Big Sur: Where the mountains meet the sea

For those sun-seekers amongst you who want to make 2017 the year they finally hit the California Coast, we’ve compiled a few questions and answers on The Big Sur - that famous strip of all-American ocean and mountain-bound land that has inspired generations of artists, writers and even pop culture itself. (Think Beach Boys, circa 1973, blaring from your open-topped Cadillac, cruising down Highway 1).

The Big Sur makes for a fantastic component of any California trip, and can be very easily explored with a rental car and a few days to spare. As a British citizen, you can apply for ESTA online, which is alternative travel authorisation to the traditional US visa. ESTA allows you to visit the USA as a tourist or on business for periods of up to 90 days at a time, and lasts for up to two years.

What is the Big Sur?

Well, you wont find it named as such on a map. This is perhaps why Lonely Planet calls it ‘A state of mind’ rather than a place. In fact, when this area was part of Mexico, the Spanish Settlers simply referred to the land as “el país grande del sur”, or the ‘the big country south’. Now it is known as a stunningly beautiful, sparsely populated strip of land, which is 90 miles long and just 20 miles across. It is wedged between mountain and coast. The 70-mile stretch of Highway 1 that winds its dramatic, sometimes tortuous way, through cliffs and country, often clinging to the coastal edge, offers you beach after wonderfully deserted beach.

Where is the Big Sur?

From a traveller’s perspective, it is around 120 miles south of San Francisco airport, and 250 miles north of Los Angeles - both of which are easy to fly to from the UK and allow you to pick up your choice of car at the airport. Once on the ground, it is to be found bounded on the north by the Carmel River on the Monterey Peninsula, and to the south by the old whaling and shipping port of San Simeon. To the west, the craggy coastline of the Pacific Ocean forms the backdrop of much of your driving, and to the east, the wild and rugged St Lucia mountains spread out before you.

When should I go?

How long will it take you to pack your bags! Go whenever you like - with its year-round mild climate, average of 300 days of sunshine per year and low rainfall, your enjoyment of the coast need not be affected by the weather. Never too hot nor too cold - sure, in the winter months you may want your jacket if beach or forest strolling in the evening, and even in spring and early summer you might see a little of the atmospheric fog rolling in off the Pacific, but think of that as a photo opportunity (and a small price to pay for the extra seclusion and lower accommodation prices, of course).

Where can I stay?

‘The Village’, as it’s often called, is an area in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It offers the biggest concentration of lodging options, restaurants and shops. It’s also the only place you can be certain of a phone signal or free Wifi, which you might consider relevant if you can’t quite abandon all responsibilities whilst on holiday. (For the lucky few, of course, the lack of reliable connectivity elsewhere is a glorious opportunity to escape from it all). Rustic lodges and campsites in this area are affordable off-season options, and this is your best choice if you want a central base for exploring the Big Sur.
If a complete escape from the crowds is what you're after, there are some beautiful, exclusive-use properties available for rent both along the coast and within the Santa Lucia mountains above. Try Airbnb for a range of cabins, yurts and holiday homes to suit all pockets.
For something completely different, or for those in search of silence and tranquillity, the well reviewed New Camaldoli Hermitage offers low-cost, all-inclusive, modest accommodation in its peaceful off-grid location. (One reviewer suggests that you “leave the stress of expectations behind” if you choose to stay here.) In fact, Pico Iyer, in his 2013 TED Talk, assures us that here, “the most restless, distractible, testosterone-filled adult will cool down and clear out”.
Hotels and guest houses within the Big Sur take advantage of some of the most beautiful locations - at a price. For ultimate luxury destinations, check out the Post Ranch Hotel and if it’s out of your league, book yourself a lunch there so that you can enjoy the beautiful walks and views from the property. Other options are the yurts at Treebones, the imposing redwoods of Glen Oaks, or the gorgeous spa at Ventana Inn.
Just North of Big Sur, the Monterey Peninsula is a very popular destination for for the well-heeled, particularly for its stunningly located golf courses and sea life centres. It is certainly worth a day trip even if staying overnight proves to be out of your reach.

Which are the must-see spots?

Wild, craggy, and breathtakingly unspoilt, this is an area for discovering your own favourite slices of heaven on earth. For sparkly purple sand, crashing waves and a stone arch through which to see magnificent sunsets, take the mountain road downhill to Pfeiffer Beach, off the Sycamore Canyon Road just outside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. You wont be alone there, but you will be on one of California’s most iconic beaches.  And if surfing or hand-gliding are your thing, you wont want to miss Sand Dollar Beach, or The McWay Falls, crashing spectacularly onto the beach below Saddle Rock, and can be seen inside the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park - which also has some of the best short hikes in the Big Sur (try the Ewoldsen Trail, or wander among the extraordinary redwoods).
Just south of Carmel, your journey on Highway 1 takes you onto the much photographed Bixby Creek Bridge, as featured in so many car commercials, films and even postage stamps. The views here, both of the bridge and the surrounding land and sea, can be taken in from one of many lay-bys for this purpose.

What's the local wildlife like?

World renowned as a great place from which to observe sea mammals, your chances of seeing sea lions, migrating whales and sea otters along the coast is high. The humpback is visible from many roadside turnoffs between summer and autumn, and both blue and grey whales can be spotted between November and April. The Ocean View Boulervard in Pacific Grove, Monterey Pensisnula, is a great place for otter watching, and there is a community of 17,000 sea elephants - some of them up to fifteen feet long - near Piedras Blancas, a lookout point on the beach seven miles north of San Simeon. This is an area open all year round and admission is free.
Inland, those awe-inspiring redwood forests are home to mountain lions (cougars) and overhead look outs for the nine-feet wingspan of the California Condor. Bald eagles also put in an appearance.

And at the end of the day, where is there to eat, drink and be merry?

The Big Sur Taphouse is a lively spot for bands, good beer and food, and there are plenty of restaurants with views throughout. If you are staying within easy reach of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ll never be far from a decent burger or burrito.

Take me there! How do I get my ESTA?

Fortunately, the ESTA application process is far quicker and easier than applying for a US visa. In fact, the whole procedure is done online – ESTA stands for the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, and indeed every part of it is electronic. You start by filling in the online ESTA application form; this is a simple form, that just requires you to answer a few questions and provide your passport details. After filling in the form, which takes around ten minutes or so, you submit it and await your result! You will receive your ESTA authorisation status within 24 hours, sent directly to the email address you provide during the application.
Provided your ESTA is approved (and the vast majority of applications are), you are then able to travel to the USA without a visa, and your ESTA details are automatically associated with your passport. Your ESTA remains valid for two years, or as soon as your passport expires (whichever happens first).
Get those flights booked and begin your Big Sur adventure!

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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