INTO THE REDWOODS
Secret Hotels of Big Sur
The dramatic scenery is clearly the star along California's Big Sur coast, but these nine hotels—all with double rooms for well under $200—come in a close second. Did we mention the views?
In 1955, Doris Fee decided to build a 15-unit motel along Highway 1, next to the Ripplewood Resort. When Basil and Tracy Sanborn took over in 2005, everything was exactly as it had been 50 years earlier. The couple updated the reservations system--guests used to secure a spot by mailing in a check--and then tackled the rooms. "We wanted to maintain the spirit of Big Sur," Tracy says. She kept the adobe walls, added bamboo floors and furniture made of sustainable wood, and had California artists create felted-wool rugs and pillows. Bathrooms now have heated pebble floors and vanities made from recycled sorghum stock. Last fall, the Sanborns installed stairs along the redwood forest trail, and soon they'll put in picnic benches along the Big Sur River. "We have the best swimming hole in Big Sur," says Tracy. 831/667-2105, glenoaksbigsur.com, from $135.
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
Deetjen's has been the embodiment of Big Sur for generations. It isn't about the plush amenities (there aren't any) or a feeling of seclusion (single-panel wood walls mean you can hear a neighbor's sneeze), but an appreciation for Big Sur itself. "The whole idea behind Deetjen's is its sense of place," says general manager Torrey Waag. Built in the 1930s by Norwegian immigrant Helmuth Deetjen, the hotel became a haven for artists and writers. These days, the hotel and its café are as much a draw for full-time Big Sur residents as they are for visitors. There are 20 rooms in seven ramshackle cabins, and they're not for everyone. But if the glowing comments in each room's guest book are any indication, there's something deeply satisfying about staying amid all the hand-built furniture, surrounded by a collection of antiques, with trees rustling and surf crashing in the background. 831/667-2377, deetjens.com, from $95.
The drive to the Hacienda, over the Santa Lucia Range, is so narrow and windy that it's impossible to go faster than 20 mph. The 17-mile journey from Highway 1 takes at least an hour, but it's worth it for the views of the Pacific and Los Padres National Forest. Built in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst, the Hacienda was sold to the Department of War in 1940. A division of the Army now runs the California-mission-style house as a hotel. Rooms retain many original features--carved wooden doors and star-shaped windows--but the furniture is basic at best. Since it's within an active military-training base, the Hacienda has a peculiar set of amenities: Guests can play tennis, go bowling, pick up light meals at a café, and knock back $2 beers at the hotel bar (but only military personnel can shop at the commissary and the gas station). Call ahead to find out about any military exercises, because roads and gates may close. 831/386-2511, from $45, with breakfast.
SOUTH BIG SUR
John Handy and his wife, Corinne, spent years searching the central coast for a place to retire. Only after they bought 11 acres in southern Big Sur, however, did they realize that new zoning laws wouldn't allow them to build a house. So they built a hotel. "But we didn't want it to be like a hotel at all," says John. His mother turned the couple on to the idea of yurts, tent-like structures that can be built with very little wood; their simple foundations also wouldn't require bulldozing the steeply sloped land. John commissioned craftsmen to make chairs from unwanted saplings for the main lodge; for the terrace, he had a 65-foot bar built from a redwood that had been cut down and abandoned. The 16 yurts have pine floors and wooden furniture, and best of all, each has a skylight to let the sun and stars peek through. 877/424-4787, treebonesresort.com, from $155, with breakfast.
Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort
As Highway 1 approaches San Simeon, the cliffs of Big Sur mellow into rolling hills and low bluffs--an ideal setting for the oceanfront fire pits at the Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort. The 90 rooms, spread out among five 2-story buildings, share three fire pits, outdoor heated pools, and a hot tub. The property's story is a testament to the area's allure. In 1959, Harris Victor, a butcher in Tacoma, Wash., took his family on a road trip along the California coast. When he noticed all the tourists heading to Hearst Castle, he decided to open a motel--and bought property within the week. "It was quite a surprise," says his daughter, Barbara Hanchett. "We never went back to Tacoma." Harris eventually sold that motel and opened this one, now run by Barbara and her husband, Michael. The family oversaw an extensive renovation of the rooms three years ago; some now boast two-person soaking tubs. All the rooms with views have binoculars for bird-watching--but you don't need anything except your ears to hear the churning waves. 800/826-8168, cavalierresort.com, from $99.
Big Sur proper is a town on the Pacific Coast about 150 miles south of San Francisco, but the term also refers to the 90-mile stretch between Carmel and San Simeon. To get there, fly into San Francisco or San Jose, and make your way to Highway 1. Because of high demand, the hotels in this story tend to book up very early, especially in summer, and they often have minimum-stay requirements on weekends. As an alternative, you may want to check out the house rentals and B&Bs listed on Vacation Rentals By Owner's website, vrbo.com.