I nearly had a heart attack when I first saw the dazzling captivation in the marine wonderland of coral and iridescent fish off a tiny island in Micronesia. In Bali, I marveled at how the spiritual was so inextricably (and gracefully) woven into everyday life, where everyone I met gave daily flower-filled offerings of gratitude to the gods, and welcomed travelers with open smiles and hearts. Long stays in the Bahamas, in Panama, in Mexico—the people, the food, the vistas, the solid commonness of every day—all delightful.
But that old cliché of happiness being found in your own backyard is so true (as long as you count my backyard as being about 50 miles long). Big Sur is the place that makes me feel both grateful and hopeful, as much for its extraordinary vistas of cliff and sea as for its off-center quirks. Since I live only a bit over an hour away, I’ve been going—several times a year for over 20 years—on what can only be called pilgrimages to Big Sur. Pilgrimages because Big Sur has a presence, a combination of setting and that elusive “vibe” that puts me in a contemplative, appreciative state.
First: consider that setting: whipping around the twists of the Big Sur coastline can stun the eyeballs, where the beauty of some craggy vista can be shocking, where you can only point and say, “Look!” Visitors (and I) can feast on the rich palette of the sea’s deep blues, caught in narrow coves thrashed by waves, or rolling in rhythm over big outcrops of near-shore rocks—there are scenic overlooks aplenty.
But why just look? There’s a concentration of great hikes throughout the Big Sur area, from the quick—though not-so-easy—Partington Cove to some of the “are we still going up?” treks in its several state parks. So many hikes have soaked me with sweat, but so many of those drenchings have been rewarded with breathtaking vistas of those deep blues, or of the cool envelopment of the area’s forests, ripe with wildflowers and wildlife.
There are lots of small shops with unusual handicrafts, and plenty of places to stay, from the over-the-top rustic amazements of Post Ranch Inn to the historic and odd Deetjen’s Inn. Speaking of history, there’s lots: the welcoming, eccentric Henry Miller Library, with its alternative band concerts and artwork-strewn grounds, is an encapsulation of Big Sur consciousness, and a fine tribute to one of the area’s writing luminaries. There’s the architectural sweetness of the old Bixby Bridge and the romantic allure of the older Pt. Sur Lighthouse. Even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor frolicked here during the filming of The Sandpiper, enjoying the good grub and breathtaking views of the entrancing (and aptly named) Nepenthe restaurant.
But it’s the spirit of a place that beguiles—and every place has a spirit. It’s that spirit of succor and refreshment that brings me back over and over again to Big Sur. That spirit is in the smile of a café waitress as much as it’s in the majesty of a timeless view. Big Sur is a place where my smile is ever renewed. I go there for restoration, contemplation, exertion and respite. I’ll never stop going, because Big Sur never stops giving.
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