Charlie's chevre is pristine. It’s cold and soft and as bright white as new snow, or the lone cloud hanging in Carmel’s summer sky—a puffy, scallop-edged cumulus so comically perfect it looks like a cartoon drawing of a cloud. “The sweet goats really give sweet milk,” he says, spreading another dollop of cheese onto another piece of baguette. “This was the milk from yesterday.”
I’m in the creamery at Carmel Valley Ranch, a 500-acre idyll where pretty much everything is like that (comically perfect). Driving into the resort, a visitor passes through fields of fragrant lavender, an intoxicating Provençal entrance. The purple corridor soon gives way to olive trees and vineyards. A hillside apiary brims with bees. Up the ridge, in an organic garden, sunflowers and artichokes grow tall in the July sun.
Charlie Cascio, 72, is the ranch’s cheesemaker (and former head chef at Esalen, the storied hot springs–slash–retreat center). He learned the art of dairy from a shepherd in the French Alps and raised his goats himself, mostly at Sweetwater Farm, a 40-acre plot in Big Sur that he bought in the ’70s for a song. After a wildfire leveled much of the farm in 2016, Charlie moved his goats and cheese operation to the ranch, at the urging of its head chef, Tim Wood.
This is my first stop on a five-day road trip through Monterey County, from Carmel to Big Sur, and though I don’t know it yet, the naturalist theme will hold steady throughout, with every hotel and amenity designed to immerse guests in the ecology of the place.
The ranch’s lavender is more than an aromatherapeutic greeting: It’s harvested for all manner of products (honey, body scrub, shea butter). The olives are pressed into olive oil, the grapes into earthy Pinot Noirs and crisp rosés. Guests are encouraged to get their hands dirty—that’s the whole point, really. John Pritzker, the Hyatt heir and head of Geolo Capital, bought the place a decade ago with the goal of transforming it into “a higher order of summer camp,” he tells me later. You can now sign up to throw hatchets (“sobriety required,” the schedule warns reassuringly), plant seedlings in the garden, or visit the salt house, where sea salt harvested in Big Sur is infused with citrus, garlic, even sriracha. When you get a Bee Beautiful massage treatment, the royal jelly used comes from the ranch’s own hives. By the time I hit the creamery on Day 2, I have already suited up and inspected thousands of the Italian honeybees who made it, and communed with four generations of Charlie’s Swiss goats.
Carmel Valley is only eight miles east of Carmel-by-the-Sea, but it can feel like another world. Less overrun with tourists, and less susceptible to that sneaky coastal fog, the valley is Carmel proper’s sleepier, sunnier cousin. When ranch guests venture off-site, it’s often to taste wine at a nearby winery (Parsonage is a favorite) or to eat at former mayor Clint Eastwood’s restaurant-inn, Mission Ranch. In Carmel-by-the-Sea, there’s excellent Tuscan food at La Balena; for a seasonal California tasting menu, turn to Aubergine, which recently earned the Central Coast’s first Michelin star.
After leaving the valley and heading south toward Big Sur, I detour onto 17-Mile Drive, the sublime scenic loop. This stretch has lured road-trippers since the time of horse-drawn carriages, particularly the Lone Cypress, a 250-year-old Monterey cypress that grows improbably out of a granite outcrop. (You may know its silhouette as the logo for Pebble Beach Resorts, home of the famed golf course.)
The 30-mile drive to Big Sur is just as stunning: Highway 1 winds through the Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, then begins climbing the rugged slopes of the Santa Lucia Range, which give Big Sur its mountains-meet-ocean grandeur. The unofficial gateway is Bixby Bridge, an 87-year-old concrete arch that, I can’t help noticing, suddenly draws an inordinate volume of roadside selfie-takers. “The Big Little Lies effect,” a local explains; the bridge appears in the show’s opening credits.
The boundaries of Big Sur move depending on whom you ask—there is no incorporated town or village here, just 75 (or so) miles of highway and wilderness. But its cultural coordinates are well established. This place has exerted a pull on artists and seekers of every stripe since the first road builders blasted up these hills with dynamite. The faces may change, but the energy, if you believe in that sort of thing, does not.
You could measure these tidal shifts by the offerings at Esalen, which sits on 27 acres of Big Sur coastline between Route 1 and the Pacific. In the ’60s, when the institute was founded, it played a key role in the psychedelic movement and what was then called “the religion of no religion.” Visitors included Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass. (The seaside lawn where Don Draper appears to have a meditative breakthrough in the final minutes of Mad Men? Widely understood to be an Esalen reference.) My mom attended seminars in the ’80s, and when I text her to ask for sample topics, she responds: “Sensory perception, yoga, transcendence I think.” In today’s programming one can detect traces of Silicon Valley. Recent sessions considered the benefits of microdosing, and “consciousness hacking.”
Likewise, when you pull into Ventana Big Sur, a sign indicates where you can recharge your Tesla—the first clue that this longtime institution has also undergone some changes. Opened in 1975 by the Hollywood producer Larry Spector with money he earned from Easy Rider, the Ventana spent decades as a getaway for a Californian stew of film people and solitude-seeking eccentrics. John Pritzker was among those who stayed here in the early days; a few years ago, he bought the lodge and gave it a $20 million refresh.
“It’s of the landscape,” Pritzker says of his affinity for the retreat, where rooms and villas are built mostly of raw cedar and tucked under old-growth redwoods. The aim of his renovation was “not to build anything more, but to spruce up what was there.” Thus a parking lot with a spectacular view of the Pacific was turned into a grassy meadow; elegant canvas tents were erected on the property’s 20-acre canyon campground; and enclosed Japanese baths were replaced with an infinity hot tub. The baths were then reconstructed next to the secluded, historically clothing-optional Mountain Pool. (On my first tour of the property, it was easy to spot who still partook in that particular tradition.)
Activities aren’t really needed in Big Sur—you go to be mesmerized by the singular horizon, where, as Henry Miller once wrote, “the blue of the sea rivals the blue of the sky.” Yet there is so much to take in at Ventana that even two nights isn’t quite enough. I do morning yoga on an outdoor perch, surrounded by dewy chaparral. I tour the terraced garden, where alpine strawberries grow alongside Peruvian black corn. I eat juicy brisket at the Big Sur Smokehouse, the resort’s new barbecue restaurant. I get an Essence of Big Sur Herbal Massage, applied with warm herbal compresses soaked in eucalyptus, pine, and sage. I meet a peregrine falcon named Lex Luther and four other exquisite birds of prey during a session with master falconer Antonio Balestreri, held in a sun-dappled grove known as the Redwood Cathedral. My stay is perhaps best summed up by a twentysomething guest who, mid-dinner with her boyfriend at the Sur House (the resort’s main restaurant), abruptly sets down her fork, stands up from their table, and walks toward the sunset panorama, like a moth to an orange-pink flame: “This is too much! It’s too much beauty!”
My third and final stop isn’t far; it’s directly across the highway. Post Ranch Inn is an object of obsession among many Californians—for those who’ve been and those who haven’t. I’m in the latter camp, and from the moment I catch my first hallucinatory glimpse of architect Mickey Muennig’s triangular tree houses nestled among towering redwoods, it’s clear that all the fuss is warranted.
Both Post Ranch and Ventana stand on what used to be a 1,500-acre ranch owned by the Post family, some of the first homesteaders to settle in Big Sur. (The Smokehouse occupies the original homestead building.) The Post Ranch plot, encompassing a lofty ridge facing the ocean, remained in the family the longest; one descendant, Bill Post, was a partner in building the inn here in the early ’90s. The idea was for everything to blend into the surroundings—most lines are curved, many roofs are sod.
The rooms are all named after Big Sur pioneers and their descendants. I’m in the Ewoldsen, a kind of wabi-sabi amalgamation of rusted steel, wood, and glass that opens onto a private deck overlooking the Santa Lucias. As I walk along the ridge, the tree houses give way to cliff dwellings, their roofs covered in carpets of wild grass. Although the inn is at capacity, I don’t come across a single guest until I reach the northern edge of the property, where a woman is soaking alone in the meditation pool, a stainless-steel hot tub perched 1,200 feet above the surf.
If Carmel Valley Ranch is heaven for families, and Ventana for young couples, you might say Post Ranch Inn is for anyone in need of spiritual uplift. The collision of natural elements, their sheer scale, inspires silence. When I note this to Gary Obligacion, the resort’s general manager, he nods. “People come here to unplug,” he says. “You feel tiny in the best way.” One female CEO comes twice a year just to read books, I’m told.
There are plenty of splendid places to eat in these parts. The cozy, candlelit dining room at Deetjen’s is an enchanting throwback to 1930s Big Sur, when Helmuth and Helen Deetjen first started building the Shangri-La in Castro Canyon. Big Sur Bakery does magical things with vegetables and pizza dough—the first time I stumbled in, in 2007, ravenous after cycling the 17-Mile Drive, I couldn’t believe pizza so delicious could exist outside of Italy, much less on a remote stretch of Highway 1. For views, you can’t do better than Nepenthe, built around a cabin once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. In half a dozen visits, I’ve never not seen a whale.
But once you check in to Post Ranch, it’s impossible to leave. And anyway, I’ve been to the other spots. Where I haven’t been is Sierra Mar, the clifftop restaurant at Post Ranch. The fog begins to roll in as a succession of dishes arrives—beer-battered borage with Meyer lemon, asparagus with nasturtium gremolata, tagliatelle with English peas and morels—each more luscious than the one before. By the time I take the first bite of my dessert, a heavy blanket of mist covers the sea below. It’s a lot like sitting on a cloud.