by Leo Bear, The Telegraph, May 16, 2018
Anyone seduced by the Sky Atlantic series Big Little Lies, with its melancholy soundtrack and rousing coastal backdrops, will be familiar with the stretch of California coastline that runs from Monterey to Big Sur. Filled with as many twists and turns as the Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon drama, the Pacific Coast Highway’s ocean cliffs, mountainous peaks and crashing surf supply the ultimate backdrop for a Golden State road trip.
Stop off somewhere along the 90 or so miles of coastline that make up Big Sur and you’ll discover a mix of hippy hang-outs, hiking trails and ultra-luxury lodgings. The Post Ranch Inn still retains the title for the region’s most exclusive address, but for nature-lovers seeking something less formal, Ventana Inn has long been go-to. Built more than four decades ago by the film producer Lawrence Spector, its modernist cabins, sculpted from weathered cedar, have sheltered the likes of Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. Today, you’re more likely to see Anne Hathaway or Gerard Butler next to the firepit.
The surrounding 160 acres of woodland are home to soaring giant redwoods (the tallest trees in the world), trickling streams, deer, rabbits, bobcats and the occasional mountain lion. Wild turkeys hop around the resort pecking at fennel and Mexican sage, blue jays swoop overhead.
Celebrated for its natural beauty, Big Sur is much loved by Californians and stands as one of the most heavily protected conservation areas in the world. But that wasn’t enough to protect it in 2017, when heavy rainfall and mudslides caused serious damage to the area. Highway One, just south of the resort, became impassable and then a bridge collapse to the north rendered the hotel completely inaccessible; it was forced to close its doors.
Turning disaster into opportunity, the owners used the closure as an opportunity to commence an ambitious plan to refresh the property, and in the spirit of Big Sur, everyone rallied – including The Post Ranch Inn who donated the use of its heli-pad. Eight months and several million dollars later, the former Ventana Inn reopened as Ventana Big Sur, an Alila Resort, managed now by Singapore-based Alila Hotels and Resorts. According to Doris Goh, Alila’s chief marketing officer, it is the first of many Alila properties slated for North America: three further US locations are already being eyed up.
With sustainability and wellness featuring prominently in both of the brands’ DNA, Alila and Ventana are well matched. The hotel already had an extensive list of green initiatives in place, including recycling systems, energy-efficient lighting and low-flow faucets, and Alila has added an extra layer of eco credibility with an organic vegetable garden and charging points for guests driving electric vehicles. In the wellness department, a roster of Indonesian treatments has been introduced in the spa, and workshops such as ‘neuroacoustic meditation’ and ‘charcoal drawing in nature’ encourage guests to tap into the energy of Big Sur.
The task of updating the interiors – 59 rooms plus the hotel’s communal spaces – was assigned to the San-Francisco-based Brayton Hughes Design Studio. Out went the rustic Grandpa Joe vibes, and in came slate-tiled floors, swathes of pale timber and modern four-poster beds. The rooms are now lighter and brighter, and might feature a deep Japanese-style soaking tub, wood-burning fireplace or private outdoor deck.
Following the closure, nearly the entire staff quota has returned (some had already been there more than 20 years). Chef Paul Corsentino who oversees the menus in The Sur House continues to work closely with local fishermen for Pacific-sourced seafood such as Morro Bay oysters, Monterey Bay abalone and Penn Cove mussels; and the wine cellar remains well stocked with Californian labels (10,000 bottles at the last count).
What has changed is the restaurant’s ocean-view patio – extended to provide a wider platform for spotting California grey whales over your morning latte. Elsewhere, a former car park is now a grassy meadow used mostly for events or falconry, and a storage container teetering at the highest point of the resort has been transformed into a miniature art-gallery-cum-giftshop.
The most exciting addition, however, is Ventana’s game-changing ‘glampsite’. Fifteen safari-style canvas tents have been erected in the 20-acre canyon below the resort. Each comes with a washstand with hot running spring water, electric blankets, s’mores kits and a gas firepit. Tent 12 sits on its own raised ledge and has the best aspect. Glampers share a communal bath house that has heated floors and teak-lined showers and for convenience further portaloos are dotted around the site. Access to the facilities of the hotel: two heated pools, Japanese hot baths, Spa Alila and the Social House communal lounge, games room and bar area (daily cheese and wine at 4pm), requires an additional fee of $100. The Sur House restaurant, however, is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
An instant success, the glampsite already has Silicon Valley bosses queuing up for weekends of forest bathing, yoga and meditation, while loyal Ventana-lovers in their well-worn hiking boots revel in the glow of the newly improved main hotel.
With series two of Big Little Lies on its way to our screens, Big Sur is sure to be back in the spotlight. The only question is: to glamp or not to glamp.
Stays at Ventana Big Sur – An Alila Resort start from $695 (£510). Redwood Canyon Glampsite rates start from $325 (£240) per night.
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to San Francisco. Economy fares start from £399 and Upper Class fares start from £2,787.
To plan your own Californian holiday, see visitcalifornia.com/uk.