Friday, December 27, 2013

Ventana Inn and Spa (Big Sur, California)

We wanted to go away for the holiday and since wed had such a wonderful time in Joshua Tree we decided to see more of Califronia's beautiful wilderness.  But in a luxurious setting.  Sort of gorp meets spa.  Our first choice was Post Ranch Inn but it had no availability for our dates.  Ventana Inn and Spa was our backup.

In the days leading up to our stay we learned of devastating wild fires taking place in Big Sur.  Certainly our foremost thoughts were for the residents and the beautiful wilderness being affected.  Coming from the east coast and being completely unfamiliar with wildfires we were concerned, particularly when we learned the fires were a mile away from Ventana, how this might impact the trip and whether we should consider postponing.  A "caligirl" friend said "a mile out is nothing to worry about" and Ventana similarly responded to our inquiries assuring us everything was fine-to come on out!

Friday Night Flight: We made our reservation online a few weeks in advance and even then the plane was nearly full. Of the 4 or 5 seats left we had to pick 2 that were close but not together. Luckily when we checked in online 24 hours on the dot before the flight exit rows showed as available so we grabbed those.

I love that the pilot told us beforehand there would be some significant turbulence because it seems to make it less scary when you know its coming. That said, it was pretty severe. In fact, the only time it was ever worse was *also* enroute between PHL and SFO-perhaps that stretch is susceptible. When I get scared during turbulence I like to look at the people around me. It really puts me at ease to see others going about "business and usual." The mom behind us offering her son Cam a ham sammy, the college student nearby discussing (at great length) his choice of major. I know all this because they all had to yell to be heard over the engines. I put my earphones in and tried to get lost in Sideways, my goto flight movie. Chris naturally slept through the whole thing.

Once we landed we made our way to the tram and then the rental car wing. Half asleep we wheel our luggage to the Fox counter, see two guys being helped and one guy in line, and think, "cool, this should go quickly." So you know it didnt. Which, how does this even happen? Fox had two representatives working and each one had a problem customer. One guy, by the sound of it, had seriously never rented a car before as he was asking several questions and making many calls to Progressive to discuss insurance options.  "Decline it, lets go!" The other guy was unhappy with the cars hed so far been given. Based on his animated exchange we could ascertain hed been through at least two. The first was too small: My knees hit the steering wheel! which a. hes like 5 foot 7 and b. he reserved a commmmpaaaaaact carrrrr (David Sedaris voice)!  The second was not big enough to hold the luggage, which he stated several times had been sitting next to his wife at the terminal for over an hour.

It was clear by the relieved expression on the rep's face we were a breath of fresh air as we approached the counter with smiles and paperwork. After turning down the offer for a mustang or a camaro we chose the more fuel-efficient fiat. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes..

Once we settled into our steed we head to the hotel we booked online based on a careful weighing of location, free parking, decor, and reviews: Holiday Inn Redwood City. As we pulled into the hotel parking garage we noticed a man rando milling about-which is auto suspicious given the hour. Then I saw he had a box of cereal in one hand a gallon of milk in the other so guess he just had the munchies.

The welcome from the front desk representative was warm and check-in was a breeze. We were given two bottles of water, our key, and information on the next morning's comp breakfast.

One never knows for sure what to expect when checking into a hotel-especially one youve chosen "just for the night" and might not ordinarily choose for a longer stay. And while I still wouldnt choose it for a vacation homebase (purely because it has a more "corporate" than "stylish" vibe), the room was perfect! I love the extra touches like the personalized letter from the manager, the hand-written Happy Holidays note from housekeeping, the paper bows on the toilet paper, and even though they arent our thing (not that toilet paper bows necessarily are), the towel animal greeting us from the foot of the bed. And they had a special remote control that helped eliminate germs which I have not seen before but welcomed as I remember seeing one of those "special reports" re germs in hotel rooms and, yep, the clicker was a hot spot. Ew. Finally, and most importantly, the room was clean clean clean clean clean.

The only downside to our stay, and I hate to even mention a downside, was that the refrigerator made a humming sound that woke us up throughout the night. When the heat was running it would block out the hum but each time the heat stopped the hum would wake us up. We compared stories the next morning and laughed to learn we both had considered ways to address this but we had been too tired to even get out of bed. So the room was great, the sleep was not.

Breakfast the next morning was not a disappointment. I imagine we have all experienced a range of quality when it comes to a complimentary breakfast. They had a great array of cereals, pastries, fruits, yogurts, breads, and, yes, even soy milk! That last one really was a nice surprise! We laughed and werent sure whether to give thanks to Holiday Inn or to California as a whole!

After making the requisite stop at the Whole Foods (Monterrey) to pick up some fruit, gorp, and clif bars for our hikes we continued our drive south which, as anyone would imagine, was gorgeous.  Along the way we knew we wanted some good authentic tacos for lunch so thanks to our yelp search we tried Balderimo's Taco Shop which was exactly what we were looking for!

We didnt know it at the time but today would be the clearest and brightest skies of our stay so what a wonderful welcome to Big Sur!  Each bend we rounded held a more picturesque view than the one before and we were forever pulling over at the many pulloffs provided to take pictures or just try to absorb the beauty of the mighty santa lucia mountains meeting the crashing crystal blue sea below.

As we grew closer to Ventana we also grew closer to the wild fire.  We were completely unsure what to expect-would roads be closed?  Would we see flames?  Would the area be enveloped in smoke?  Aside from the scent similar to that of a wood-burning fireplace a mile or so around the heart of the incident, really we were surprised how undetectable the fire was (from a visitor's perspective, from the main road-obviously we understood the terrible impact this fire had on the residents and the environment).

Soon we rounded the corner and saw the entrance to Ventana!  A winding path takes you up the hill, around the ocean, past a giant penis statue (we later learned it is a whale) with a lovely view of the water behind until finally you reach the parking lot.

We pulled into a slot and immediately a gold cart was headed our way to assist!  It powered us and our bags up the hill and deposited us in reception.  Check-in went smoothly and they invited us to enjoy the tale-end of the wine and cheese hour.  Which in all fairness a glance at the clock incidcated the hour really had ended but they graciously welcomed us nonetheless.  By this time we were the only guests and had the wine/cheese area to ourselves.  The hosts explained to us in detail the wines, the cheeses, and what pairings went nicely together.  (They also had vegan options of various crackers and a very good hummus.)  Typically, they said, guests stay 1 or 2 nights so when asked how long we were staying they oohed and ahhed at our "5 nights" response.

Settled next to the (sadly, unlit) fireplace with our small bites and wines, Christmas tree lit in our periphery, we clinked our glasses and smiled; this was a wonderfully warm welcome to Ventana!  

We "embraced the beauty of the Pacific Ocean" and stayed in a Pacific House Room which offers "stunning distant ocean views" as its centerpiece. The feel is more modern than rustic but perfect in every way, featuring: King bed, Wood-burning fireplace, Vaulted ceilings with skylights, Large bathroom, Oversized soaking tub for two, Double vanity sinks, Separate shower, Glass windows that open, 227-square-foot deck, Private hot tub, Distant ocean views, 634 square feet.

The blinds for the skylights in the vaulted ceiling are remote-controlled like Cameron Diaz's house in the Holiday so you can shut everything up nice and tight if you want to sleep in or take a nap mid-day.

The wood-burning fireplace was awesome and we had that thing blazing non-stop.  Housekeeping provides you with new sacks of wood each day and reception will send additional wood upon request.  You toss the sack, as is, into the fireplace and then use the match to set the sack and the wood within alight.  Crackling popping perfection on those cool mountain nights!

While researching area hikes we came across a perfect website called which offers everything one would want to know about choosing an adventure. After careful consideration we sprinkled the following into our time in Big Sur:

Ewoldsen Trail

McWay Waterfall Trail

Jade Cove Trail

Ewoldsen Trail
This trail was a must for us based on the description on hikinginbigsur, "The wonderful thing about the Ewoldsen trail is that it offers a highly scenic sampling of what you find with most Big Sur trails east of Highway 1. You've got your old growth redwood forest, scrub landscapes, sweeping canyon and ocean views, and a nice bit of elevation gain." The hike was a pretty one and we did indeed get a sampling of all that was promised and practically had it all to ourselves as we saw only a handful of others on the trail. Though there are a few decent spots to take in the view we wanted the official lookout point and we reached it shortly before the sun began to set. As usual, we found ourselves in a compromising position with the setting sun and a few miles to hike along a narrow trail with mountains on one side and certain death in the form of a steep drop-off on the other. Ok so probably not death but injury and inconvenience at least. And did I mention I dont have my glasses? The ones I never wear unless I am driving (or HIKING) at night in an unfamiliar area? We hustle down the mountain trying to maximize the wee light that remains when suddenly we see two beams of light behind us! Many thanks to Krista and Jeff who share their headlamp light with us the last few moments of the trail!

This morning we slept in.  Caught a little guy taking his morning bath!

We took a lovely drive south towards San Simeon to check out the elephant seals.  We had no idea what was in store but our previous experience years ago with California seals (Seal Rock, Monterrey) didnt disappoint so we were pretty excited.

For our journey we stopped to get snacks at Big Sur Bakery which had a grimey interior and surly workers. One employee coughed/sneezed in his hand and then grabbed a loaf of bread for a customer.  We thought it was gross but maybe thats how they roll.  The bread itself was ok nothing special.  As far as local shops go we'd had plans to visit Nepenthe but they never materialized (research showed it was a great for views but ehh for food).

So, snacking on our bakery bread and our Ventana-provided water (Chris asked if he was in prison), hugged by farms on our left and ocean on our right, we trucked down the highway, watching the fog roll in.

Finally we arrived!  These creatures, which I will fondly describe as giant slugs, were worth the drive.  Allow me to describe the scene: hundreds of giant wrinkled seals laying "beached" on the sand.  One lifts his heft of neck and trumpets with all his might, that huge fleshy mound that hangs from his face flapping wildly, then throws himself back on the sand as all seals who surround seem to scatter in response.  Their movements are sort of inchworm meets body slam.  Hilarity ensues as guys from the water begin to scoot themselves up onto the sand, getting only a few feet before surrendering to their mass and throwing themselves on the ground, proboscis bouncing upon impact, only to heave themselves up and do it again moments later.

Friends of the Elephant Seals were in the crowd, which was neat, giving facts and fielding questions for visitors.  We caught the tale-end of an explanation of dominance as we watched two males in combat.  She said once those two males fight, they will never fight again; basically, whoever wins has won forever.

Home in time for wine.

McWay Waterfall Trail
We hadnt heard of this waterfall previously but as soon as I saw pictures (a waterfall from a mountain onto a sandy beach near the ocean) I wanted to see it! We had seen cars parked along the roadside earlier in the week so we knew where the trail began. When we arrived we were one of only a few cars to we had the place to ourselves for some time. You walk along a raised boardwalk that weaves you around the waterfall so you are at a bit of a distance. It was really so pretty to see I wanted to be a part of it-my first thought was "I must get down there!" This thought was surging inside me and I didnt even know Id said it out loud until Chris directed my attention to a very large sign warning of hefty fines for anyone who descends. Seriously, I considered descending despite the fine; it would have been worth it to get to walk on that secluded stretch of land and to slip my fingers into that amazing waterfall. In the end, the bit on the sign about "harming nature" stopped me. If you follow the trail past the waterfall youll come to the remnants of an old building with signs providing interesting historical facts about the area, which I dont recall but is probably similar to what is offered on wikipedia: Christopher McWay homesteaded the canyon in the late 1870s and eventually McWay's Saddle Rock Ranch was sold in the 1920s to Lathrop Brown and his wife, Helen Hooper Brown, who built two houses at Waterfall Overlook. In 1961 the approximately 1,800 acre property was donated by Helen Hooper Brown to the state for a park, to be named for Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a respected resident and rancher in the Big Sur region in the early 20th century, who lived in the area for much of her life until her death in 1928.

Jade Cove Trail
This trail ended up being my most favorite activity in Big Sur. And I feel like that is saying a lot because the whole area is so beautiful with so many wonderful things to experience. What was so neat about this path in particular is that, after using a rope to help you descend, it culminates at the base of a cliff in the water ocean waves crashing at your feet. Even cooler is that sifting through the sand and rocks and shells you will find actual jade and this was exciting and appealing. The day we visited there was a couple and also a man and his friendly dog who followed me around the whole time and laid next to me in a protector-like role as I searched for jade (the dog not the man). The couple gave us tips on hunting the jade and as we talked we learned they were from a small town a few hours north and were on a bit of a road trip. When they learned we were from the east coast the woman came over to me and handed me a handful of jade she had already found saying they could more easily come back and find the stones than we ever could. What an awesome, awesome gesture! Really, Id wanted to find my own b/c that was part of the appeal of the experience but the kindness she showed outshined my desire to search for sure and is definitely, along with just talking to the folks there in general, a big piece of what made this trail so memorable.

Christmas Eve: We wanted a peaceful special together time this evening for dinner so we chose to order in.  Room service has a limited menu and limited hours but we had no problem piecing together a lovely array for our meal.  When delivered, the friendly servers dramatically unfolded a white cloth and formally set our table and arranged our ordered dishes.  Wed never had such a pampering room service experience before!  Warm low lights, popping fireplace, slow Christmas jazz, and the cool night air of Big Sur gently sneaking through the windows behind us (pauses for moment of content reflection) I couldnt have asked for a more perfect moment!

At home, for us, Christmas Eve is perhaps even more significant than Christmas Day.  The main event is typically evening as we pack hot chocolate and newly decorated Christmas cookies into the car to look at lights for a few hours with our homemade cds softly playing our favorite Christmas tunes in the background before heading to the latenight candlelight service.  We knew this year would be different but we were still determined to make it special.  We had considered heading to the beach with a blanket and wine to build a small bonfire and watch the sunset, however, we wanted to attend service and the timing just wasnt right.  Based on the type of experience we were looking for Ventana reception made some recommendations for Christmas Eve service so we took their suggestion: Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo, also known as Carmel Mission Basilica.

Established in 1771 (the second-oldest mission in California) it was interesting to learn this mission is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.  Even more interesting, it was named for Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, Italy. St. Charles Borromeo Seminary is the seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Named for Saint Charles Borromeo, it is located just outside of the city in our home area.  We felt this was a neat twist of fate we should end up in this particular church.

The drive to the church was itself amazing; late on Christmas Eve with not another soul on the road, steep mountains and vast waters surrounding us, starry skies above us.  Soon we approached the town of Carmel and followed the train of cars through a sleepy residential area to the mission.  Being on the late side, as usual, we jumped out of the car and quickly headed to the service.  What we saw was straight out of a movie-a tiny adobe archway leading to a beautifully simple sanctuary, overflowing with red-cheeked, scarved faithful singing the sounds of Christmas into the night!

Christmas Day: Our last full day at Ventana we wanted to just chill and enjoy the property and each other.


To ensure something special, we had made Christmas dinner reservations for The Restaurant at Ventana and we were super excited.  We'd seen the restaurant during the day for breakfast but that night, maybe it was the Christmas in our hearts, it became something truly spectacular!  The chef prepared  a special vegan wellington for me which tasted absolutely amazing though a bit more effort couldve been put into the plating.

Afterwards we strolled hand-in-hand down the softly lit path back to our room to find a gift from Ventana waiting for us-a lovely local/handmade glass ornament depicting a scene of nature in Big Sur.  A wonderful segue into the perfect Christmas nightcap of fireplace, hottub, and starry sky.

As with many of our getaways hammock time is always awesome time and Ventana was no exception.  These cocoons of serenity are peppered throughout the property and we never had a problem scoring one.  Our favorite daytime hammock was right outside our room on a small hill hidden by trees and flowering plants.

Our favorite nighttime hammock was in the large opening not far from reception where you are guaranteed to see amazingness such as black-tailed deer muching in the shadows, shooting stars, and even the milkyway.

A minor issue at Ventana were other guests.  And this experience is not new for us-it seems to always happen: we have a few amazing peaceful days to ourselves, then loud people show up and ruin it.  Sigh.  Please, tell me *who* is the guest that opens their screendoor and blares their music and then yells at each other (one inside the room, the other out on the porch) to carry a conversation over the music? There was just no need for us to hear the wife's twenty-minute yelling persuasion that Grumpy Old Men was the "funniest movie ever made" (and yes, I judged that comment).  After the grace period we gave hoping common sense-or maybe compassion-would kick in (it never does-see also: Miss Mary Mack in Maldives) I called reception and explained the situation, framing it as "I'm sure they are unaware they might be disturbing the solitude of other guests," and reception of course agreed.  Because who would ever be an a-hole on purpose, right....  Within moments though, our neighbor's phone rang and after a brief conversation their door was closed and peace was restored.  So maybe they really *didnt* know?  On one hand, and most importantly, I was thankful the guests simply did the right thing and addressed their actions.  On the other, though-to go through life so unaware of others around you?  That must be a gift.  So, Ventana should be applauded for taking swift action. And I understand we generally cant hold the resort responsible for the actions of other guests but what I *do* think Ventana can do is, upon check-in, include in the welcome conversation that "this is a retreat" and "please be respectful of the solitude of those around you" and possibly even specify "in particular the guests in neighboring rooms" with regard to "media and conversations."  You'd think these types of things would "go without saying" but that has been proven wrong time and time again.

A major fail for Ventana is cleanliness.  Our room was semi-filthy our entire stay.  I say semi-filthy because it was superficially clean-like, it was dusted, new towels were (usually) left, and the toilet was cleaned, but nothing else. As soon as you took a closer look though you saw remnants of past guests and super subpar cleaning jobs.  Because our thinking is "they cant fix what they dont know" we immediately gave reception an opportunity to remedy this and they actually seemed like they cared and wanted to right the wrongs; they asked for detailed examples which we gave, along with our "everything else has been so wonderful" trail off....  Nothing, however, not a single thing, was ever addressed.  In our view, this is just completely unacceptable.  They should recruit housekeeping from Holiday Inn Redwood-that place was *spotless*.

A pattern developed during our stay.  Mornings we would wake and take the pretty walk to breakfast, each time opting to dine outdoors so we could enjoy the views-which some days were clear and some days were cloudy but all days were breathtaking.

Afternoons we would go for a drive or take in a nice hike.  Evenings we would sit and talk during wine and cheese, walk the property endlessly pointing out the black-tailed deer, and of course get in our hot tub or take a bath in our giant spa tub and make santa beards on ourselves with the bubble bath.

Overall our time at Ventana was lovely and while there is just too much of the world to see to return anytime soon, it was well worth the trip!

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