Dust off your sunglasses and drop that convertible top! It’s time to take the first road trip of spring. Highway 1 beckons natives and tourists alike on warm days. Its twists and turns winding through mountains and hinting at secluded sunbathing spots at the water’s edge. On this road it truly isn’t just the destination; it’s the journey. However, just so that you know when you’ve arrived, it’s a good idea to have a destination in mind before you start out. Today my destination is Nepenthe.
Just below Carmel, as you enter the Big Sur basin there is a restaurant that has been part of California history since its opening in 1949, yet it’s entrance is tucked into the landscape so discreetly that it is easy to miss. Nepenthe is more than a restaurant though and is a delightful destination for a day trip.
I first heard of Nepenthe from a friend who used to stop there for a meal at the end of his camping trips to Big Sur, before heading back home. It signaled the end of his trip, but was a highlight he described with such enthusiasm I just had to find this place; I invited him to come along share it with me for my first time.
There is a certain excitement in planning any trip that permeates events prior to departure: we had to make sure we had everything we might need: a camera (0r two), some bottles of water, sunscreen and hats were our essentials for the trip. We packed our few things into his Saturn convertible after lunch and headed south. Our plan was to reach Nepenthe for a sunset dinner on the terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean so we leisurely completed our morning chores before heading off on our trip. Light traffic sped our trek to the ocean and we spotted our first breakers at Half Moon Bay and the air was suddenly cleaner and salty as it brushed past us. If we had left earlier we might have stopped to admire the lighthouse we spied, but rolled on past this time promising ourselves we would return soon as we snapped quick photos out the window as an aid to ailing memory.
Santa Cruz grew up around the highway, so on our way through town we stopped for gas and to clean the windshield: we had encountered quite a few bugs already! (Actually, it was the ones we squished that created the problem.) A little more sunscreen and we were on our way again, ready for more wind rushing through our hair.
The twists of road never fail to disappoint me with new views of the ocean cliffs or beaches that fly past to be replaced by wooded areas and farmland before reappearing as I catch my breath each time marveling at the beauty of the swells and the distant horizon.
Monterey and Carmel both whizzed past: we were close. The traffic slowed a little and suddenly we rounded a corner and we were there! I would have missed the driveway on my own, but Kenne pulled in deftly finding parking in a shady space near the walkway up to main dining room. No ocean view from the lot, but the walkway overshadowed by trees was cool and inviting after our long sunny drive. Quiet, like the depths of a forest, surrounded us so we whispered as we ascended the trail. Each turn on the walk unveiled a new view: here a birdbath, there a fountain, next an old English style phone booth, until you reach the top where a graceful wooden statue of an eagle dominates the entrance to an enormous patio.
The terrace is graced by an enormous fireplace and concrete tiers along the inner side covered with colorful pillows for lounging comfortably while enjoying a glass of wine and the panoramic view of the coastline. This view is worth the drive all by itself, but the terrace hums with history. This is the site where folk singers and dancers of past decades shared their passion for the arts, where political figures lounged discreetly and Hollywood icons blended in nearly unnoticed by the bohemian locals that frequented the establishment. Somehow their presence is still hanging there for new visitors to drink in and enjoy.
Nepenthe Patio Firepit
The restaurant is on the far side of the terrace, the bar is to the right of the entrance convenient to both the dining room and the terrace. Our table, for which there was no wait at all, is on the far terrace overlooking the ocean with a few beautiful trees shading us as the sun descended for the night.
Red Wine and Ambrosia Burgers, yum! The wait was short but luxurious for the food, and the wine showed up very quickly: the service is top notch! Still, there was no pressure to rush through our meal and we lingered over our wine while the sun melted into the horizon.
As we strolled around after dinner the fire was roaring in the terrace fire pit while other patrons found seats on the terrace we roamed toward the gift shop that was just closing as we arrived. It is bright and spacious, offering many locally created items as well as the book Nepenthe by Romney Steele, a granddaughter of the founders. Romney grew up on the iconic grounds in the family home that is still nestled above the restaurant although no longer inhabited by the family.
The beautiful day was fading and the fireplace blazed as we made our way back to our car and headed back home. The destination was divine! Be sure to visit when you’re in the area, or just go for the view and to steep in the Bohemian soul of this beautiful place.