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Deetjen's Big Sur Inn.

People who write travel articles for a living don't usually write about the places they like most. They fear that their private retreats will be inundated by the hoi polloi. I've been writing Sunset travel articles for a decade, but here I am, starting out a new column by spilling the beans about one of my favorite places on earth.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn sits midway down the Big Sur coast, an hour south of Monterey. It's a grouping of board-and-batten shacks that from many angles resembles a shipwreck. This is not to say that the inn fronts on the ocean. No. On a coast where any idiot can command a Pacific view, Deetjen's has planted itself in a canyon landward of State Highway 1, where the inn hunkers down among redwoods and massed morning glories.

It was begun in the 1930s by one Helmuth Deetjen, late of Bergen, Norway. In a region renowned for its rugged eccentrics, Helmuth, who described himself as "a loner with an abiding interest in metaphysics," more than held his own. He roamed Europe and the United States before landing in Carmel. Eventually he and his employer-turned-inamorata Helen Haight moved down-coast to her property in Castro Canyon, where they built a home that grew into Deetjen's.

Through the years, Deetjen's drew both Big Sur locals and imported literary types like Henry Miller, and acquired a character that verged on the cranky, much like that of its pipe-smoking, Nietzsche-quoting owner. Helmuth worked his employees hard. He did not take to the beatniks of the '50s or to the hippies of the '60s, although the inn probably attracted more than its share of both. Still, despite these bouts of cantankerousness, Deetjen's became such a fixture of Big Sur life that Helmuth and Helen acquired the honorifics "Grandpa" and "Grandma."

Helen died in 1962; Helmuth died ten years later. He willed the inn to the state of California, but the state refused the gift. Deetjen's operated in a kind of limbo until it was rescued by the nonprofit Deetjen's Preservation Foundation, which runs it today. Says front desk manager Bettie Walters: "When people ask who owns the inn, the answer is, the inn owns itself. Everything we make goes back to maintenance and preservation." Now listed on The National Register of Historic Places, Deetjen's can't be altered in any major way. That is just the way owners and guests (or at least the guests who come back for a second visit) want it.

There are 19 rooms. Each has a lot of bric-a-brac, an extremely comfortable bed, and a name--the Little Room, for example, is indeed tiny; Chateau Fiasco is Helmuth's commemoration of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. None has state-of-the-art plumbing, television, telephone, or a front door that locks. "A lot of inns say they're rustic," says Bettie Walters. "We are rustic."

It's exactly this roughhewn-and-going-to-stay-that-way atmosphere that stops me from worrying about overpublicizing Deetjen's. Frankly, many people will take one look at it and find another place to spend the night. A second reason is, paradoxically, that the inn is already so popular I can't make things much worse. Those 19 rooms book up months in advance.

Why do the people who like Deetjen's like it so much? Well, for starters, the food is wonderful. The breakfasts tend toward a hippiesque heartiness, the dinners are candlelit and elegant. Big Sur is all around you, and when you want a breather from so much large-scale landscape, you can retreat to your room, build a fire, sample the weirdly eclectic collection of books at hand (E. B. White essays, The Dreadnought Boys in Home Waters), and, depending on the day, watch sunlight gild a pot of geraniums or listen to the rain lash the windows. Whatever you do, I've found, you'll feel strangely at peace.

When I try to analyze why Deetjen's makes me feel that way, all I can come up with is that more than any other hostelry I've ever seen, Deetjen's has managed to make itself into a community. You notice it at breakfast, when the dining room fills with people--flannel-shirted locals, the Lexus and Infiniti crowd in matching sportswear, Europeans comparing Big Sur to Cornwall or the Corniche--all of them smiling quietly at each other over coffee. But maybe the best way to share in it is to open the guest books tucked into each room. For decades Deetjen's guests have used these books to let each other know what they were looking for when they came here, and what they found:

The first time I came here in '59 I knew I was coming back. In the 60s I chopped wood for a room and a meal. My third trip in the 90s, good old Deetjen's...Thin walls, big fires, friendly people. If heaven isn't like this I want to be sent back.

On the way here we had a horrible argument. Venomous words with no regard for the other's feelings flew about the car. We have regained our calm and rekindled our love.

Only places of such wondrous character can fool you into thinking you are at home.

Isn't that what we all need sometimes: another home? A place where you observe your life from a new vantage point, yet where you feel you belong? Helmuth Deetjen made that happen here. Come to these shipwrecked shacks and you've come home, although home may be far away.
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Title Annotation:Big Sur, California
Author:Fish, Peter
Article Type:Hotel Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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