Big Sur, Small Budget

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Ah, camping. The scent of the pines, the whisper of the wind, the concerto of chirping insects, the splat of a raindrop on my forehead. What the . . . ?

It's 2 a.m. and I have just been jolted from a deep slumber in a campground in California's Big Sur by a bead of moisture that somehow found its way through a seam in my tent -- the same tent that has, in 15 years of service, repelled every molecule of precipitation that the heavens have thrown at me.

My wife and I have come to this famously scenic stretch of California to outwit the vacation industry. Aside from its rugged coastline, waterfalls, beaches and phenomenal array of trails, Big Sur is noted for a handful of luxuriant inns and spas. The room rates at these places invariably contain one too many digits for our budget, but we want to at least taste the extravagance. Our strategy is to camp and spend the money saved on lodging to avail ourselves of massages and other comforts at the spas and restaurants that welcome non-property guests.

Big Sur
(John Briley)
Genius, huh? We own camping gear, love the outdoors and are hitting Big Sur in early May, a historically pleasant time of year. But 10 hours after arriving, our plan looks a little frayed. As I adjust my position to avoid the rain, I realize that my feet are also damp, encased in the saturated goose down of my sleeping bag. Rain is also leaking in from the side. To make matters worse, there's a distinct musty aroma emanating from a cluster of small green dots -- mold spores growing on the synthetic fabric.

The next morning I discover that my camping stove, age 10, is also on strike. As I stand in the rain fiddling with the mouse-size stove parts while my wife disassembles the mold dome, I recall a quote of Henry Miller, the author who made Big Sur his home: "Artists never thrive in colonies. Ants do. What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude -- and now and then a piece of red meat."

Wrestling has never been my bag, and this is looking bleak.

The previous day had started out great. A few miles south of Carmel, we had parked beneath a eucalyptus grove and hiked the Soberanes Canyon trail, in Garrapata State Park. The path climbed through hillsides of chaparral -- from afar, all mottled greens, but up close an explosion of brilliant flowers -- with tall coast redwoods crowding into the drainages.

At a friend's recommendation, we peeled off-trail, following a hint of a footpath into a steep streambed. A creek poured between immense redwoods, with lime-green ferns sprouting abundantly from the banks and a thick rug of clover carpeting the loamy slope. The air in the redwood shadow glowed with arboreal color.

After pitching our tent in the Ventana Campground, which occupies a redwood forest on the 75-acre grounds of the Ventana Inn and Spa, about 28 miles south of Carmel, we had ambled up to the bar at the inn's Cielo restaurant.

Knowing we were paying $28 a night for our campsite, we ordered a $13 hit of Belvenie scotch and an $8 glass of pinot noir. "We can afford it," I told my wife. "Think of all the money we're about to save!"

The bartender, a thin, clean-cut Californian, didn't blink at our appearance -- shorts, running shoes, T-shirts. "We get all kinds of people in here," he said. "Pretty casual for a four-star restaurant."

The bar and dining areas -- with artistic lines of clean, light cedar -- share a high-ceilinged room that comes to point in the center, like a broad teepee, with an exhibition kitchen on one side and a big stone fireplace next to the bar. "This," I declared, "beats the hell out of backgammon at the campsite."

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