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IN A NATURAL STATE VENTANA INN MESHES BIG SUR'S BEAUTY WITH SUMPTUOUS COMFORT.

Byline: Story and photos by Eric Noland Travel Editor

BIG SUR - Stephen Copeland exclaimed excitedly as he crashed toward us through the underbrush. His cupped hands held a bounty of pillowy, light-brown oyster mushrooms, freshly plucked from an oak log.

On this walk, however, we weren't deep in the Santa Lucia backcountry of Big Sur. Rather, we were on the grounds of the Ventana Inn & Spa, a few steps from a block of weathered-redwood guest rooms, a stone's throw from the fabulous Cielo restaurant - which, not surprisingly, would have a wild-mushroom salad and a fresh-mushroom risotto on that night's dinner menu.

Copeland, a passionate woodsman who works with the hotel, was leading a handful of guests on an introductory walk one morning, holding forth on topics no more weighty than hummingbirds, coast redwoods, gray whales, fragrant sage and, of course, mushrooms.

He paused in the woods at one point and said, ``The war and 9-11 have clearly driven people to this kind of resort.''

That conforms smoothly with the legacy of the Ventana Inn, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. It was established as a back-to- nature retreat by Lawrence A. Spector, ostensibly with money he earned off the 1969 counterculture classic ``Easy Rider'' (though Spector's name is not to be found in the movie's production credits).

Today's guests dip into Japanese-style hot baths, which have ``his'' and ``her'' wings and a central area for co-ed mingling. If so inclined, they lounge at a pool and sun deck where clothing is optional. Or they gear down their body clocks in the afternoon yoga session.

There is no hippie funk to the accommodations, though. Beds, linens and other appointments are of high quality. Twenty-three of the inn's 60 rooms have fireplaces, and 11 of those also have Jacuzzis. These high-end rooms are currently being upgraded with 42-inch plasma TVs, slate fireplace hearths and new furnishings.

Room rates at the Ventana Inn start at $399 per night in the April-to-October high season ($340 in the low season), but that includes a few unexpected amenities. Quail, for example. Three of them, their topknots bobbing as they walked, unhurriedly crossed the road in front of us one morning. We also encountered deer munching grass outside our room and wild turkeys gobbling loudly in the early morning.

This communion with nature is by design. The Ventana Inn is not a construction monstrosity that mocks the natural beauty of the Big Sur coast. Instead, it gently blends with the landscape.

The restaurant and gift shop occupy one ridge, while the guest rooms are dotted across another. Both concentrations of buildings are set far back from Highway 1. And the grounds are sprawling. Even when the place is running at full capacity, the elbow room works out to more than two acres per guest.

The seclusion and serenity are enhanced by other factors. Cars, for example, are consigned to a lot near the cabin-like reception lobby, and far from the guest rooms. Once you pick up your keys, you're conveyed to your car by quiet electric golf cart, there to collect your bags, before being driven along winding walking paths to your room.

Once there, you can lounge on a balcony or sun deck without having to hear vehicles rumbling past a short distance away, or the intrusive chirp- chirp of a car alarm.

The buildings themselves are unobtrusive, perched on a ridge that is riotously overgrown with cedars, oaks, vines and mature lavender bushes. Some of the unpainted redwood surfaces have long since gone gray, contributing to the camouflage effect.

Privacy is discreetly maintained by wood screens, lattice and hedges - if you want to be clothing-optional on your deck or balcony, you certainly can.

Management emphasizes the quietude of the woodland. It pointedly discourages guests from bringing their children and flatly prohibits pets.

``We're about romance. We're about reconnecting,'' said general manager Paul O'Dowd as he stood on a guest room pathway in the gathering twilight. ``Couples come here and they're arguing at check-in; they're all lovey-dovey the next morning.''

A complimentary breakfast is served at the Library, well up a hillside, or in the lobby's Ocean House. Wood fires crackled in the fireplace of each during our January visit, and the sideboards held coffee, a dozen kinds of herb tea, fruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice, breakfast pastries, boiled eggs and, of course, granola (it is so popular, brimming as it is with whole almonds, that it is sold in gift bags at the reception desk).

For lunch and dinner, there is the Cielo restaurant. A long, meandering path reaches it from the guest rooms, and although the resort will provide a ride if you require it, walking the well-lit trail in the evening is one of the profound pleasures of a stay here. Trees crowd the pathway so closely that some of the overhanging oak branches have been painted white to prevent low-bridge accidents.

Cielo's restaurant patio, with a sweeping view of the ocean, is a popular place for lunch during the temperate months - for guests and highway travelers alike - but it was a little chilly and wet during our stay. The indoor setting is every bit as inviting, though, especially at dinnertime.

Across the highway, the Post Ranch Inn's Sierra Mar restaurant provides a continental-precipice view, but it can also buckle your knees with its prices and dampen your enthusiasm with its air of exclusivity. On several visits over the past few years, we have found Cielo infinitely warmer, with reasonably priced dishes and wine selections - and impeccable service.

Youthful executive chef Matthew Millea, who cut his culinary teeth at Melrose Place in Los Angeles (alas, it is no more), produces a seasonal menu that leans heavily to regional items. We enjoyed a Sonoma chevre in a salad of Carmel Valley mixed greens, along with succulent little oysters on the half-shell from Tomales Bay on the Point Reyes Peninsula.

The restaurant also has its own vegetable, herb and fruit gardens on the property, plus that seemingly inexhaustible supply of wild mushrooms - chanterelle, oyster, blewitt, you name it. Area foragers routinely knock on the door of the kitchen to tempt Millea with their finds.

Don't limit yourself by opting for an entirely local dinner, though. Our favorite entree was caramelized Maine day boat scallops, seared perfectly over the restaurant's oak grill and accented with a black truffle coulis ($29).

On the wine list, meanwhile, you'll find plenty of California chardonnays, zinfandels and syrahs in the $30s and $40s, many from Central Coast wineries, to accompany the obligatory $145 Napa cabernets. A 2001 Alban syrah ($55), from just down the coast in Arroyo Grande, went nicely with both a slow-cooked rabbit entree ($27) and the mushroom risotto ($24), which showcased five different varieties of the little fungi.

After both of our Cielo dinners, we strolled the path back to our room and settled in among the homey comforts. All rooms have CD players and a selection of mood-music discs, plus either a VCR or DVD player (movies may be checked out in the office).

Ours also had some impressive coffee-table books. I was flipping through one when the strains from the CD player caught my attention. Could that be ...? Yes. Led Zeppelin. In this case, performed as gentle instrumentals by classical guitarist Richard DeVinck on his ``Going to California'' disc. Strange - but appropriate for the setting.

The Ventana Inn has a number of offerings to tempt you out the door of that room. There are guided hikes, plein-air painting classes, mushroom hunts, cooking classes. O'Dowd says he eventually wants to add bird- watching (with the potential for a condor sighting) and photography outings with digital equipment.

Intrigued by the breadth of Copeland's knowledge on the morning walk, we opted for one of his guided hikes and were richly rewarded.

He conducted our group deep into a forest, where we beheld a 1,100- year-old redwood, believed to be the oldest in Big Sur. We visited a eucalyptus grove that was so thoroughly invaded by Monarch butterflies that the boughs looked like orange bouquets. We scrambled over moss-covered logs to a secluded 20-foot waterfall.

We ate lunch at a superb overlook of the coastline at Andrew Molera State Park, where far below we could see an otter swimming on its back while wrestling with a morsel of some kind as sea gulls massed above, bent on thievery.

And we had an encounter with a banana slug. Don't laugh. It was right there in the middle of the forest path, bright yellow and glistening with slime. Copeland knelt and stroked the tip of his finger along its back. ``If you do this, usually its eyes will appear here at the front,'' he said. ``Because, you know, who pets these things?'' Indeed, after a moment, out came the eyes.

``People need to slow their lives down,'' Copeland said as we lingered here. ``Watch a banana slug for a while. In a month he'll be up here'' (indicating a spot 3 feet away).

Thus does the Ventana Inn honor the spirit in which it was founded. In a 1978 profile in Architectural Digest, Spector said he had heeded guests' requests that tennis courts not be installed. ``We don't encourage people to get into any kind of competition,'' he said. ``We ask them to go out and walk, look, contemplate ... .

``Ventana means window in Spanish. We provide a window to Big Sur, and that is spectacular enough. The other window is an introspective one.''

Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681

eric.noland(at)dailynews.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The inn is on the east side of Highway 1, just south of Big Sur's post office.

ROOMS, RATES: From $340. In high season (April through October), rates from $399. The inn's signature rooms are those with fireplaces and/or hot tubs. Wide range of packages available.

GUIDED HIKES: Big Sur visitors who aren't staying at the Ventana Inn can still hook up with Stephen Copeland for one of his guided hikes in the area. Details: (831) 658-0199 or www.bigsurguides.com.

OFF THE SHELF: A handy new guidebook will aid you in your explorations of the coast highway. It is ``Lonely Planet Road Trip: California Highway 1'' (Lonely Planet Publications; $10). The pocket guide is only 64 pages in length but has a lot of pithy info on sights, parks, lodging and dining, and covers the road from Leggett in the north to Laguna Beach in the south.

INFORMATION: (800) 628-6500 or (831) 667-2331; www.ventanainn.com.

GUEST COMMENT CARD

BEST ATTRIBUTE: At one with the forest that envelops it.

SOMETHING UNIQUE: While at your room, you may never hear an internal-combustion engine.

DON'T MISS: Walking to and from the Cielo restaurant on a forest path.

COULD BE BETTER: Here's hoping the flock of squawking crows in residence migrates somewhere else.

FINAL THOUGHT: There may be no better place on the Central Coast to decompress from your urban regimen.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos, 2 boxes, map

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) A bathtub with a view is one of the many ways a guest can wind down the body clock at Big Sur's Ventana Inn. The serene grounds are graced with rustic sculptures, below, while guided walks take in some of Big Sur's surpassing natural beauty - perhaps a coastal overlook at Andrew Molera State Park, top.

(4 -- 6) Clockwise from top left, the library at Big Sur's Ventana Inn glows at twilight, guide Stephen Copeland leads visitors to a 1,200-year- old downed redwood, and hammocks invite Ventana guests to relax on the grounds of the resort.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

(1) IF YOU GO (see text)

(2) GUEST COMMENT CARD (see text)

Map:

BIG SUR

Jorge Irraberen/Staff Artist
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 21, 2004
Words:1959
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