Kirk Gafill is experiencing both the stress of being a business owner and a family man in the 45-mile stretch of Highway 1 that last winter became known as “Big Sur Island.”
Cut off from car travel to the rest of the world last February after a series of extreme storms battered the coast, causing landslides to the south and a bridge failure to the north, the “island” is home to iconic restaurants like Gafill’s family-owned Nepenthe restaurant, a Big Sur landmark since 1949. After being forced to shut down for a brutal eight weeks, Nepenthe reopened just as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay was going to press, with the hope of serving 40 to 60 meals a day at first, down 90% from the usual 400 to 600, as continuing road closures meant that its guests would be mostly limited to locals and the handful of tourists being helicoptered in to next-door Post Ranch Inn.
The storms have also forced Gafill, Nepenthe’s general manager, to endure lengthy separations from his wife and son, who after the bridge went out began staying on the Monterey Peninsula so that his son could attend his usual classes at Carmel High School. The arrangement meant that seeing his family typically required Gafill to hike a half-hour through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on a steep and winding trail open just to locals, then drive up in a car parked on the other side—a process that added an hour or more to the trip, and could be delayed by weather and road conditions. (And the alternative, a backroads loop south to Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and north via Rt. 101 available to locals at strictly regulated times, takes hours longer.)
“This year has been the granddaddy of them all,” says Gafill. “Mother Nature really knocked us out—it’s definitely the most challenging that I can remember.”
Doing business in Big Sur has always been a challenge. But what Gafill—and the rest of the Big Sur hospitality community—have been facing in recent months offers a peek into the particular difficulties of running a restaurant in this stubbornly wild corner of the region—and a sense of why its denizens are so grateful for the outside help that got the area at least partly back in business in time for summer.
“Restaurants on the Peninsula immediately stepped up and made jobs available” for employees of affected Big Sur establishments, he says, and Monterey County churches and community groups also quickly offered aid and assistance. Also lending a helping hand was The Barnyard in Carmel, which hosted the Big Sur Fashion Show in May and made room for a new venue for the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which aside from being a shrine to the late author, is a bookstore and vital performance center for the Big Sur community.
Even more promising, a regional task force came together to find ways to encourage travel to Big Sur this summer, along with taking a long-term look at tourism challenges in the area.
The fire-and-flood cycle is nothing new for the remote coastal community, but the past year has been extreme and extraordinary. It began with the devastating Soberanes Fire last summer, which destroyed dozens of homes and laid wildlands bare after burning more than 11 weeks and consuming more than 130,000 acres. In the winter, almost 80 inches of rain caused slides, slips and irreparable damage to the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which was demolished in March to make way for a new span to be installed by mid-September. At press time, Caltrans was aiming to open car traffic to the public from the north and south via Nacimiento-Furgusson Rd. and Rt. 101 by mid to late June, but the active Mud Creek slide had cut off public travel on Rt. 1 north to Big Sur from further south until further notice.
But even after Highway 1 opens to the south, chances are that there won’t be anything like the usual onslaught of tourists who normally come through Big Sur during the summer. Some 3 to 4 million people visit in a typical year, the majority in spring, summer or fall. (Businesses on the north side of the Pfeiffer Canyon gap, like Big Sur River Inn and Fernwood, continue to be open and accessible to the public, although as of press time most state parks in Big Sur were still closed.)
“We’re not going to get the drive-through traffic,” this summer, says Stan Russell, general manager of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, noting that tourists usually combine their visits to Big Sur with a drive to or from the Monterey Peninsula or San Francisco Bay Area.
“We’ve gone from fires to floods to mudslides,” says Russell. “It’s a tough double-whammy to come back from.”
Nepenthe and its Phoenix Gift Shop, Post Ranch Inn and Hawthorne Gallery reopened on April 20 despite the obvious complexities involved with staffing and supplies. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which offers lodging and meals, was planning to reopen when access to the south opened. “We will more than likely have a slightly modified menu and very slimmed down staffing numbers but we are really looking forward to reopening,” says spokeswoman Jeanne Crowley, who notes that storm damage to some rooms is being assessed and plans are being made to stabilize a hillside. Other establishments, like Ventana and Big Sur Bakery, declined to name an opening date (although the bakery has been having wildly successful pop-ups in Carmel). Big Sur Tap House and Big Sur Deli never closed.
Nepenthe’s closure after the February storms was its longest ever, but Gafill saw it as a perfect opportunity to shine it up, so he embarked on a massive cleaning and refurbishing project. “We’ve been cleaning, painting, resurfacing,” he says. “The bar looks the best that it has since (Nepenthe opened) in 1949.”
Opening in time to celebrate the restaurant’s 68th anniversary in April was important to Gafill; it’s also what Big Sur needed to kick off its recovery and put employees back to work, he says, not that it’s going to be easy with limited food and supply deliveries, as well as a whole host of ongoing challenges for residents.
Nepenthe is one of the legendary places that people think of when they dream of Big Sur, with a view from its deck that seems to go on forever across the Pacific.
When his grandparents Bill and Lolly Fassett bought the property in 1947, Highway 1 was a mere decade old, and Americans were just starting to catch on to what a spectacular drive it was. Thanks to the lifting of World War II gasoline rationing and the desire of newly prosperous families to hop in their Chevrolets and go sightseeing, Big Sur became a sought-after destination.
Now the push to make Big Sur accessible again has been taken on by a multi-agency effort, the Big Sur Economic Recovery Task Force. Formed by supervisor Mary Adams and including the Monterey County Hospitality Association and the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the organization is looking at a variety of options for transporting visitors and employees to Big Sur. The agencies are also examining long-term issues concerning Big Sur tourism, such as availability of public restrooms, degradation of the environment and illegal parking, says Butch Kronlund of Coast Property Owners Association Big Sur.
All that being said, the current challenges facing Big Sur tourism aren’t entirely a bad thing.
For the first time in many years, there are now last-minute stays available in the accessible area north of Pfeiffer Canyon—and some are less expensive than usual. “Booking.com is now offering discounted rooms,” says Russell. (Glen Oaks Big Sur is among those offering deals.)
And without the usual din of traffic and crowds of tourists, this year will also offer a singular opportunity for visitors to relish the stillness and hear the sounds of birdsong and rushing water in the distance.
“It’s not going to be a normal season by a long shot, but it will be a superior and unique experience for those who come,” says Gafill. “It’s going to be one of the most exclusive enclaves in the world—you can come and enjoy Big Sur as people haven’t enjoyed it for several generations…this is like what it was like for me as a child.
BEFORE YOU GO: As of press time, while businesses north of the failed Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge were accessible by car to the public, the foot trail providing access from the north to businesses south of the bridge required passes that were still only available to people who live or work south of the bridge. Public car traffic to the area south of Pfeiffer Canyon bridge had not yet resumed. For the most up-to-date information, contact Caltrans (888.427.7623), the Big Sur Ranger Station (831.667.2315) and watch the blogs bigsurkate.wordpress.com and blogbigsur.wordpress.com.