If you’re looking for a California getaway that offers amazing ocean views, wonderful hikes in the woods, fine dining, and accommodations at every price point, you can’t go wrong with Big Sur. It’s got to be one of the most romantic destinations in California.
Here are my tips for where to stay, where to eat, and what to do while you’re in Big Sur to make it a wonderfully romantic vacation.
Big Sur is a small community located along a beautiful stretch of the California coast, just a little over a five-hour drive north from Los Angeles. Most of the route is picturesque, so the drive seems way quicker than it is, especially compared to driving on the 5 to San Francisco. The drive, especially as you go north, actually becomes part of the vacation.
So, it’s close enough to Los Angeles that you could do it in two nights if you had to.
If you want to continue on to San Francisco, it’s a little under three hours more.
Where to Stay
These are my recommended accommodations in Big Sur.
Note, if you intend to do a “working vacation”, Big Sur is not a good choice because cell reception and Internet access are spotty or nonexistent, even at some of the best resorts. Many rooms have no TVs either, but I can’t really think of anything worse than watching TV while you’re in Big Sur.
Pulling Out All the Stops: Post Ranch Inn
I’m going to start with a resort that has been called one of the most beautiful hotels in the United States, Post Ranch Inn. Before I get too far though, let me warn you that the prices here are typically over two thousand dollars per night!
But, the grounds, surroundings, and service are impeccable. Most of the units are completely separate buildings. Many of them are right on the cliffs with ocean views, with the rest in the forest, kind of like treehouses on stilts.
After you check in, their staff will unload the bags from your car and drive them to your room. There, you’ll find complimentary wine, cheese, water, and premium snacks.
There are two infinity pools kept at Jacuzzi-temperature and one lap pool that is long enough to actually swim laps in!
There are also hiking trails through Redwood groves that take you throughout the property. You can visit their gardens where they have chickens and grow many of the vegetables for their acclaimed restaurant, Sierra Mar. Or, browse the art museum that has a rotating exhibit!
If you don’t want to walk, you can call the front desk and a driver in a Lexus will be at your door in minutes. If you want to dine at a local restaurant, they’ll make the reservations, drive you there and pick you up.
Of course, there’s a spa, fitness center, yoga classes, and even a garden tour and falconry classes (albeit at extra charge).
If you want the ultimate in romance and luxury, and if you have the means to afford the nightly rate, the Post Ranch Inn will not disappoint! It’s worth saving up for and splurging if you can!
Alila Ventana Big Sur
Just inland and across the street is an equally expensive resort called Alila Ventana Big Sur. We have not tried this resort, but the amenities look amazing. The only caveat here is that they don’t have cliff-side rooms like Post Ranch does because it is inland.
Charming, Quaint, and Romantic: Deetjens Big Sur Inn
If Post Ranch is out of your budget, then consider a totally different kind of place to stay: Deetjens Big Sur Inn, which has a rustic bed-and-breakfast type of feel. We had dinner at their restaurant and were blown away at how cozy and romantic it was. This inn is truly magical and charming.
They offer rooms at many price points too. If you’re really on a tight budget, their cheapest rooms share a common bathroom but are still charming.
Glamping at Alila Ventana
In addition to their sky-high expensive resort, Alila Ventana also offers luxury glamping and a campground!
I’m personally not a huge fan of camping, but I love glamping. It takes the best parts of camping without the hassles of real camping. This can be super romantic if you’re both into it. Make a fire and watch the stars at night.
If you have your own tent and sleeping bags and you’re up for a little more adventure, then you can opt for full-blown camping at Alila Ventana, which runs $80/night.
Just note that as a camper or glamper you do not get full access to the resort amenities, unfortunately. But, you can dine at the restaurant.
Of course, there are cheaper campgrounds run by the National Park Service. The campgrounds at the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park get good reviews online (although the lodge there does not). You may have to reserve six months in advance during peak periods though.
Where to Eat
Big Sur has some surprisingly great food options ranging from fine cuisine to some of the best BBQ I’ve had outside of Texas!
At the high end, we have the restaurant at Post Ranch Inn called Sierra Mar. With its glass walls, it is perched at cliff’s edge with some amazing ocean views. Every course of the New American prix fixe menu was good; some, like the duck, were great, though serving sizes were always small.
The next night we had dinner at the Restaurant at Deetjens, where we were blown away by the rustic down-home romantic atmosphere; a complete departure from Sierra Mar. Most of the dishes were great but we weren’t as crazy about the paella. Although it was a huge (could have served two people) portion and very hearty, it was brought down by the heavy amount of sauce.
Still, for the ambiance and other dishes, Deetjens was very memorable for us, at a fraction of the cost of Sierra Mar. It definitely should be on your short list for dinner at Big Sur.
A “must” for many visitors to Big Sur is having a meal at Nepenthe. Others might consider it somewhat touristy. The spectacular views, however, are undeniable.
The problem with Nepenthe though is that they don’t take reservations. If you go at 5:30PM on a Saturday night, you might be faced with a two-hour wait. We couldn’t spare that kind of time during our trip, but if you go during the low season, or during off-hours, you might be able to enjoy this restaurant with much less of a wait. I would recommend them for an early breakfast.
Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant
We heard great things about the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. They were about to close and almost sold out of their baked goods when we went, so we didn’t get to try anything, but it’s on our list for next time. It has a charming but rustic feel inside.
Big Sur Smokehouse
Last but not least is the Big Sur Smokehouse, located right at the entrance of Alila Ventana and across the street from Post Ranch Inn. To be clear, this is not a place for a romantic dinner, but we were blown away at how good their BBQ meats and sides were. Their BBQ chicken was some of the best we’ve ever had.
After a long hike, this place is just what you need. Unless you’re a vegetarian, I’d say it’s a “must” during your stay at Big Sur.
The beautiful cliffs, coves, and beaches are the main attraction at Big Sur. As you drive up the coast towards Big Sur, you can stop at any viewpoint to catch some great scenery. But you should not miss McWay Cove and Partington Cove.
One of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen (including in Hawaii) is McWay Cove, with its famous 80-foot waterfall. If I had to be marooned on a beach, I’d want it to be this one. Imagine taking a shower in that waterfall every morning!
There is a parking lot on the east side of the road. From there, you hike about half a mile on the McWay Waterfall Trail to an overlook point where you can see the gorgeous cove and waterfall from above. Thankfully, there is no access to the cove itself (it is dangerous and actually a citeable offense to go down there), keeping it clean and pristine.
Note, this is a popular attraction, so if you’re visiting during the peak months, you might want to hit this first thing in the morning to avoid crowds.
Another “must-see” is Partington Cove. Park on the street, then walk about a mile or so on the Partington Cove trail. Go through the tunnel to emerge into a beautiful cove with emerald blue water. If you’re adventurous you can hike out onto the rocks. This is what Big Sur is all about!
Bixby Bridge (Monterey)
If you are continuing on to San Francisco, you’ll pass over the Bixby Bridge about twenty minutes north of Big Sur. Once on the other side, it’s worth stopping to take in the view of the bridge and cliffs.
Even if you are not a hard-core hiker, you can access some incredible scenery and views if you are able to walk just one mile. For those who really want to hike, there are plenty of longer trails of course! Here are the ones we enjoyed.
Pfeiffer Falls Hike
Besides the short coastal hikes I’ve already mentioned, I would say that an inland hike that is also a “must-do” is the Pfeiffer Falls trail, located in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. There is a fee for parking, but it’s worth it.
The hike to the falls is short, less than a mile each way. The trail recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation with beautiful bridges, boardwalks, and paths added. Some of it is even wheelchair-accessible. So, there’s really no excuse for missing this hike. For those who want more, there are plenty of offshoots from this trail to explore.
While the waterfall at the end is not super spectacular, the hike itself is beautiful.
Tanbark Trail to the Tin House
I already mentioned the Partington Cove trail that goes to the ocean. But, you can also take the trail inland and into the mountains on the Tanbark Trail. If you’re into abandoned buildings, at the top are the rusty ruins of a metal building to explore.
The first part of the Tanbark Trail is heavily wooded and runs along Partington Creek. If you just want a short but scenic hike among gorgeous redwoods, just do this part.
After that, the trail is much steeper with more exposed single-track trails and switchbacks. You can do this trail as a loop, or an out-and-back. We encountered many hikers who turned around before reaching the top. The total elevation gain is 2000 feet.
I wouldn’t say reaching the Tin House is a “must-do”, but it was a great workout and it was a great way to experience nature. If you’re not into a long hike, just do the first part along the creek, since that is the most picturesque part.
There are many other scenic and wonderful trails in Big Sur. For instance, the trail that goes inland from McWay Falls, called the Ewoldsen Trail, looks great. Unfortunately, it was closed when we were there. Something for next time!
One Oddity Not to Miss: The Henry Miller Memorial Library
If you are into quirky book stores like The Last Bookstore in DTLA or Bart’s Books in Ojai, you have to check out the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. It’s part bookstore and part outdoor art gallery and performance center. It’s named after, and dedicated to, the writer and Big Sur resident Henry Miller. To say it’s quirky is an understatement. You just have to experience it to know what it’s like.
These are some of the attractions that make Big Sur one of the most romantic getaways in California. While these are some of the highlights we discovered in Big Sur, there are undoubtedly many more. I encourage you to explore and find your own gems there! Please leave your questions or comments below! – Brian