The late afternoon sun lies on the Pacific Ocean like beaten silver. Hawks circle tall Monterey pines. The scent of wood smoke rises from cedar-shingled bungalows tucked into the steep hillside. Breathless sighs mingle with the sound of crashing waves. Some happy couple, I think, is enjoying another perfect day at the Highlands Inn.
From the balcony of my suite, sun-warmed even in February, I watch the waves crash, the birds soar, and I can trace the bright line where the ocean meets the sky. The inn's staggered rows of two-story buildings are so skillfully set into the landscape that the viewer and the view remain completely private, leaving my neighbors a mystery, or perhaps even a dream.
In this combination of grandeur and modesty, the resort is a faithful reflection of its site, the California coast between Monterey and Big Sur. The dramatic encounter between restless sea and rugged cliffs provides an endless interplay of sound, light and scent, somehow at once exhilarating and deeply peaceful. It's no wonder that artists have been drawn to its natural beauty for decades, and no surprise that the wealthy have followed their lead, replacing cottages with mansions that still, for the most part, strive not to dominate but to marry the incomparable landscape.
This sympathetic partnership can be seen in the splendor and drama of Pebble Beach Golf Course on the Monterey Peninsula, or in the picturesque perfection of quaint Carmel, or in the way vineyards caress the hillsides by the flourishing wineries of Carmel Valley. It's an alluring combination of natural beauty and first-class comfort, the ability of money to create a place where wealth seems beside the point. When it comes to this Monterey magic, few places can match the Highlands Inn.
Located four miles south of Carmel on a wild stretch of coastline between Point Lobos and Big Sur, the Highlands Inn has been coddling Californians since 1917. Back then, guests were met at the train station and brought over a rutted, one-lane road to modest lodgings in small cabins scattered across the steep hillside. Those guests enjoyed electricity, heat and running water--extraordinary luxuries at the time. In 1983, the present bungalows were built. Yet the inn's essential character of luxurious modesty remains intact.
Today the inn, which became a Park Hyatt hotel in 1999, offers 142 rooms, including 105 suites. They nestle into small, cedar-shingled buildings, linked by brick stairways and lush gardens, above a main lodge that serves as the social center of the resort. The front desk, restaurants, gift shop and services are grouped here; athletic young men bound back and forth from the lodge to the bungalows to deliver luggage, room service, or anything else the guests might require.
Most of the suites have balconies with views of the ocean; inside, they feature wood-burning fireplaces, kitchens, and large bathrooms with spa bathtubs and showers. Sliding panels allow the various areas to be closed off for privacy, but the basic layout is open and airy, with clean modern lines emphasized by wood details, muted colors and functional furniture. The decor favors comfort over opulence, and while renovations are scheduled to refresh and upgrade the rooms, the ambience faithfully reflects the legacy of the inn's original cabins.
If you can tear yourself away from the balcony views or the cozy fireplace, outdoor activities abound. On the property, a heated pool and several small whirlpool spas refresh the weary; complimentary bicycles make it easy to explore Point Lobos State Reserve, with its rocky cliffs and tidal pools, sea lions and otters, vivid light and endless views. Tennis, horseback riding, whale watching, fishing and golf are all available nearby, and the cheerful Highlands concierge staff can arrange for entrée almost anywhere.
Desires to explore and acquire can also be satisfied by less demanding pursuits. Carmel is home to dozens of art galleries and upscale shops, while Monterey offers one of the state's most renowned aquariums and the cheerful tackiness of Cannery Row. Wine lovers can explore this emerging region's bounty at A Taste of Monterey on Cannery Row, or enjoy the scenic route through the vineyards of the Carmel Valley, where tasting rooms make enjoyable stops at such wineries as Chalone, Lockwood, Galante and Jekel.
The region is also distinguished by its abundance of fine dining and an extraordinary concentration of award-winning wine lists. Four area restaurants have earned Wine Spectator's highest honor, the Grand Award--Monterey's Sardine Factory, Carmel's Casanova, Sierra Mar in the Post Ranch Inn in the heart of Big Sur, to the south, and Pacific's Edge in the Highlands Inn itself.
For an elegant dinner with outstanding cuisine, try the ambitious new Bernardus Lodge or the aristocratic Stonepine Estate, both in Carmel Valley; Club XIX in the Lodge at Pebble Beach; and Anton & Michel in downtown Carmel. More casual alternatives include Tarpy's Roadhouse, in the striking 1917 Ryan Ranch homestead in Monterey; the adventurous cuisine of Bradley Jones in Carmel; and the stunning ocean views of the Rocky Point Restaurant on the way to Big Sur.
Despite the temptations beckoning you to leave the Highlands Inn, however, the most luxurious and self-indulgent pleasure may be simply relaxing at the resort. Linger over coffee on the balcony, birdwatching with the supplied binoculars. Explore the spectacular gardens, where flowers bloom all year against a backdrop of Monterey pines and cypresses, and craggy coast oaks. Dip in the pool, or sip a drink on the terrace of the California Market, the inn's casual restaurant. The inn often features guest appearances by musicians such as award-winning bassist Dennis Murphy and others who have stopped in on their way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Save room for dinner. While many restaurants can boast a spectacular setting or outstanding food and wine, Pacific's Edge delivers the best of both worlds. The Highlands Inn eatery, a culinary standout since the 1980s, earned its Grand Award in 1991 from Wine Spectator and recently was named one of that magazine's top 20 U.S. restaurants.
Hyatt has put a new team in place, and the progress continues. Wine director Peter Hiers maintains the 1,300-selection list. Backed by a cellar of nearly 30,000 bottles, the restaurant's broad international selection specializes in Burgundy, especially the classic whites of Domaine Ramonet, and California, with a comprehensive selection of local bottlings. Philip Baker, the young chef de cuisine, came from The French Laundry in Napa, and has worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Bouley in New York. His dishes emphasize the natural flavors of local ingredients, with a light but assured approach to sauces and seasonings.
As for cigar smoking--well, this is California. Nonetheless, general manager Ulrich Samietz plans to turn a patio off the main dining room into a smoker's retreat, and the inn stocks a humidor. "After all," Samietz maintains, "a good cigar is part of a great meal."
After you savor a cigar or a digestif on the terrace, watching the stars and the waves, it's only a short walk through the fragrant, discreetly lit gardens back to your room. It's no wonder that the Highlands Inn celebrates 350 weddings a year, and countless anniversaries. If romance runs like a vein through the earth, this must be the mother lode.
I never did meet my moonstruck neighbors. But I like to think of them leaving Pacific's Edge after a fine meal, letting go of one pleasure to embrace another, impatient, yet savoring the brief delay as they made their way through the gardens. Because it's not the restaurant or the rooms, fine as they are, that make the Highlands Inn such a special place: it's the magic of those in-between moments, which can't be bought or kept but only caught and released. They cast a spell that will keep you coming back for more. T
Thomas Matthews is the executive editor of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.
MASTERS OF FOOD AND WINE
Food and wine connoisseurs can crisscross the United States to search for the best from American chefs and top international winemakers. Or they can simply relax and let the feast come to them, at the Masters of Food and Wine, held annually at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, California.
At the 14th annual event this past February, 26 chefs gathered to give demonstrations and cook meals for groups ranging from 20 to 200. The culinary stars included Jacques Pepin and his daughter, Claudine, Chicago's Charlie Trotter, and three of America's top French chefs, Jean-Louis Palladin, Michel Richard and Jean Joho. Forty-eight wineries poured their best bottles, during the lavish meals and at small-session vertical tastings that featured such standouts as Roederer Cristal Champagne and Bordeaux's Château Mouton-Rothschild.
Nearly 10,000 plates of food were served at this year's event, including 260 pounds of foie gras. About 18,000 crystal glasses were hand-polished by 45 sommeliers who poured 3,500 bottles. Despite the extraordinary scope of the offerings, the Masters remains an intimate event, because the hotel's size limits the crowd and facilitates friendly interaction between the participants and the guests. It's not often that home cooks and wine collectors can mingle with top chefs, winemakers and sommeliers from around the country at "cast parties" that last well into the wee hours.
The most extravagant meal of the event was the Rarities Dinner on Friday night. Seating was limited to 24 people, who paid $2,500 for a nine-course feast prepared by Trotter of Charlie Trotter's, Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Carson, the pastry chef of Picasso in Las Vegas. The dinner was held at the James House, an extraordinary private house built of local granite on a cliff overhanging the sea, designed by architect Charles Sumner Greene.
An amazing lineup of 23 rare wines was served in flights organized by region, which encompassed four countries on three continents. Among the highlights were a rich and vibrant 1969 Montrachet from Maison Leroy, a long, graceful 1949 Château Cheval Blanc, a muscular 1971 Château Petrus, and an extremely rare 1971 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley's famed Eisele Vineyard.
"The ticket prices don't even come close to covering the cost of this meal," commented Highlands Inn general manager Ulrich Samietz, as he surveyed the small but happy crowd. "But we wanted to prove we could deliver the ultimate dining experience." No one present would have disputed his success, and the satisfaction of both chefs and diners heightened the anticipation for the sequel, at the Masters of Food and Wine in 2001. --TM