Cigar Aficionado

Highlands Inn, Carmel, California

Just outside Monterey, that feeling sets in. Maybe it's the converging smells of sea and pine, or coming around a curve and seeing that long ribbon of spectacular coast, but there is something infallibly soothing and exhilarating about driving along California's Monterey Coast.

What a perfect place to spend a long weekend. Or a week. You can play golf at Pebble Beach, spend a day at the Monterey Aquarium, browse the galleries and shops in Carmel, or meander along the famous 26-mile coastal drive, with its lovely homes, pounding surf and natural rock sculpture.

Whether you're in the mood for activity or decompression, the Highlands Inn makes an ideal headquarters for a stay on the Monterey Coast. The inn is located right on the coast, situated on a majestic bluff a few miles north of the funky heart of Big Sur and a few miles south of all the bustle and relentless chic of the village of Carmel. At the inn you can eat a fabulous meal, walk the grounds, smell the clean salt air, look out upon an endless vista of sea and rocky coast and know, down to your marrow, that this is how a true holiday ought to be.

To the gourmet world, the Highlands Inn is something of a mecca. Its restaurant, Pacific's Edge, is world renowned for its elegant and creative cuisine, which uses fresh local ingredients, and for its award-winning wine list and incomparable view of the Pacific. Every February the inn gathers together great chefs from around the world and hosts an orgy of gastronomy and fine wine. Twice a day, the chefs bring forth sumptuous meals, and in between stuffings there are master cooking classes, wine tastings, mushroom hunts and tours of local vineyards. They call it "The Masters of Food & Wine," but some local wags refer to it as "Bacchus & Gorge."

Now the Highlands Inn has added a new luxury indulgence to its conception of The Good Life: cigars. The central attraction for the cigar smoker is the Fireside Lounge, probably one of the most congenial spots you'll ever find to enjoy a fine cigar. It is a large, airy room, with a beamed ceiling, a view of the ocean, a big fireplace at either end and usually a high-quality photo exhibit on the surrounding walls. Ansel Adams, who lived a half mile away, frequently enjoyed the inn, and a show of his legendary work was featured early this fall.

The humidor is also first-rate. Matthew Siegel, manager of the Pacific's Edge restaurant, makes sure the humidor is well stocked. His usual selection includes H. Upmann robustos, Macanudo 1988, Partagas No. 10, Puros Indios Presidente and a range of Davidoffs: the Ambassadrice, Special "R," Grand Cru No. 1, No. 2000 and the Aniversario No. 2.

"Business is booming," Siegel says. "We had our best July and August on record." He said the Fireside Lounge has become very popular among cigar smokers, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the lounge features jazz pianist Marty Headman and his combo.

The restaurant is quite an experience. The entire structure is cantilevered out over the bluff, so the view of the coastline and ocean is awe-inspiring. (Get there before 6 p.m.; the window tables are first-come, first-served, and cannot be reserved.)

The food is truly exceptional. Many fine restaurants in northern California now offer, as a starter, a grilled portobello mushroom. Pacific's Edge offers a portobello mushroom soup, blended with goat cheese and white truffle oil. Inventive and perfect. I had a lovely grilled sea bass, very fresh and served on a bed of leeks. Another favorite: roast leg of venison, prepared in a red wine sauce with chanterelle and morel mushrooms. Executive chef Cal Stamenov and wine director Mark Jensen offer a fixed price four-course gourmet menu, at $53 per person or $80 with four different wines; the menu changes every fortnight.

Accomodations are pricey, but many of the inn's rooms boast ocean views, spas, living rooms and small kitchens. All the rooms are stylish, spacious and comfortable. Besides, you're on vacation; splurge.

Paul Chutkow, a freelance writer based in northern California, is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gerard Depardieu.

9800 Hyatt Resort Drive
4 Miles South of Carmel on Highway 1
Phone (800)682-4811 Fax (408)626-1574 Rates Rooms $225-$650