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To Sur, with love

"Our hikes are a little different," warned Steve Harper, a naturalist who was leading a weekend wilderness trek out of the Esalen Institute here.

How different could they be? You put on boots, you huff up hills and through muck. You ooh and ah and kvetch ...

"We bow to the trees."

"What if I can't find a tree I respect?" I joked, but nobody laughed.

Nature is serious business in Big Sur.

Whether you're trekking along forested ridges and bonding with the vegetation, cantering across one of the wild beaches on horseback, or simply gazing out on the Pacific from a cushy cliff-top resort, nature is the star attraction throughout this 90-mile expanse of coastal highlands that stretches roughly from San Simeon, 260 miles north of Los Angeles, to Carmel, 130 miles south of San Francisco. The performance is so magnificent, that, in truth, bowing would not be an excessive gesture of appreciation.

My companion and I spent five days sampling three dramatically different styles of Big Sur vacations, from rustic to royal.

We booked simple lodgings deep in the woods at the laid-back 1930s Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, where the dining room was as likely to be filled with locals as tourists, chowing down on hearty fare and catching up on news and gossip in equal proportions. Our room, once occupied by the noted Norwegian homesteader Helmut "Grandpa" Deetjen himself, came complete with Grandpa's old pot-bellied stove, a slew of scratchy old classical records and a scratchy old phonograph to play them on, and journals of the old man's musings about life _ and after-life.

We joined the aforementioned "Big Sur Wilderness Experience" at Esalen, known popularly as the "Harvard of Human Potential," which runs hundreds of weekend self-awareness workshops, from Gestalt psychology to couples massage to inner golf. Our consciousness-raising nature outings were followed by huge buffets in the institute's dining room and communal soaks in a cliff-side hot tub.

Finally, we pampered ourselves at $500 a night in one of the ocean-front bungalows at the swank, year-old Post Ranch Inn, perched on a bluff 1,200 feet above the sea. When fog blotted out the expensive view, and lashing rain made venturing out unappealing, we holed up in front of our wood-burning fireplace, slathered each other in jasmine-scented oil, and, assisted by soft music wafting from the room's tape deck, dutifully practiced Esalen massage maneuvers.

The common thread throughout our trip was time each day given over to exploring the woods, beaches and cliff trails for which Big Sur is justly famous. Starting in Los Angeles and driving slowly up gorgeous coastal Highway 1, with an overnight en route in trendy seaside Cambria, we were deep in Big Sur's Santa Lucia Mountains by late afternoon our second day on the road.

We had only 60 miles to go from Cambria to the heart of Big Sur, but distance and time rarely jibe in this captivating region. Just minutes after pulling over to photograph the most beautiful seascape we'd ever seen, we'd stop again to snap an even more dramatic shot. Every turn of winding Highway 1 revealed an enticing new juxtaposition of cliff and ocean, with moody clouds, blazing wildflowers and grazing cows alternating as supporting players in the scene.

We pulled into Deetjen's Big Sur Inn in plenty of time to stash our suitcases in the redwood cabin and get in our first Big Sur hike, at Andrew Molera State Park, a few miles north. At the park entrance we paid a $4 car fee and were handed a trail map with several routes to a secluded beach where the ocean and Big Sur River meet. We chose an easy one-mile stroll along a sandy path flanked by wildflowers and, beyond, an old pasture. The view at the end of the line was everything we had hoped for _ a wide expanse of sand for stretching our legs after a long day on the road, and at each end of the beach, towering cliffs curving out to a roiling deep blue sea.

The beach did came to life as a group on horseback, taking a sunset tour with Molera Trail Rides, galloped by, trying unsuccessfully to manipulate cameras and reins at the same time. Up a bluff that was our route back to the parking lot, the breeze at the top was delicious, the view equally so, and we lingered as the first orange and purple streaks of sunset splashed across the sky.

No wonder so many artists and writers migrated to this magic land over the years, seeking inspiration and solitude: playwright Henry Miller, poets Robinson Jeffers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, singer Joan Baez, and countless others had composed impassioned works that mocked human foibles and railed against cruelty and injustice. I regretted I had neither a guitar nor a cause.

Dinner was another visual feast. We had heard that the best view in Big Sur was from Nepenthe, an informal restaurant high on a cliff with outdoor decks overlooking the Pacific and adjacent mountains. We sat at a long, ocean-view table, lit by Japanese lanterns. Devouring fresh Pacific salmon, while soulful jazz played over the loudspeakers, we thought surely life was perfect _ until a guy behind us whipped out a cellular phone and loudly began negotiating stock deals with someone in New York named Harvey.

There were no such mood-breakers back in Grandpa's room. Cuddling up under the heavy paisley comforter with a fire crackling in the pot-belly stove, we listened to the strains of Mozart playing on the old phonograph, and read a yellowed magazine feature memorializing Deetjen, who died in 1972 at age 80. He left the inn to be run as a non-profit preservation trust.

The next day we hurried 10 miles south to Esalen for our group encounter with the wilderness.

Our trek took us up the Tan Bark trail of Partington Ridge, a steep ascent through towering redwoods, wild strawberries and fragrant fennel, and along a winding creek with cascades of tiny waterfalls. At the trail entrance, we followed Steve Harper's lead, and bowed to the forest _ which Harper explained was a Shinto-inspired gesture that expressed our reverence for all living things. Then we joined him in clapping twice, a kind of wake-up call announcing our arrival to creation that also was supposed to stir our own inner alertness. Most of our hike was in silence, so we could concentrate on our breath and be fully present to the sights and sounds around us. I soon found myself entranced by the forest sounds and feeling unusually serene as I wheezed up the ridge.

Back at the trail-head, we crossed the road and followed another path down to Partington Cove, where we watched sea otters frolicking in the foamy surf and diving for fish. Then, facing the ocean, we joined Harper in a bow of farewell, before returning to Esalen for lunch.

Afterward, Harper led us on a tour of the grounds, which sprawl over 12 cliff-top acres, and include flower and vegetable gardens and a children's center complete with hot tubs for tots.

Guest accommodations, meanwhile, were spread out around the property and ranged from dormitories with bunk beds to small but cheerful double rooms with lots of wicker, and balconies overlooking landscaped lawns and the ocean beyond.

In addition to being a weekend retreat for workshop participants, Esalen also is a residential community where scholars and practitioners of the healing arts pursue all manner of new philosophies and trends, prompting cynics to dub the center Ink Blot U. "Esalen has always been willing to look at anything that had to do with furthering human potential," said Harper, a former Outward Bound leader, who coordinates Esalen's wilderness appreciation programs, and leads some 14 workshops a year.

Nobody goes to Esalen without taking a dip in the clothing-optional, cliff-side, thermal hot baths. We had considered wearing bathing suits but were assured by Harper that we'd be more conspicuous clothed than naked. Maybe so, but it was hard to concentrate on the view of the ocean while trying not to look like we were looking at all the naked bodies around us. Besides, I saw several guys sneaking peaks that didn't seem spiritual.

Time for some privacy _ which is what the exclusive Post Ranch Inn, 15 miles north of Esalen, is all about. For a minimum of $255 per night for the forest-view rooms and up to $495 for the most desirable sea-view Ocean Houses, you get to experience Big Sur's newest resort and the only one built on the cliff overlooking the ocean.

Deciding in for a dollar, in for $500, we splurged at the top of the line and spent two nights living everybody's California Dreamin' fantasy.

Bowing to pressures from environmentalists, the Post Ranch architects built the guest quarters into the cliff and the trees. The glass-and-wood Tree-House units are perched on stilts amid trees, with a row of steep stairs leading to decks overlooking branches, sky and sometimes a swath of ocean.

Our Ocean House was built into the bluff, with a sod-covered roof ablaze with wildflowers. Inside all was nouveau luxe, with a queen-size bed, kitchenette with fridge, sink and coffee maker, and a double-sided wood-burning fireplace that warmed both the bedroom and the whirlpool spa area on its other side. Soaring picture windows framed Pacific views, and sliding glass doors in both the bedroom and spa led out onto a private redwood deck.

At the crack of 10 the next morning, our bellman arrived with a giant wicker basket stocked with jars of fresh-squeezed orange juice, chunky granola, a fruit salad of mango, grapefruit and strawberries, warm banana bread, little pots of cream cheese and yogurt, milk, and two stale bagels.

We put in a couple of grueling hours of deck-sitting, followed by a recovery period in the Jacuzzi, then ventured out at 1 p.m.. We were bound for Carmel, 26 miles north, and the famous Seventeen Mile Drive to Pacific Grove, with its views of ocean cliffs, flat-topped cypress trees, harbor seals and exclusive country clubs. The sky turned darker and darker as we wound our way up Highway 1, until lashing rains and heavy fog made sightseeing a bit too demanding for our tastes.

But we got a sunny afternoon, and en route back to the Post Ranch Inn, we followed narrow curving Sycamore Canyon Road two miles down a lush fern gully to Pfeiffer Beach. The juxtaposition of wide sandy beach with undulating dunes, towering sea cliffs with arches carved by the waves, and giant offshore boulders and sea stacks, make Pfeiffer perhaps the most dramatic beach setting in Big Sur.

We had the beach entirely to ourselves as we strolled hand-in-hand along the sand. Our faces wet with sea mist, we reluctantly headed back to Post Ranch Inn, where we found the entire resort swallowed by a thick white fog. The Pacific vistas, the fields of poppies, even our own sod-covered cottage were all invisible as we ascended the steep hill from the reception building.

Perhaps, we mused, Big Sur had been a mirage all along. But then the fog lifted, giving us a dazzling view of deep green sea, towering brown cliffs, pale blue sky and puffy clouds.

Professional writers that we were, we were suddenly at a loss for words. We stood silently for awhile as the fog rolled back in, closing the curtain on nature's latest stellar performance. Then, we smiled at each other, turned to the sea, and bowed.

IF YOU GO

Except where indicated, all telephone phone numbers below begin with area code 408. Prices do not include taxes or service charges.

Where to stay (All accommodations are on Highway 1, Big Sur)

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn; 667-2377. Rustic rooms and cabins, some shared baths. Rates: $40-110 per room per night. (Grandpa's room with private bath was $100). No credit cards. Checks accepted.

Post Ranch Inn; 667-2200, or (800) 527-2200. Posh cliff-top bungalows, with mini-bar, coffee maker, spa tub, tape decks and wood-burning fireplace; many with spectacular ocean views. Rates, depending on location and view: $255 to $495 per night per room, including continental breakfast (our Ocean House was $495).

Ventana Inn, 667-2331 or (800) 628-6500. Across Highway 1 from the Post Ranch Inn, this luxury resort long has been a favorite of celebrities and other well-heeled nature-lovers. Rooms have fireplaces and decks, some with hot tubs. Rates: $175 to $890, including continental breakfast and afternoon wine and cheese.

Esalen Institute; 667-3000. Weekend to week-long personal growth workshops, cost $350 to $1,150, depending on length of program (our three-day Big Sur Wilderness Experience with Steve Harper was $350). Accommodations, including room, all meals, and hot-spring baths: $380 per person double occupancy for a weekend, $740 for five days, and $1,110 for seven days. Rates in bunk-bed rooms (accommodating three or more people) are $300, $550, and $845 respectively. Those who desire room and board only must call no sooner than a week ahead of time. Price is $75 to $115, per person, and includes dinner the day of arrival, breakfast and lunch the following day, and use of hot spring baths.

Where to eat (Except where noted, all locations are on Highway 1, Big Sur.)

Nepenthe; 667-2345. Gorgeous views from outdoor decks overlooking Pacific, though indoor seating is available. Good seafood and burgers.

Sierra Mar Restaurant, Post Ranch Inn; 667-2200; Nouveau cuisine in glass and wood building overlooking the ocean. Extensive wine list.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn; Great place to see the locals. Hearty food, wood-burning fireplace. Breakfast and dinner only. No credit cards.

Hog's Breath Inn, San Carlos Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, Carmel; 625-1044. Surprisingly cozy cafe owned by former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. Indoor and outdoor seating. Burgers, steaks, chicken, and fish.

Things to do and see

Andrew Molera State Park; 667-2315 or 624-7195. Easy trails to two-mile beach and along Big Sur River and seaside bluffs.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park; 667-2315. Hiking trails to oak groves, meadows, Pfeiffer Falls and Big Sur Gorge. Camping along Big Sur River.

Pfeiffer Beach; Not part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Take Sycamore Canyon Road, the second right-hand turn off Highway 1 south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Point Sur State Historic Park; 625-4419. Half-mile hike leads to Point Sur Light Station, built 1889. Guided tours Saturday and Sunday.

Seventeen Mile Drive, scenic ocean and cliff excursion between Carmel and Pacific Grove, near Monterey. Motorists are charged a fee at whichever end they enter, and given an annotated map showing high points, including look-outs, posh golf courses, and the famous lone cypress tree clinging to bare rock just offshore.

Information

Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 87, Big Sur, Calif. 93920; 667-2100.

Monterey Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau, P.O. Box 1770, Monterey, Calif 93942; 649-1770.

Judi Dash is a free-lance travel writer who lives near Cleveland.

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