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Big Sur is back in business, and minus the usual crowds

By: Nikki Ekstein, Bloomberg
September 8, 2017 Updated: September 8, 2017 at 8:07 am
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The Ocean House at Post Ranch Inn. (MUST CREDIT: Kodiak Greenwood)

When a million tons of rocks tumbled down the coast of Big Sur, California, on May 20, the landslide added 13 acres of land to the region and buried scenic Highway 1 in 40 feet of dirt and gravel-the equivalent of 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It was just the latest blow for a tiny community: The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge had begun to fail in February after heavy winter storms caused slides along the coast, and it will remain closed until October.

Taken together, the weather events shut off access to an entire region of Southern California that's otherwise known for postcard-perfect vistas, switchback hiking trails, lighthouse-dotted beaches and, lately, as the setting of HBO's breakout hit "Big Little Lies." Now it's known colloquially as "Big Sur Island," bounded by the closure at Pfeiffer Canyon on the north and landslide-related barriers to the south.

But Big Sur is already doing big business - and for travelers, at least, it's better than ever. "There's a silver lining for everything," began Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer of Visit California, the state's tourism marketing arm. "The people that have been there for the last three months have all been awestruck about the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that have come of all this."

Because the highway is inaccessible to car traffic until the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge reopens, travelers to Big Sur can for the first time walk or bike unimpeded along a 45-mile stretch of the Pacific coast. An hour-long hiking path was created post-mudslide as a way to connect the local community to essential services in nearby towns. Once there, you can rent e-bikes from Big Sur Adventures, a service that sprang up in the wake of the road closures.

"All the businesses north of the bridge are back in business and have been for much of the summer," said Mike Freed, managing partner of the cliffside Post Ranch Inn, which reopened in April and offers helicopter rides for guests.

Many businesses south of the bridge are open as well, and they are making the most of a surprisingly peaceful summer. "We usually operate at 90 percent occupancy year-round, since we only have 40 rooms," Freed said. "We're still way below that, but we're holding our own. I'm amazed. Given the situation, we're thriving."

Nepenthe, the Big Sur restaurant with perhaps the best view in the area, is also operational, and also relaxed for this time of year. Freed, who regularly talks to his friends there, said that while the restaurant usually welcomes 1,000 diners per day in peak summer months, it's serving about 300 now. Before the trail let visitors hike into Big Sur, the restaurant was serving "maybe 30 guests a day," Freed said.

Also open, minus the crowds, are all the essential Highway 1 pit stops such as the Hawthorn Gallery, the Henry Miller Library, the local tap house, and a crab-and-beer bar popular with locals. The meditation-themed Esalen institute has reopened for workshops on mindfulness and yoga and offers shuttle service from the Monterey airport. Even the tiny, 10-room Lucia Lodge is taking reservations again. And hiking trails new and old, from Point Lobos State Park to the Point Sur Lighthouse and Coast Road, are all safe for walkers.

There are exceptions. Ventana Big Sur, Post Ranch Inn's closest competitor for luxury lodging, had planned to close this year while it underwent a restoration and rebranding-a process that took longer, due to the natural disaster. It will relaunch in October, when the Pfeiffer bridge reopens, as the first Alila resort in the United States.

Big Sur without road trippers, it turns out, is even more spectacular than Big Sur with them. "Guests who want to see Highway 1 can still see it," said Freed, touting Post Ranch Inn's relationship with Lexus. Because there are 15 hybrid vehicles on property, guests can drive down the stretch of the highway that's bounded by the bridge closure and the mudslide without worrying about having to fill up for gas. "You're basically the only ones on the coast," he said.

And then there's the newfound possibility of walking down the Pacific Coast Highway. "We have guests that are walking to Nepenthe, and you literally have more animals than cars on the road. Deer, bobcats, turkeys, California condors, foxes … you could never do that before," Freed said.

For guests at Post Ranch Inn, the helicopters - recently approved to fly to Hearst Castle - are a bonus. "It feels like it did 25 years ago," said Kristina Jetton, general manager of Ventana, the soon-to-be Alila resort. "It's very serene and quiet and peaceful, and people are loving it."

"Highway 1 is like the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower," said Beteta, aware of her bias but firm in her conviction. "It's that big of a world icon - that's where it is on people's bucket lists." She said being there during this quiet recovery period magnifies the appeal. "It's a whole different experience. The visitors in Big Sur now are realizing it really is once-in-a-lifetime."

The slump in business may make for a unique travel experience, but the local economy is feeling the crunch, not least because of the estimated $1 billion in damages that stemmed from the landslides. "These are communities that can only thrive based on the inflow of visitors coming and going," Beteta said. The hospitality industry rallied after the mudslide to lobby local government, deregulate recovery efforts and support the locals who needed the most help, she said.

The community has come together in other ways, too. Post Ranch Inn managed to hold onto 120 of its 200 employees, offering many of them on-property housing and even letting them stay in guest rooms. Ventana kept 85 of its 145 employees on the payroll despite its months-long closure. A local deli owner has even been hiking the trails each morning to buy newspapers for locals and hotel guests.

Big Sur residents must still make three-hour journeys to get gas and groceries because their cars are parked on the opposite side of Pfeiffer bridge, an hour's hike one way.

Yet they're unfazed. "You hike the trail, and you run into somebody that you know. You check in on how they're doing and see the school kids walking up and down. It's very endearing and special how the whole community has come together around this lifeline," Jetton said.

The window on Big Sur's struggles is closing, though, and the reopening of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in October will inspire a massive sigh of relief from the community. Cars will be able to come in and out, and the remaining closures on Highway 1 will be navigable via a series of relatively painless detours.

"As soon as the bridge opens, we will be able to open," said Jetton, who is ready to unveil her newly renovated resort to the global jet set. Aside from soft enhancements in all 59 rooms, the resort will have a fully redone, expanded spa; a new pool; and 15 luxury campsites scattered through the redwoods, each with daily housekeeping and turndown service with s'mores.

Beteta teased that the epic California road trip might soon get an extension thanks to the 13 acres of coastline that was added in the aftermath of the landslide.

"We kind of understand that this comes with the territory of a partnership with Mother Nature," Beteta said. "But when you're in Big Sur on a perfect 72 degree day, it's just spectacular."

Jetton seemed inclined to agree: "It's a special place right now, but it's only getting better."

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