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To Sur, with love

The Ventana Inn & Spa is a classy resort set in gently sloping wooded hillsides, 1,200 feet above the Pacific Ocean on Big Sur's coast.
On central California's coastline, the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the sea.
On central California's coastline, the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the / Ventana Inn and Spa
/ Source: Forbes

A getaway to Big Sur, Calif. will put any sports car to the test. From San Francisco, the 150-mile drive south leads visitors to Highway One, a dramatic ribbon of road that hugs central California's precipitous coastline. Here, the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge almost perpendicularly into the sea. During rainy weather, rockslides can make this route somewhat treacherous, but unsurpassed views of the rocky Pacific coastline make the drive well worth the effort. The less adventurous can opt for a flight into nearby Monterey, just 30 miles away.

With more than 200,000 acres of protected shoreline, wildlife habitat, streams, forests and grasslands, part of what makes Big Sur so special is its unspoiled beauty. Across from Big Sur's hidden coves and cliffs, nestled on a wooded hillside, sits the Ventana Inn & Spa. This resort pulls off the rare feat of preserving the spirit of a secluded getaway while providing sophisticated amenities.

Beautifully landscaped pathways wind through the 243-acre property, connecting its Japanese hot baths and two heated outdoor pools--one is clothing optional, restaurant, the Allegria Spa and a small, but adequate, gym. The 62 spacious guest suites have an upscale cabin décor, each with stone and wood bathrooms, granite-topped wet bars and large windows that open onto private decks. Rustic wood-burning stone fireplaces, which are found in all but eight of the rooms, contrast with modern conveniences like Bose stereos and DVD systems and wireless Internet access. The handsome rooms, which are nevertheless due for an unnecessary refurbishment, feature plasma TVs and cozy seating areas with oversized leather chairs. Private outdoor Jacuzzis and beautiful cedar walls make the Inn's four Vista Suites especially luxurious.

Ventana is largely geared towards couples. "For a lot of our clientele, Ventana was their first real romantic retreat, and they keep coming back," says Paul O'Dowd, the Inn's general manager.

It's easy to see why: guests, who typically range in age from 30 to 50, can stroll along redwood-filled nature paths, dotted with hammocks and stone benches, or simply soak in Japanese hot baths after a therapeutic massage. Many spa services are also available in the comfort of the guests' own suites.

For those seeking a slightly more action-packed getaway, guests can choose one of several Big Sur adventures offered by the Inn. These range from guided hikes to bird-watching to painting classes. In one of the more popular activities, a professional nature photographer escorts guests to some of Big Sur's most awe-inspiring spots, including Pfeiffer Beach and the Point Sur. Waves crash into huge rock formations on Pfeiffer Beach, while Point Sur is home to a historic lighthouse. Equipped with digital cameras and tripods provided by the hotel, guests are free to click away--and will undoubtedly relish the 16 x 20 that's delivered to their door the next day. If you take the daily three o'clock yoga class, then the four o'clock wine and cheese reception feels particularly well-earned.

The Inn's four-star restaurant, Cielo, is open for lunch and dinner. Room service is another option, but we recommend dining al fresco, especially for lunch, as Cielo's terrace juts towards the Pacific, providing unobstructed and distant views of the ocean. However, despite the scenery and the kitchen's emphasis on fresh ingredients--much of the produce comes from organic gardens found on property, the cooking didn't measure up to the rest of our Ventana experience. For example, the fire-roasted "Niman Ranch" pork chop was dry, and the orzo-mascarpone carbonara that accompanied it was mediocre. For an outstanding dinner, head across the street to Big Sur's five-star restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn, where the $75 pre-fix menu changes nightly.

Still, breakfast at Ventana is not to be missed. Guests are treated to everything from baked goods--don't miss the delicious chocolate croissants--to fresh fruit, granola, yogurt and the usual array of juices, coffee and tea. If you don't feel like trekking to the main lodge, the wonderfully accommodating staff is always happy to zip breakfast--or anything else, for that matter --to your room. Whether you need extra wood for your fireplace in the wee hours of the night or help with luggage, a bellman with a golf cart is always at your service.

Summer rates start at $459, while off season rates start at $389.

For more information, call: (800) 628-6500 or visit

Forbes Fact

The Ventana Inn & Spa has been a hideaway for the Hollywood set ever since its early days. Larry Spector, a Los Angeles producer and entrepreneur, most significantly associated with the financing and production of Easy Rider, conceived and operated the hotel in its early years. Actor Steve McQueen, actress Ali McGraw, producer Suzanne De Passe and director Joel Schumacher, were the first guests when Ventana opened in 1975. They were the first of a long line of celebrities that followed through the years, which included Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand, Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey.