The plan is to drive north up Hwy 1 to San Francisco, taking in the spectacular sights, specifically, Big Sur. Dawn finds us as far as Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara. Wrestling a bit of sticky curtain away from the window at Motel 6, I see there’s a lorry parked by the pool and, above it, the highway, and over that, slashing rain. It’s an unusual deluge apparently, and there are mudslides and rock falls and whatnot. We have breakfast at the Shoreline Beach Cafe, Santa Barbara, get caught for speeding and can’t see Hearst Castle for the thick fog (although do enjoy the sci-fi weirdness of the announcements echoing through the cavernous entrance hall: ‘ticket holders for the 2.15 tour proceed to Gate No. 3 . . .’, and the marketing: Hearst jerky, Hearst sweatshirts, Hearst wines). Everyone looks wet, cold and miserable except the people in the fuzzy archive film showing in the shop who look merry and rich.
Brave the driving wind to watch elephant seals cavorting by a car park (on a beach, obviously). The first of the big males have arrived from Alaska, says the guide ranger man, referring, presumably to the seals. And then, miraculously the sun comes out and turns everything into steam, just in time for sunset and expensive but, to be fair, great Californian wine at Nepenthe, jutting out over the Pacific. Everyone loves Nepenthe; it’s been a stop between San Francisco and LA for decades. Rita and Orson, Henry Miller and Richard Burton and Liz Taylor all figure in its much-touted history.
After trying one lodge that was charging $550 a night we were kiss-the-ground grateful to spot Fernwood. The Children at Play sign at the top of the dark dripping trail to the Big Sur river was a little creepy late on a December night, but the cabins under the redwoods by the store and Redwood Grill were cosily rustic, and the food, hot and hearty. Lots of wood, chopped and growing. There are tent cabin things and camping sites by the river, camping supplies and maps of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on sale, and while the campers I spotted hunched over their Macs, seeking shelter in the bar didn’t look ecstatic, I reckon this would be a top base for a few days should it ever get warm again.
Nepenthe: 48510 Highway #1, Big Sur, (831) 667-2345
Fernwood: 47200 Highway 1, 831 6672422 http://www.fernwoodbigsur.com. Cabins from $110.