Highway to Heaven

By Jeanne Cooper

Make the Monterey Peninsula your first trip after quarantine is over! 

The exhilarating drive from the Monterey Peninsula to Big Sur could have been billed as a guest star in HBO’s Big Little Lies, given how frequently high-arched Bixby Bridge made cameos. Experiencing such cinematic scenery at a slower pace is also the prime draw of the Big Sur International Marathon, the only event to close Highway 1 between Carmel and Big Sur; it sells out every year. Sadly, its April 26 edition is postponed. Still, I’ve found Highway 1’s detours can be just as memorable as the drive or the destination.

My pit stops are more sybaritic than a marathon, starting with a meal at Salt Wood Kitchen & Oysterette, hidden in the sand dunes at the Sanctuary Beach Resort in Marina. Executive chef Paul Corsentino, who worked closely with New York chef-restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian, recently began sharing his insights into local seafood, game and produce in the Chef’s Counter Tasting Experience ($145 per person, including two glasses of wine and one of sparkling wine). This month, he was to highlight Monterey Bay abalone (yum), Santa Barbara uni, Mount Lassen trout and Morro Bay Pacific Gold oysters, with the restaurant’s central live-fire grill as his backdrop.

A fresh Monterey Bay abalone from Salt Wood Kitchen & Oysterette. (Heather Hryciw)

If you feel the need to be more hands-on, consider a pastry ($125) or savory cooking class ($145) at newly Michelin-starred Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel. Themes of executive chef Justin Cogley’s lunchtime classes this spring include Mexico, Israel and Monterey Bay abalone (again, yum); pastry chef Yulanda Santos will share secrets of petits fours and puff pastry.

Carmel Food Tours offers a more active way to taste the wares, albeit with the help of a sleek Specialized Turbo Como e-bike from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen bike shop. (I’ve ridden one from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach and back, breaking a sweat only because it behooved me.) Offered on Tuesdays, the new Carmel Bikes, Bites & Bevs five-hour tour (from $169) starts with a round-trip cycle along Scenic Drive to Highway 1, Monastery Beach and always-dazzling Point Lobos, and ends with a two-hour hearty tasting and walking tour in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Vista Blue Spa’s sundeck situation takes rest and relaxation to the next level. (Vista Blue Spa)

Kayaking or stand-up paddling along Cannery Row is ideal for enjoying views while avoiding crowds, but sore muscles afterward may require spa attention. Luckily, Vista Blue at the Monterey Plaza Hotel is right there — and recently renovated. Enjoy the new Himalayan salt room before a couple’s treatment in a suite with fireplace and a soak in side-by-side tubs with bay views, or just relax in the rooftop whirlpool.

A quick detour east of Highway 1 leads to Carmel Valley’s wineries and luxe inns, of which Bernardus remains my favorite for both, even though they’re now separate operations. Executive chef Cal Stamenov at in-house Lucia is always cooking up something new, including a foraged menu for the new Forage & Forest Bathing spring package (starting at $3,000 for two nights). Highlights include lodging, a four-hour “forest bathing” experience with a Big Sur guide, two forest-themed facials and a chef’s table for two, with eight forage-based courses (think stinging nettle soup, octopus and seaweed salad, grilled quail) and wine pairings.

Stargazing at Ventana Big Sur. (Ventana Big Sur)

Reveling in the beauty of forest and the night sky is part of the appeal of glamping at Ventana Big Sur, where the delectable Big Sur Smokehouse opened in the old Post family homestead last summer. Guests staying in either the luxurious safari-style camp or the blu top inn can book the new Star Bathing experience ($150), a 60- to 90-minute night hike in the wilds of Big Sur, which ends with CBD cocktails, charcuterie and other snacks. The relaxing sleep you’ll enjoy will be all the better for wending your way back the next day.

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