GETTING THERE: Big Sur refers to the roughly 90-mile stretch of California coast and adjacent mountains and hills from just south of Carmel in the north to San Simeon in the south. The town of Big Sur Valley accounts for about six miles of this area, starting 28 miles south of Carmel.
The northern edge of the Big Sur coast is about two miles south of Monterey Peninsula Airport, 92 miles from San Jose International Airport and 122 miles from San Francisco International Airport. Numerous airlines serve San Francisco and San Jose from the Washington area, starting at around $251 round trip to San Francisco (Delta from Reagan National, with one stop) and $279 to San Jose (United, nonstop from Dulles). United, American, America West, Delta and US Airways serve Monterey from D.C., starting at $494 round trip from Baltimore.
GETTING AROUND: Renting a car is the most efficient way to get around Big Sur. Two-wheel-drive is sufficient unless you plan to visit wilderness areas accessible only by dirt road, in which case four-wheel-drive may be advisable. We used Priceline.com to rent an economy car for $18 per day. Highway 1 is curvy and, in many places, has no guardrail.
CAMPING: We stayed three nights at the Ventana Campground (30 miles south of Carmel, 831-667-2712, www.ventanawildernesscampground.com), on the grounds of the Ventana Inn and Spa. Sites run $28 per night weeknights, $35 weekends for up to two people and one vehicle. Extra people are $5 each, as are additional cars. The 40-acre campground includes 80 campsites, plus three bathhouses with hot water. Reserve early: At press time, only weekdays and scattered weekends were available this summer.
We also camped one night at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (26 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, adjacent to the Big Sur Lodge, 800-444-7275 or 831-667-2315, www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=570), which has 218 sites, many on the banks of the Big Sur River, plus bathhouses with hot water (showers are 25 cents for three minutes), a restaurant and two camp stores. Sites run $25 a night, $35 for riverside.
The Big Sur area has 11 other established campgrounds, ranging from full-service properties to no-service/hike-in wilderness camping areas. The best views I saw were from Kirk Creek Campground (54 miles from Carmel, 805-434-1996), a U.S. Forest Service property, with 34 sites on a bluff above the ocean. Cost: $20 per night for up to eight people.
Campers who want access to a long sandy beach (a rarity in the rocky area) should consider the Plaskett Creek campground (60 miles from Carmel, 805-434-1996), another Forest Service site directly across from Sand Dollar Beach. Sites are $20 a night for up to eight people.
Details on campgrounds can be found at the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce (see below) and the Parks Management Co. (www.campone.com).
LODGING: The 17 lodging options range from $59-a-night "tent cabins" (with queen-size beds and electricity) at Big Sur Campground and Cabins (47000 Hwy. 1, 831-667-2322, www.campingfriend.com/BigSurCampgroundandCabins/default.asp?file=Home) to $495 to $1,085 a night at the Post Ranch Inn (Highway 1, 800-527-2200, www.postranchinn.com), Big Sur's most celebrated luxury hotel and spa, which sits atop a ridge 1,200 feet above the ocean.
WHERE TO EAT: Deetjen's Big Sur Inn (48865 Hwy. 1, 831-667-2377, www.deetjens.com) serves breakfast and dinner, with entrees from around $16. Reservations recommended for dinner. Cielo (Highway 1, about 28 miles south of Carmel, 800-628-6500, www.ventanainn.com/dining.asp), the restaurant at the Ventana Inn and Spa, serves lunch and dinner in an airy dining room that opens to an ocean-view terrace. Highlights include grilled stuffed calamari appetizer ($13), seared rare ahi tuna entree ($29) and vegetarian ravioli ($24).
For fat deli sandwiches to pack on a hike or eat on the beach, hit the Big Sur Center Deli & General Store (47520 Hwy. 1, 831-667-2225) in Big Sur Valley. Basic sandwiches from about $5.
INFORMATION: Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, 831-667-2100, www.bigsurcalifornia.org/camping.html.
-- John Briley