Exploring California's Northern Coast

Moses Berkson

It’s the way it was...and the way it still is. Departures finds beauty, bliss, purple sand, and good vibrations along the old Hippie Highway of Northern California.

Out along California’s northern coast, where the continent begins, there’s an almost-too-beautiful stretch near San Francisco where time just seems to stop. Locals you meet in coffee shops (which usually double as gas stations or general stores or all three) will tell you that an energy runs through this part of the world. It’s easy to roll your eyes, to dismiss such talk as so much crunchy California New Ageism. But if you’ve traveled enough, you know that there are points on the globe where the energy is different, special. There’s something undeniable that grabs you.

Like it grabbed the six college kids I met one afternoon at Pfeiffer Beach, a local secret of a spot in Big Sur. They were from Minnesota. The kind of kids you want your own kid to grow up to be. When I met them, it was like a half-dozen golden retrievers had accosted me. They were all shaggy and full of youth and Midwestern yearning and curiosity—and they still addressed people as “sir.” They’d just finished classes, and before starting their summer jobs they had commandeered one of their parent’s Windstars (the one with the NPR bumper sticker I’d seen in the parking lot) and driven two days straight to get here. They knew about this place from the Beach Boys’ 1973 song cycle “California Saga,” which features Mike Love reading from the poem “The Beaks of Eagles,” Robinson Jeffers’s ode to Big Sur. And now they needed to see it for themselves. To touch it.

“Excuse me, sir,” one of them asked me as my gal and I walked near the water’s edge. “Do you know where the purple sand is?”

Ah, yes, the purple sand. There’s a bit of beach around the bend that not many people know about, where the sand is eggplant purple. If you see it at dusk, with the tide coming up and the low-angle sunlight casting long shadows, it’s…well, better that you see it than let me try to describe it. So I pointed the kids in the right direction and they ambled off, bursting with life and happiness.

Now I’m no geologist, nor a psychic—unlike the lady I met out here, dressed all in purple, who advertised herself as a “reader of vibes, vibrations and listener of the music your body and mind compose”—but I do consider myself a pretty observant traveler. And while I can’t prove it, I would bet the purple sand runs beneath the whole stretch of California coast you might call the Hippie Trail, from Big Sur up to Bodega Bay. Perhaps it’s the source of the unseen energy that fuels the bodies and souls of the people who live here.

It’s certainly a major part of what attracted so many beatniks and hippies to the area in the late fifties and sixties (remember the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, ground zero for the so-called human potential movement?) and has continued to lure all kinds of environmentalists, devotees of Eastern religions, slow-food disciples, surfers, and other free spirits. The rest of the world may have heave-ho’d the values of the Age of Aquarius for the Age of Acquisitiveness a long time ago, but that never happened here, despite the inevitable influx of money and gentrification. There’s a certain trueness to everything you see and everyone you meet. If anything, this area will always be about what one might call the Age of the Authentic.

Spend time on this coast and you feel again what matters—the beauty in the way the sun, the sky, the water, and the earth come together, untainted by snobs or aesthetes. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy sensory pleasures as much as the next guy. Before heading out here, I spent several nights in San Francisco and indulged at more than a few restaurants, laid my head on some triple-digit-thread-count pillowcases. But maybe that’s why so many people are drawn here, feel the need to make the journey (go ahead, call it a pilgrimage). Maybe they, like me, are searching for a hit of something genuine in a world that seems to have spun a bit too much off-kilter. Maybe we’re all looking to get in touch with the old sod again and feel the (purple) sand beneath our toes.

Europeans you meet on holiday here often compare the landscape to Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera or the rugged coast of southwestern France, near Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. But with a difference. As one Italian told me, “This land is what we used to have. No development. No crowds.” Then he paused. “Do you think you can hold on to it?”

I looked at him and wanted to say, It depends on what you mean by “hold on to it.” Once you’ve been here, you never let go of this place, because it never lets go of you.

I first visited maybe 20 years ago. I’ll never forget the afternoon in Big Sur when I stumbled upon the half-hidden road that took me down the cliff to Pfeiffer Beach, where I watched the sun drop into the Pacific. Standing there that evening, I felt like the modern world had fallen away and I was back in some prehistoric moment—a moment at once out of time and yet also so in time. I mean, even just standing on those beaches and thinking about the air that has traveled who knows how many miles across the Pacific and now you are feeling it, breathing it before anyone else on this huge continent…well, that’s something wild, isn’t it?

That’s why I’d returned. The last few years had taken a toll on me, and I was in need of a little perspective. I’d also met a woman and she’d heard me talk more than once about this place. “I want to see it, too,” she said.

So, starting at the cliffs of Big Sur, we headed up Highway 1 and drove the old Hippie Trail, passing through towns and enclaves that are being rediscovered by a new generation of bohemians. To the south of San Francisco there are places ranging from charming, intensely gentrified Carmel to laid-back Half Moon Bay (worth visiting just for the seafood tacos at the Flying Fish Grill). After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, we headed for Bolinas, maybe the quirkiest little spot anywhere on this route—if you can find it. The locals are so determined to keep their bit of paradise undiscovered that as soon as the state posts a sign on the highway, indicating where to turn for the town, someone takes it down. Trust me, it’s worth the search. I’ll put it this way: Bolinas feels like where Spicoli would live 30 years after Fast Times at Ridgemont High—the town’s got killer surf breaks, the pace is mellow, and the people are chill.

From there we spun up the road in our convertible, top down, past Point Reyes Station and Tomales Bay, taking in the landscape that’s an exotic mix of pastoral countryside (dotted with thick old redwoods, pines, and wind-blown cypresses) and spectacular rocky coast, almost like you’d find in western Scotland or Ireland. It’s windswept and raw, but also calm and full of life, depending on the bend you round.

At the end of the line, we came to Bodega Bay, the tiny hamlet in Sonoma County where Hitchcock brought Tippi Hedren to be tormented in The Birds. Hitch is long gone, but the old schoolhouse (now a private residence and occasionally open for tours) and other structures featured in the film are still there. The birds, for their part, don’t seem to share the director’s menacing vision. They just drift forever above the ocean, taking in the magnificence, the beauty of it all.

There’s no need for me to tell you how our journey up the coast affected me, how it changed me. That’s the loveliness of this place: It hits everyone differently.

The Road Less Traveled: Driving the Old Hippie Trail in Style

By Sarah Smith

The 200-mile stretch of Highway 1 between Big Sur and Bodega Bay has spectacular cliffside views, memorable restaurants, inviting inns, and plenty of offbeat sites that warrant stops. So make it a peaceful, meandering drive.

Beyond the postcard vistas of the Pacific and the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach, there are a handful of places in Big Sur worth a visit. One is the Henry Miller Library. The controversial author moved to Big Sur in 1944, a few years after his novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for its frank sexuality, and he spent close to four decades here. The library (Hwy. 1; 831-667-2574; henrymiller.org), which houses a collection of his first editions, has galleries devoted to works by Miller and local artists, an outdoor stage (Marianne Faithfull performed in October), and a shop that sells Miller’s books and art.

The Esalen Institute (55000 Hwy. 1; 831-667-3000; esalen.org), founded in the early sixties to pursue what Aldous Huxley called “the human potential,” is an East-meets-West experiential place of learning, spread across 27 acres of Big Sur coast, with a clothing-optional hot spring. It might sound hippie-dippie, but the nearly 50-year-old institution is a respected center for the study of philosophy, sensory awareness, massage, yoga, performance, and art. In addition to its longer-term programs, Esalen offers single classes and creative workshops.

For those looking to spend a night, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn is a rustic hotel tucked between the redwoods of Castro Canyon ($ from $80; 48865 Hwy. 1; 831-667-2377; deetjens.com). Built by “Grandma” and “Grandpa” Deetjen in the thirties, it became a stop for wayward artists, writers, and Hollywood types seeking refuge along the recently built Highway 1. A back-to-nature spirit prevails today: The cabin-like accommodations have no TVs or phones (forget about cell phone coverage), just simple furnishings—some made by Grandpa himself—and, in certain rooms, wood-burning stoves.

Less than a mile up the road from Deetjen’s, the luxury boutique Post Ranch Inn—a collection of freestanding houses—is nestled into the cliffs 1,200 feet above the crashing waves (from $550; 47900 Hwy. 1; 831-667-2200; postranchinn.com). Incorporating sustainable building materials and solar power into its organic-minimalist design, the inn has three pools (two are infinity pools practically spilling into the ocean) and a spa that uses Post Ranch’s custom line of products made with local flowers, some picked from the inn’s own garden. There are no TVs or alarm clocks to be found, and guests must be at least 18 years old.

The family-owned Nepenthe restaurant ($ 48510 Hwy. 1; 831-667-2345; nepenthebigsur.com), perched 800 feet above the Pacific, is suffused with California lore, allegedly occupying a lot sold to the Fassett family in 1947 by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. Nepenthe (Greek for “place to escape sorrows”) is popular for its sunset views and casual American fare, especially the Ambrosiaburger, a lower-fat, California version of a ground-steak sandwich topped with a special Ambrosia sauce.

Farther up the coast, in Carmel, there’s a windy promontory where poet Robinson Jeffers settled in 1914. Using granite boulders dragged by horses from the cove below, Jeffers built the Tor House, where he wrote many of his major works, and Hawk Tower, a retreat for his wife and two sons. Today the site hosts lectures and readings and offers tours to small groups on Fridays and Saturdays (26304 Ocean View Ave.; 831-624-1813; torhouse.org).

At the northern end of Monterey Bay, the surf break known as Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz is one of the spots that make this area a mecca for the sport. And about an hour farther north, in Half Moon Bay, there’s the legendary big-wave location called Mavericks, where the winter swell produces giants that crest at 25, even 50 feet. (Note: The break is a half-mile from shore, so binoculars come in handy.)

Also in Half Moon Bay is the Flying Fish Grill ($ Main St. and Hwy. 92; 650-712-1125; flyingfishgrill.net), a casual spot serving seafood tacos with devotees stretching all the way to the East Coast. It offers a choice of cod, mahimahi, salmon, prawns, or scallops (and, for land-lovers, chicken), finished off with cabbage and a creamy secret dressing.

North of San Francisco, in Bolinas, Smiley’s Schooner Saloon & Hotel (from $89; 41 Wharf Rd.; 415-868-1311; coastalpost.com) is said to be one of the longest continuously operating bars in California. Founded in 1851 by Captain Isaac Morgan, it survived Prohibition by having patrons enter through a decoy barber shop. The renegade atmosphere hasn’t changed much, as Smiley’s is still the haunt of tourist-resistant locals, especially on live-music nights. The food and drink (hot dogs and bottled beer) and the eight hotel rooms aren’t much to talk about, but there’s no better place to wrap one’s mind around the Bolinas way of life.

The 1,000-acre Bolinas Lagoon Preserve (4900 Shoreline Hwy. 1; 415-868-9244; egret.org) is home to some 100 pairs of great blue herons and great and snowy egrets that mate here each spring. Its eight miles of hiking trails offer excellent bird-watching, especially in late March and April, when courting rituals take place, and June and July, when the squawking chicks are learning to fly.

In Point Reyes Station, the teeny Bovine Bakery ($ 11315 Hwy. 1; 415-663-9420) has the town’s best scones, muffins, and croissants, which come in inventive varieties. A top seller is the Morning Bun, a heaping pile of buttery, cinnamon-sugary, flaky dough that puts ordinary sticky buns to shame.

A dozen years ago, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith joined forces to refurbish an old hay barn in Point Reyes Station as the organic market Tomales Bay Foods. Today it also houses their celebrated cheese-making operation, Cowgirl Creamery (80 Fourth St.; 415-663-9335; cowgirlcreamery.com), which only uses milk from local dairy farms. Tours of the creamery are given every Friday at 11:30 a.m. and end with a tasting.

Each year the Hog Island Oyster Farm in Marshall (20215 Hwy. 1; 415-663-9218; hogislandoysters.com) raises more than three million Pacific Sweetwater, Kumamoto, and Atlantic oysters, Manila clams, and blue mussels in a sustainable aquaculture in Tomales Bay. Visitors can make reservations for one of the farm’s beach picnics, where they learn to shuck and grill oysters.

In Inverness there’s a woodsy compound on the edge of Tomales Bay called Manka’s Inverness Lodge (from $215; 30 Callendar Way; 415-669-1034; mankas.com). Its main building, from 1904, has three rooms and a restaurant for guests only, serving hearty dishes that change daily. For a more secluded stay, there are four outlying cabins. The real splurge, however, is the Boathouse, which accommodates up to six people and has a fireplace, a kitchen, a library, and a private pier stretching out onto the bay.

When Nick Marlow graduated from high school, his father offered him a choice: college or money toward opening a business. Today his Northern Light Surf Shop (17191 Bodega Hwy.; 707-876-3032; northernlightsurf.com) in Bodega Bay is the place to buy boards (some made custom by Hawaiian shaper Ed Barbera, who has a workshop out back), wet suits, and other gear for surfing the area’s craggy, cold-water conditions. For $15, the knowledgeable but super-laid-back staff rents everything one needs for a day in the water and will happily point visitors to the best waves.