I am sleeping with a dog.
And I don’t mean I am having intimate relations with a sleazy guy.
No, rather there is an actual four-legged furry animal laying in the bed next to me. See, I’m in the woods staying in an AirBnB called the Sugar Shack with my friend Lauren, my old college roommate. We’re just off Highway One in Big Sur and it’s absolutely beautiful.
It’s also pitch dark at night. Like, no light whatsoever. And with the recent new moon, there isn’t even any glow in the sky. The stars, on the other hand, are twinklenuts. There are so many of them! No blue without a touch of white!
But here inside the Sugar Shack, when we shut the lights we also clearly shut off Lauren’s dog Teddy’s ability to chill the F out.
He’s as cute as they come and truly looks like a Teddy bear, hence the name, but dude’s got a bit of a psycho-somatic scratching/licking problem, likely brought on by a) him not getting attention 24/7 or b) being in a foreign place—and an extremely dark one at that. As soon as we brought him up here with us, however, he stopped the scratching.
So here we all are, sharing a pillow-top queen in a Hawaii-decorated one-room glamshack in the woods.
Our trip so far has been incredible. With Lauren’s indoor plants nestled next to Teddy in the back seat, a handful of provisional Kind Bars in the glove compartment and Paul Simon on the speakers, we left Santa Monica around 8a.m. and headed north on the PCH. We’d have six days to get from SoCal to CeGon. (Central Oregon. That’s definitely not a thing, but I’m going with it.)
We’d both driven the stretch through Malibu before, but seeing the bougainvillea lining the road to our right and the Pacific ocean rolling onto the shore to our left never gets old. Within what seemed like no time, we were in Santa Barbara where I’d been just days prior. The highway continued to go in and out between the coast and the mountains, making each mile we drove all the more breathtaking.
At around noon, we came upon Cayucos, a town that Lauren had read about for its charming, beachy nooks and crannies, and so we took the exit to explore. Its “main street” had a saloon, a seafood spot called Schooners, complete with netting and fishing decor, and a Victorian-looking house touting brown butter shortbread cookies. We decided that’d be our destination…until we were enticed by a smokey smell coming from a little shack next to where we parked, just in front of the beach. We popped our heads into Ruddell’s Smokehouse and soon enough our sweet tooth turned into a smoked albacore fish taco tooth—especially after all the people eating outside spoke so highly of them. (The cheeky guy making them also touted their premiere Yelp status and recent recognition in Sunset magazine.)
They didn’t disappoint—especially for $5.75—though I preferred Lauren’s shrimp to my albacore and hate-ate the “slaw” with apples and celery. (Why celery, why?!)
Before leaving, we also picked up some of those brown butter sea salt cookies, which bakers were making on site.
Our next stop was Moonstone Beach where we sat on large pieces of driftwood to watch surfers catch waves and sift through the sand for “moonstones” and small pieces of jade.
Hearst Castle was up next, though we didn’t make reservations. We wanted to go, but we also knew we couldn’t bring Teddy, which meant one of us (ahem, Lauren) had to stay behind. So we decided to see what was available (for me) when we arrived and what sort of time we were making. In the end, it’d put us back about two hours and we didn’t want to arrive at Big Sur after dark, so we skipped it. I was bummed, but we walked through the free museum to learn about how the publishing magnate gained his wealth and built the castle, and also managed to see the zebras—yes, that’s right zebras—that they have roaming around the ranch, before hopping back on the highway.
See, that’s what’s so great about doing this trip. It’s that easy to just stop off and explore. Yes, you do need to time things right re: traffic, weather, light, etc. But it’s really the best kind of long road trip because you never get that “When are we there yet?” feeling. The journey is the destination.
Case in point, our next turnoff just down the road where we saw hundreds—hundreds!—of large elephant seals lounging on the beach. And when I say lounge, I mean lounge. At first, I thought these lazy lumps of beige were sandbags. They were so still! As we got closer and realized they were actual seals, I even started to wonder if they were dead, as there really wasn’t much movement. Finally, we heard fart-howling noises, and saw a few start to fan themselves with sand, which seemed to be their beach habit of choice. Dozens of people lined up along a wooden platform to stare, us included. You could just watch them for hours.
After gawking for a bit, we got back in the car for the most scenic part of the drive into Big Sur. We couldn’t have timed it better, as it was around 4p.m. and the sun was low in the sky, preparing to soon dip into the sea and casting a sheer light on the road ahead. There was a fog, and the sky was actually a bit overcast, with the exception of this one area just over the water where the sun shone down in a way that led you to believe it was, indeed, a stairway to heaven.
For the next hour or so, as the two-lane road twisted and turned around the mountains, we must’ve stopped five times to look out and breath in the cool air and energy of our surroundings. And, of course, take photos. It was hard not to.
Service on our phones was touch-and-go at this point, which was both exhilarating and disconcerting. (How would we find Sugar Shack? Oh, but it’s so nice to disconnect! Where, exactly, is Esalen?!)
Finally, just as the sun was going down, we saw the landmarks we were instructed to find and followed the very explicit directions to Sugar Shack, which is located on a long, windy road in the woods, just off the Highway.
We hauled our bags—and Teddy—up a dirt path to “check in” to our home for three nights, making sure to “close the deer gate behind us and take off our shoes” before entering, all the while catching a glimpse of the lush private property before it got too dark. There’s an apple orchard, a rooftop garden filled with succulent red strawberries and land. Lots of it, mostly surrounded by firs, Redwoods, poison oak and wing-flapping hummingbirds.
Despite it not being on the cliff with a view of the water as so many of the (very expensive) lodging options are in Big Sur, the Sugar Shack is still very conveniently located just down the road from what everyone claims is the area’s best restaurant: Big Sur Bakery. So we settled in, washed up, and headed out for a feast.
We sipped on the first of two glasses of a Santa Barbara Syrah before being sat at a lovely corner table. After talking about the menu options with our obscenely nice waitress, we ordered: to start, a red leaf salad with feta, green beans and pistachios, followed by heirloom tomato pizza (baked on in-house dough) and a smoked (!) steak with mashed potatoes. But the piece de resistance was the dessert: an apple tart with a scoop of brown sugar ice cream and a dollop of creme fraiche. Simple, not at all complicated or tricksy, but beyond gorgeous.
Unfortunately, I do not have photos of our food because it disappeared too quickly. Plus, it was dimly lit, and not that kind of place. In fact, on the bottom of the menu, it read: “Show some class,” urging diners to refrain from using their phones at the table. I can get with that, and so we reveled in our day and our food.
Which brings us back to the Sugar Shack, circa 10p.m., when we quickly sank into the sheets and stopped moving for the fist time in nearly 10 hours, fading off into a deep, dark, oh-man-we-ate-and-saw-so-much sleep…with a dog.