2 April 2006

South of Rio Road - Three Tours of Paradise

A few miles south of the crowds swirling around Pebble Beach and the Monterey Historics, the air is still. The sound of surf crashing on rocks rises to you on the gentle ocean breeze. Around each bend as you drive south, another divine seaside view unfolds, as if created especially for you.

Without doubt, the week of activities surrounding Pebble Beach is the most elegant and exciting in the annual collector-car calendar. Yet superb as the week is, at some point in the festivities, you might find yourself thinking, like Wellington at Waterloo, “Oh, the noise ... the people!”

Fear not, we have the perfect getaway. If you plan carefully, you’ll be able to “get away” without missing any of your favorite events. What’s more, you’ll experience an unforgettable drive through the outskirts of Heaven. Here are three tours of various lengths, the shortest less than an hour. We’ll call it “The Nooner.” A slightly longer tour, roughly two hours, is “The Long Lunch.” And if you just can’t bring yourself to turn back, our deluxe tour is “The All-Day Sucker.” You’ll be lucky to get back before dark. Choose wisely – and be ready to change your mind.

The Nooner

Like the two longer tours, The Nooner begins just below Rio Road on Highway 1 at the mouth of Carmel Valley. This is the southernmost boundary for most of the week’s automotive celebrations. Drive only a mile farther south and you’re in a different world. The tranquility hits you first. The air is quiet but for the distant, pounding surf. Soft breezes stir. You even hear your own straight-eight now, up front and purring. Nice.

The Nooner, like the other two tours, can be stretched or shortened to suit. If the drive gets just too monotonously heavenly, double back to Carmel – or continue south to L.A. (You’ll know when you’re out of Heaven.) Either way, you’re seeing some of God’s very best work.

South of Rio Road, the first roadside at attraction arrives in just one and a half miles – Carmel River State Beach. There is plenty of parking at roadside, and this superb picnic spot has postcard-perfect white sand, the deep blue Pacific and an expansive view of Carmel and its multi-million dollar homes. Sitting there, you’ll ask yourself, what do these Carmel people do for a living? (A word to the wise: Don’t ask.)

The Long Lunch

If you can take two hours away from the shows (or if you started on The Nooner and just can’t turn back), continue past Carmel River State Beach to Point Lobos State Preserve, a mile farther south. Point Lobos is 1,200 acres of sandy beach, wind-warped Monterey cypress and sensuous rock formations that make you feel like you stumbled onto a Star Wars set. Sea lions loll on rocks in the distance, barking like hounds with the croup. Bring your picnic basket. Eight dollars gets you into this stunning place, but it might take the National Guard to get you out.

Or skip the picnic basket altogether, and go a mile farther south to Highlands Inn for lunch. This luxury hotel has two dining spots, the informal California Market and Pacific’s Edge (dinner only). Both offer expansive views of the coastline, as well as superb dining. At the very least, stop at Carmel Highlands’ superbly restored 1930s gas station for a photo op. Your car will smile beautifully for every picture, no coaxing.

Time is running short on the Long Lunch, but you deserve a treat. Before heading back, go a half-mile south of Highlands Inn to a tiny road on the right named Spindrift. (Watch carefully, or you’ll miss it.) This one-mile loop takes you out along craggy rocks and splashing waves. The deep-blue Pacific glitters like diamonds, and some of Spindrift’s homes will take your breath away.

The All-Day Sucker

Roughly a third of those starting out on The Nooner or The Long Lunch wind up on The All-Day Sucker. Another third do the same but won’t admit it. This coastline is that irresistible.

South of Spindrift on Highway 1, you’ll cross Malpaso Creek Bridge – local resident Clint Eastwood chose the name Malpaso for his impossibly successful film-production company. Built in 1935, Malpaso is one of several historic Highway 1 bridges to come. A mile later are several turnouts, offering a wonderful view of the rugged coastline as it snakes its way south.

Rocky Point Restaurant, five miles later, was built in 1947 and is maybe the most sensationally wild spot for a good restaurant anywhere on the Pacific Rim. Indoor and outdoor dining overlook crashing surf – and we mean crashing! There is plenty of parking; no worries about safely situating your elegant car. Forget you even thought of a picnic basket, and settle in for lunch.

One-tenth of a mile south of Rocky Point is one of my favorite photo locations. The pullout on the west side of Highway 1 showcases Big Sur’s mountainous drama – and don’t miss the natural arch in the distance just at water level.

Now you come to one of the most photo graphed sights in America. Bixby Bridge, completed in 1932, is an elegant 714-foot span that’s been used in dozens of car commercials. A mile farther, you’ll find several turnouts. And deep within everyone lies the need to just sit and stare at a good bridge. Sit. Stare.

One mile ahead, a long white-sand beach leads to the large volcanic cone of Pt. Sur. This area was home to the Pt. Sur Light Station. The 19th-century lighthouse, 361 feet above the surf, is open for tours. But be warned, only the first 40 arrivals make the cut. Tours are at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday. For those willing to miss the Concours or a day of the Monterey Historics, there are 10 a.m. tours on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $4-$8, depending on your age and whether you’re behaving like it.

If you’ve managed to resist the restaurants mentioned so far ... why? No matter. You’re on The All-Day Sucker, and your lunchtime reward comes at the end. But first you drive past – Surprise! – hundreds of grazing cattle. The road is fl at and straight now, the grasslands peaceful. Hard to believe that just a few miles (and a life time) ago, you were fighting Carmel traffic.

The town of Big Sur should be Small Sur. In shade beneath enormous redwoods is The River Inn – rustic like most of the town. Shops, art galleries, small hotels and informal Big Sur Lodge follow, each contributing to the village’s lingering ’60s feel. But you haven’t eaten, and your spouse is getting grumbly. Patience – food is near.

You’ll pass Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant and a small service station with what has to be California’s most expensive gas. Now you must choose between two wonderful lunch spots. The first is Cielo, in beautiful Ventana Inn. Its menu ranges from eggs Benedict to Dungeness crab salad, oysters, clams, a world-class burger and a scrumptious chicken sandwich. And don’t miss the fries. On a clear day, the view at Cielo is stupefying. (If you’re smart, you’ll call ahead for reservations – 831-667-4242.)

A mile farther south is Nepenthe, a restaurant housed in the swoopily modernistic late-40s home Orson Welles built for then wife Rita Hayworth. Park along Highway 1 (Nepenthe’s lot is cramped) and be prepared for one of the most sensational sea views anywhere. The main restaurant has formal fare, or try Café Kevah on the terrace. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the café has French toast, eggs Benedict, three types of panini, freshly baked pastry, espresso and smoothies.

If you want to have your cake and eat it too, take your Big Sur tour on the Thursday of Pebble Beach week. That’s the day of the Pebble Beach Tour when many of the cars in the Concours run south to Point Sur on Highway 1. The cars will be on this incomparable road from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Anticipate both cool and warm weather. And while Carmel is typically foggy during Pebble Beach week, the fog can burn off below Carmel Highlands. Bring sunscreen.

Whether picnic basket or catered affair, The Nooner or The All-Day Sucker, Highway 1 invites you and your car to take one of the most unforgettable drives on the planet.

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