gingham curtains, a gas stove (for heat and ambience), and a functional bathroom. A sign on the table warns of frequent power outages (the campground runs a generator that turns off at 10 p.m.), but tonight the power stays on. I hear the rain on the roof as I power up my Kindle and enjoy the solitude.

It’s raining harder on Sunday morning. I’d planned to hike and explore a beach farther north, but by now I’ve absorbed the Big Sur mentality: Be flexible and live in the present. I gas the Chevy and point it north toward Carmel, its streets crowded with boutiques, art shops, and restaurants. Twenty-four hours in Big Sur isn’t quite enough to mellow a Type A personality into a blissed-out Zen master. But it’s a decent start.

***

Big Sur, California

GETTING THERE

From Boston, fly to San Jose or San Francisco and rent a car. From San Jose, it’s about a two-hour drive south; from San Francisco, it’s 2½ hours south.

AVERAGE HIGH TEMPS

62 degrees in April, 65 in June

 Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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