Travel: Backyard Bliss

By Carolyn Miller Mccusker

In Northern California, Carmel and Big Sur are coastal jewels well within reach.

Whether you seek solitude or a family getaway, the Golden State, with 865 miles of coast and 352 mountain ranges, is home to some of the best road trips in the world. And the breathtaking stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and Big Sur, with its rugged beauty, is always worthy of accolades. As a native Californian, I’ve traveled this fabled road many times. But on a recent trip, I cruised the coast solo. With my shades on, sunroof open and music playing, I steered my car south from the Bay Area and, after spending months at home, happily heeded the call of the open road. My three-day itinerary would take me first to Big Sur, then back north to Carmel Valley. This road trip is not just about the destination. The dramatic coastline — with the Santa Lucia Range plunging into the Pacific, scenic cliff-lined stretches of beach, and hairpin turns revealing stunning views — begs me to pull over and grab my camera. There is something about the freedom of a road trip that inspires one in every four Americans to hit the highway each year. With limited travel options in the last year and a half, industry experts rightfully predicted a boom in road trips as the most popular way to fulfill our desire for travel and adventure.

Where to Rest

I arrive at Ventana Big Sur, a peaceful adults-only retreat set among 160 forested acres overlooking the Pacific. The resort has a new all-inclusive model and some of the most rigorous guest-safety practices in the industry, such as door seals to ensure that guests are the first to enter a clean space. Visitors can stay in spacious suites (mine has a soaking tub and private deck) or choose to be even more immersed in nature at a glamping site with safari-style tents tucked into the majestic redwoods. One glamper I met described her experience as “magical, waking up to the gurgling stream and birds chirping.”

After guests savor craft cocktails in lounge chairs on the meadow overlooking the stunning ocean view, it’s time for dinner. I grab my cashmere wrap and walk along the Redwood Cathedral path that feels spiritual and still in the cool evening. Through the trees, lights from the Sur House restaurant twinkle. I have been lucky enough to dine here on several occasions and am hooked! If you’ve never had a meal there, here’s what to expect: a locally sourced menu with inventive seasonal dishes. “We try to stay as fresh and sustainable as we can,” says Executive Chef Gerard Spezio, who describes new mouth-watering dishes debuting this summer, such as wild boar bolognese with fresh burrata, Fogline Farm spicy Moroccan chicken, and miso-soy glazed black bass (with fresh fish caught daily in Monterey). While the new menu is delightful, longtime favorites like the savory Spanish octopus appetizer and tasty local wines still impress.

Take in sweeping views at Ventana Big Sur’s Meadow Pool (pictured), or a dip in the Mountain Pool in the shadow of redwoods.
Take in sweeping views at Ventana Big Sur’s Meadow Pool (pictured), or a dip in the Mountain Pool in the shadow of redwoods.

Where to Rev Up

There are trails for all levels of hikers to experience Big Sur firsthand. The hotel arranges for naturalist guide Patrice Ward to take me seven miles south on Highway 1 to the historical Partington Cove. On the hike, Ward expertly leads our group of five resort guests down switchbacks on the trail and through the redwood canyon, explaining the medicinal qualities of the native flora, including wild dill, fennel and bay leaf. We walk through a 60-foot tunnel used in the late 1800s as part of a system to transport tanbark to ships waiting in the scenic cove where, today, waves froth on rocks covered in mussels.

“In August and September, I forage sea salt here,” says Ward, opening a tin of fine crystals, inviting us to taste. As the salt melts in my mouth, I look out to sea, awestruck by Big Sur’s beauty. Back at Ventana, I indulge in a soak in the Japanese hot baths. All too soon, it’s time to depart this Zen resort.

The best of both worlds includes a splurge at the Market at Carmel Valley Ranch after a session of Hilltop Yoga — only available during the summer months.
The best of both worlds includes a splurge at the Market at Carmel Valley Ranch after a session of Hilltop Yoga — only available during the summer months.

Where to Indulge

I head north toward Carmel, drive over the iconic Bixby Bridge (think Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me and HBO’s hit Big Little Lies), then east into the valley that always appears sunlit. But of course, charming Carmel-bythe- Sea isn’t the only star in these parts; in recent years, Carmel Valley has emerged as a first-rate dining and wine-tasting destination. I motor through the 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch, abundant with oaks, vineyards and lavender fields. The 180-suite luxury resort is a family-friendly playground with a casual vibe that makes me feel as comfortable in my cowboy boots and jeans as I am in my flip-flops and bathing suit. Guests can golf on the world-class 18-hole Peter Dye course, play tennis, swim, learn archery, or — my pick — be pampered at Spa Aiyana. Spa treatments incorporate a mix of products that feature ingredients such as lavender and honey from the resort apiary.

Carmel Valley Ranch prides itself on a homegrown approach and farm-to-table menus featuring produce from its organic garden. Guests curious about the complete cycle of where their food comes from can take artisan classes and bring that knowledge home to their own kitchens. Intrigued, I opt for a session with the property’s cheesemaker.

“The art of artisan cheesemaking is understanding microbiology,” says Charlie Cascio, who uses milk from the goats raised on the farm. “Once you learn the cultures, you blend them to create different flavors.”

In the pristine Creamery, where Cascio creates cheeses for the resort’s award-winning Valley Kitchen, he shows me how to make fresh feta starting with curd, produced on-site. First, Cascio gently releases the soft crottin from the molds before lightly dusting with salt, flipping, and storing the mounds to age in the industrial fridge. Later, I return to the Creamery to savor a lunch of baby lettuces and grilled veggies flavored with Cascio’s cheese. When I finally taste it, I find it creamy yet light — possibly the best feta I’ve ever had. I smile as I recall his parting words to me from the day before: “One of my dedications in life is to teach people how to put good food on the planet,” Cascio shares. “It’s all part of our desire to get back to the land.”

At Carmel Valley Ranch, that commitment is fulfilled. If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s the freedom and appeal of exploring neighboring areas by car. And this summer, as the familiar wanderlust takes hold, the Golden State and the proud, hardworking folks at the heart of its hospitality industry are eager to welcome back visitors.

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