Travel

Camp out the grownup way in Big Sur’s coastal forests

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Ava Welsing-Kitcher
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Stylist’s junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher escapes the outside world at Ventana Big Sur – an Alila resort

The word ‘camping’ has always filled me with dread. Whether it was faking it in the back garden as a child or Duke of Edinburgh Award struggles in -2°C weather, any Famous Five-like fantasies were successfully killed stone dead with each increasingly miserable experience. And no, I was never a Brownie or Girl Guide, either.

Fast-forward to me sitting in a plush double bed with a divine electric blanket inside my own canvas-walled fortress of a tent. It opens onto a deck complete with its own propane-powered fire pit and an on-trend barrel sink with hot and cold running water. And it’s all elevated from the ground – no jabbing twigs or damp seeping into your sleeping bag. Yes, this is my kind of camping.

Ventana Big Sur’s newly opened Redwood Canyon Glampsites – on the Californian coast, a two-hour drive south of San Francisco – makes you feel like you’re properly getting away. Underneath the canopy of redwood trees in an intimate little valley with no wifi, the cluster of seven tents feels secluded rather than too isolated. Staff are on hand all day and during the evening to grab extra blankets, help get a fire going for s’mores (the campfire classic marshmallow sandwich – kits are left by beds as part of the turndown service), and to provide handy maps with hiking routes. There are luxurious showers on-site or, if you want to cheat a little bit more, you can also wander up to use the main resort’s pools, open-air Japanese baths, spa and gym for an extra $100 a day.

And I am cheating. I’m splitting my stay between a glamping tent and one of Ventana’s impeccable ocean-view suites, whose vast fourposter bed and immense marble tub are very California-chic. Dinner and breakfast are served at The Sur House, a short stroll away from the main buildings through a redwood-lined trail. I tuck into an açai bowl and a bright-green juice on the incredible terrace as the sun rises over the Pacific. As it sets that evening, I feast on locally caught Chinook salmon and candy cap mousse cake made with mushrooms grown in Ventana’s organic garden.

Food is definitely at the heart of the Big Sur coastline. Restaurants are proud to feature their own homegrown produce, and you’ll find some of the most revered chefs based along the route from here to San Francisco and beyond. The perfect excuse for a road trip, no?

Your next stop on a leisurely drive back to the city should be the Carmel Valley Ranch (rates from £252, carmelvalleyranch.com) – an hour from Ventana Big Sur. The resort, set back from the coast towards the Santa Lucia Mountains, hosts a menagerie of goats, hens and horses, with expansive organic gardens, lavender fields and its own bee colonies. You can become a beekeeper for an hour and fully appreciate the touches of honey that are everywhere at the ranch, from your morning iced latte to your room’s soap bar. The vibrant Valley Kitchen restaurant has a family home-inspired vibe, serving braised beetroot and honey-chilli chicken, as well as the best avocados I’ve ever tasted, straight from its gardens. The ranch’s sleek suites are nestled into the slopes of the valley, complete with a pinch-me view of the fields and forest. The idyllic city of Carmel-by-the-Sea is a short drive away, with its rugged beach and charming eateries – try Cultura, a Oaxacan-style bistro with an impressive mezcal menu.

The Carmel Valley ranch suites are the definition of Californian chic 

Once in San Fran itself – a further two hours’ drive north – you’ll find the city remains historically diverse and intoxicatingly spirited despite gentrification. The Mission district was originally home to working-class African and Latin-American families, and both cultures now intertwine with the younger locals who thrive on reinvented taquerias and themed bars. I’m taken on a food tour by the effusive Wes from Wild SF. After seared cauliflower tacos from vegan paradise Gracias Madre and Bi-Rite’s salted-caramel soft-serve, I walk off my food baby, passing by anti-Trump murals in Clarion Alley. I end up at The Women’s Building, a non-profit education and arts centre, its exterior adorned with vivid murals of feminist icons.

A short drive out of the city, across Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find Cavallo Point (rooms from £368, cavallopoint.com), a hotel in a former US Army post with incredible views back across the bay. Its restored Colonial Revivalstyle houses (where generals lived) juxtapose nicely with the modern hillside suites – with window seats you’ll struggle to leave.

Ava’s own Hollywood-worthy view of the Golden Gate Bridge

But leave you should, because further north, an hour away in Marin County, oysters are sustainably grown and farmed, and served chipotle barbecue-style at Hog Island Oyster Co. Finish your trip at Nick’s Cove, where cosy, restored seaside cottages (from £216, nickscove.com) face the peaceful Tomales Bay. The rooms are pared-back and rustic – not a world away from camping, you might say – but by this point, I’d got a taste for California’s great outdoors.

Glamping at Ventana Big Sur starts at £234, suites from £487 (ventanabigsur.com); return flights from London to San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic start at £518; for more information, see visitcalifornia.co.uk