There is no wrong way to see Big Sur. The only way to do it wrong would be to never go at all. If you plan in advance, you should try glamping at Treebones, or camp at one of the several State Parks in the area. For those last minute trips however, you might have to settle for a day trip, and I highly recommend starting from Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is the Californian seaside jewel of your dreams. Well my dreams at least, and I’m quite sure yours too if you take a peek at the pictures to come. It has a European feel but with a strong Californian twist. Lovely weather, gorgeous bougainvillea, cute little stores and just amazing food!
You can quote me on this one : If Santa Barbara and La Jolla had a beautiful baby girl, it would be Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Start your morning early by exploring Carmel’s cute little downtown area – and finish your walk with breakfast at La Bicyclette (make reservations!). This Belgian cafe has amazing food and coffee, a prime position in town, and lovely ambience. If you don’t make it here for breakfast, definitely try it for dinner!
After breakfast (an alternate option is Lafayette French Kitchen for delicious food and cute ambience), head to the Secret Garden, a lovely little garden full of curios behind a bookstore. Was Carmel planned out with me in mind? It certainly felt like it!
I’m all for unmapped meanderings, but I suggest you meander your way to The Cheese Shop and pick up some delicious cheeses, salami and olives for your Big Sur picnic. I prefer this to a grocery store because they let you try different cheeses and also suggest the perfect meat and wine pairings. In addition, buy your bread, fruits and chocolate at the local Safeway off Highway 1 right before your drive.
And now finally, you make your way to paradise aka Big Sur. I might as well mention now that a pre-requisite for this trip is a car and a tank full of gas. A couple more things to prepare for : there is no cell phone reception in Big Sur, so download Google Maps for offline use. Also, the only restrooms you’ll find are at the Ranger Station a bit before Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (clean and free to use!) or at one of the few restaurants there. Aka pee before you leave!
California’s Highway 1, especially on this stretch is not a journey – it is the destination itself. Relax and take your time, you have no where else to be.
Every turn brings a new beautiful vista – crags on one side, deep blue water on the other. The sheer cliffs turn into more gentle ones, and rise again as if they decided against it. In the spring, the mountain-side blooms with flowers (well at least it did last spring during the super bloom). Waterfalls, cliffs, rocky terrains, beaches, seagulls, bunnies, bridges and gigantic waves – take your pick, Big Sur has them all!
Make sure to stop and take a pic by the iconic Bixby Bridge.
However, stop again after you cross the bridge for even better views!
I really want to emphasize that while exploring Big Sur, you make it your own. Venture out and find your own spots, and you will hold them dearer. There are some Big Sur icons that everyone sees – and for a reason – I highly recommend you head there too. But the magic is in the small hikes to hidden coves, crossing random bridges and walking through tunnels to get to a cliff overlooking some sea caves, weaving your own stories and making your own memories. Even a gentle hike gets rid of most of the tourists, so don’t pass this opportunity by!
We picnicked at Partington Cove, watching the waves lash against the rocks and race through the small cave. The bread and cheese tasted all the more delicious with the slight sprays of fresh sea water on my face! We rounded off our lunch with raspberries and dark chocolate (a must for any picnic!) and headed back to continue our drive to McWay Falls.
We tried to hit up Pfieffer Beach on the way there, but to no avail – if you are desperate to go here, I suggest heading there very early in the morning since they only let a limited number of vehicles in. I recommend Sand Dollar Beach further south – it’s not as popular, but so amazing! Read more about it in my previous Big Sur blogpost!
I recommend timing it so you reach McWay Falls during golden hour. The sun positioning is good enough to get a lovely view of the falls (my friends who went there early afternoon recommended against it since the sun is behind the falls). This is truly a bucket list item – of course there’s a viewing platform and it’s very crowded, but the hype is real!
McWay Falls is located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can park your car inside ( it costs less than $10, they don’t have attendants but make sure you pay! It was upsetting to see so many people park without paying. $10 is less than what your picnic cost you, but it means so much to the underfunded State and National Parks that you enjoy ), and then walk through the tunnel to view one of Nature’s amazing feats.
Instead of watching sunset at McWay falls with the thousand other people on the viewing deck, start heading back to Carmel and stop at a secluded spot on the way (there will be several).
Don’t leave Big Sur as soon as the sun sets – wait a few minutes for the sky to light up. This way, you lose most of the tourists, and can say your goodbye (never a final goodbye of course, just a see ya later) to Big Sur in peace.
Once you get back to Carmel, head to dinner at one of the wonderful restaurants there. I recommend Yafa, a Mediterranean restaurant with the most amazing eggplant dish straight from their grandma’s recipe. The owner was the sweetest and offered us tea while we waited for our table.
There’s also some lovely wine country around Carmel, and the local wineries have tasting rooms in town. I highly recommend trying some of these, especially the Pinot Noirs at Tudor Wines. We didn’t make it to their Carmel shop, but we have been to the one in Paso Robles. It’s excellent!
Last year I left a piece of my heart in Big Sur, so I went to reclaim it before we left California for New York City. As you might have guessed, instead of securing the lost piece, I left a few more behind. It seems like Big Sur will always be calling me, and I shall always answer.
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