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Big Sur, Reborn

Jeanne Cooper | April 25, 2018 | Story California Destinations

The temporary closing of Highway 1 in Big Sur last year allowed ample gestation for the multimillion-dollar metamorphosis of the Ventana Inn, built in 1975. The newly emerged Ventana Big Sur, an Alila Resort, now provides two arenas for appreciating the region’s rugged beauty and its more refined pleasures: the Redwood Canyon Glampground and the transformed hillside resort.

Canyon Glamping

My husband and I started our Ventana visit by “glamping” (a portmanteau of glamour and camping) in one of 15 luxurious safari-inspired tents in the 20-acre canyon, which also includes 63 traditional campsites closer to the entrance near Highway 1. Though the day was chilly, we warmed up quickly in the floored canvas tent (from $325), thanks to the gas fire pit on the deck and a mug of tea, made with instant hot water from a spigot on a copper-sink-topped barrel. A furry electric blanket and two sweater-clad hot water bottles made the plush bedding equally cozy, while the handsomely tiled communal bathhouse, a short walk away via an unpaved road, offered heated floors and thick towels.

Warm-weather visitors will appreciate the filled ice chests, cushioned Adirondack chairs, wood-burning grills and picnic tables, along with a barbecue stand expected to open this summer in the historic Post House. Other thoughtful touches include bedside lamps, power outlets and USB ports, portable lanterns (for illumination en route to the bathhouse at night), a picnic hamper with an animal-proof snack canister, fixings for s’mores, wine glasses, bottle opener and other handy items.

In the morning, a welcome tent provides coffee, pastries and conversation with the congenial glamping host, Katie. While most glampers park fairly close to their tents, she told us some prefer the nearly hidden Canyon glampsites at the upper end, which require a short hike, but share their own bath facilities.

Uncommon Grounds

Most glampers spring for the $100 fee per site to enjoy the amenities of the adults-only 160-acre resort, including its sprawling Meadow Pool and clothing-optional Mountain Pool (a nod to Big Sur’s bohemian past). Both boast sunny ocean-view decks with chaise lounges; the former also features an infinity-edge hot tub with a captivating mountain/forest vista, while the latter sits below the discreetly enclosed Japanese baths (men, women and coed) and the new fitness center with spinning bikes, TRX and other gear. 

The resort fee also allows glampers to join guests at the expertly curated wine-and-cheese hour in the Social House, the ’60s-inspired lobby and multiroom gathering place stocked with vinyl records, books and board games. Anyone may book an appointment at Spa Alila, where the treatment rooms include two outdoor cabanas with a copper soaking tub and canyon views. My soothing Essence of Big Sur Herbal Massage (90 minutes for $275) allowed me to take home the aromatic poultice of wild-crafted herbs as a reusable souvenir.

Destination Dining

At The Sur House, executive chef Paul Corsentino’s beautifully plated sumptuous dishes—along with the breathtaking panorama visible from the large outdoor bar and terrace—create destination dining for any meal. A lunch of avocado toast with Mount Lassen trout led to my choosing the same for breakfast. My husband similarly reprised his lunchtime tuna crudo at dinner, where items on the four-course prix fixe menu ($90, vegetarian for $80) can also be ordered a la carte. Standout entrees included smoked duck breast spiced with ras el hanout and a chickpea panisse with date puree. However, we learned it’s worth forgoing a course to save room for pastry chef Saul Perez’s exceptional desserts and to sample the silky Hearst Ranch Tempranillo on the Coastal California wine list.

Reimagined Resort

Moving to the resort the next day, we left our car with the valet below the Social House— where a meadow replaced one parking lot—and took a golf cart shuttle uphill. Some of the 59 renovated rooms and suites (from $675) offer decks with hammocks or hanging egg-chairs overlooking the forest; others claim distant ocean views, making for dazzling sunsets— especially when paired with a private hot tub, as in our Pacific House Suite. Macramé wall hangings, retro clocks and dial phones, knotty walking sticks (good for the free hourlong daily hike) and wood-burning (rather than gas) fireplaces serve as quirky reminders of Big Sur’s rustic and hippie heritage, yet still blend easily with the newly luxurious finishes of stone, leather, wood and wool.

We settled in quickly and started poring over the list of signature Alila Experiences the resort offers to coax you from these rooms, from nature hikes to Jack Kerouac-themed driving tours and art classes in the new Glass House Gallery. They were further reminders that among Ventana Big Sur’s new choices for relaxation and rejuvenation, there’s still not a bad one.

Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley

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