That’s exactly the way the locals like it. This sparsely populated region, which stretches roughly from Carmel to San Simeon, is known for its dramatic landscape, where the Santa Lucia Mountains cascade into the Pacific Ocean, redwoods carpet the valley floor, and the serpentine highway seems to hold onto the mountainsides for dear life.
Many people choose to drive through Big Sur and consider Highway 1 (called the Cabrillo Highway along that segment) the destination itself. This trend likely is due to the fact that zoning and building restrictions, not to mention the rugged topography, have kept development in Big Sur at bay, meaning the area doesn’t have a surfeit of lodging options. Tourists either have overnighted at a campground, rustic lodge or motel — or they’ve shelled out big bucks to stay in a five-star resort.
But what about the savvy traveler who wants something in between — something updated, hip and still authentic to Big Sur’s bohemian and eco-friendly vibe? That’s the question Basil and Tracy Sanborn were asking when they decided to purchase Glen Oaks Motor Lodge in 2006. Basil, whose grandparents moved to Big Sur in the 1950s, and whose parents operated Ripplewood Resort for two decades, grew up next door to the Glen Oaks property.
“I worked at both Ripplewood and Glen Oaks as a teen, cleaning rooms, washing dishes, selling gas and waiting tables,” he says. “The seller of Glen Oaks was the second owner and a close family friend. He decided to sell the land and business to my wife and me.” The couple jumped at the opportunity to reimagine it for the next generation of Big Sur visitors.
The purchase included the lodge — built in 1957 — and a campground, nestled in the nearby Redwood Grove, which had been in operation since the 1940s. The motor lodge was always a place for travelers to stop and spend the night before heading out the next morning. A simple motel with humble, adobe-walled rooms, clean bathrooms and a priceless address on the Cabrillo Highway, it had great bones. And the campground, which had many incarnations over the last several decades, had a few humble cabins and a coveted position along the Big Sur River. But the Sanborns were envisioning something more for the motor lodge and campsite, which they renamed Glen Oaks Big Sur.
“At the time we purchased the property, there was quite a disparity between the types of lodging available to guests of Big Sur,” says Basil. “Reimagining our product was actually pretty simple. We asked ourselves, ‘What would we want?’ It seemed pretty clear that there was a market for an upscale but reasonable accommodation. It still took a bit of a leap of faith, trading loyal budget-conscious customers for an unknown volume of new guests interested in high quality for good value, but it turned out OK.”
Basil, who’s trained as a civil engineer and previously worked in construction management, wanted to honor the integrity of the landscape and the original architecture. But he also wanted to give everything a tasteful update. So he brought in San Francisco architect and designer Steve Justrich to reimagine the interiors in a hip — and green — way.
“I like to call it ‘homegrown modernism,’” says Justrich. “We did not take the idea of midcentury design too seriously. We made a conscious choice to be just on the inside edge of trendy and hip — everyone should be comfortable here.”
Inspired by the adobe walls in the lodge, Justrich took his cues from nature when choosing materials. “I feel that the best way to be green is to be minimal, with a thoughtful, conscious and appropriate use of materials,” he says.
Floors and tabletops are made of recycled stone. The sofa upholstery is actually recycled tent canvases, and the bed frames and dressers were made out of recycled peroba wood. Even the mattresses are custom-made from natural and organic materials by local Monterey Mattress Company. The color palette is subdued yet striking — amber, chartreuse, burnt orange and forest green nod to the hues of nature outside.
Over at the campground, they extensively remodeled a few existing cabins and slowly added more small structures, which were built off-site by Cavco Homes and placed among the ancient redwoods. “It’s a beautiful site, and we’ve worked really hard to maintain and enhance its natural beauty by maintaining its historic low-impact use,” says Basil. Light on the land, the new cottages required no grading or foundation. Compact and energy-efficient, they seem to blend into the forest, which was the intention all along.
Just above the river sits the Big Sur Roadhouse, Basil and Tracy’s latest endeavor. Opened in 2013, the restaurant — also impeccably designed by Justrich — gives Glen Oaks’ guests an on-site dining option for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks throughout the day.
With its modern farmhouse aesthetic and thoughtful, hyper-local menu, the restaurant makes a stylish and cozy place for guests to linger by the fireplace or fire pits and enjoy a noteworthy meal — without leaving the property. Executive Chef Brendan Esons blends classical techniques with sustainable practices and keeps hungry patrons coming back for more of his signature dishes, such as duck confit with skin cracklings, or local sea scallops bathed in a sherry pan sauce.
And almost no one leaves without trying his famous homemade pretzel, served with a porter and cheddar rarebit so decadent you’ll use your spoon to scrape the bowl clean.
“I was really drawn here because of Basil’s vision to create a welcoming and beautiful getaway for guests to experience what I like to call the ‘real’ Big Sur,” says Kenworthy, who’s lived in Big Sur for 21 years. “You can experience the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and coastline all along the West Coast — however, being enveloped in a redwood grove next to the Big Sur River, with the green grass below and sun filtering through the trees above — this is truly Big Sur to me.”
Paige Porter Fischer is a freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Glen Oaks Big Sur: Rates range from $225 to $590 depending on the room/cottage and the season. 47080 Hwy. 1, Big Sur. (831) 667-2105. www.glenoaksbigsur.com.