A cooling fog rolled in that afternoon, followed by a late-night storm that steamed in off the Pacific. For hours the sky boomed and flashed as a waterfall of rain drenched the rocky shoreline and heavily forested hills of this coastal stretch known as the Gateway to Big Sur.
Earlier that day, a blazing white sun made things unseasonably warm as we turned off California Hwy. 1 and up a steep driveway to the Carmel Highlands Inn, which is really two adjoining properties under one umbrella — a Hyatt hotel and a timeshare "residence club." The inn is 4 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea and a short hike from Point Lobos State National Reserve. Non-guests are invited to stop by for a look-see, a bite and a bike rental.
The charmingly retro inn opened in 1917 and rented "cabins in the Monterey pine forest." At the time, owner J. Frank Devendorf told the Monterey Herald that his inn "combined the rustic qualities of its setting, yet offered travelers all the luxury that the progress of the new century could offer."
After various ownerships and expansions, the 48-room hotel became a Hyatt property in 1995. A year ago, it and the adjoining timeshare — 94 condominiums that are rented as available — were purchased together and are run under the Hyatt brand.
Brando slept here
The properties form a nicely landscaped 11-acre oasis that has long resisted the trend among many older hotels to "sanitize" much of their character in the name of modernization. Still, some of the structures have looked dated for a while. To keep up, the condos were "gently remodeled" two years ago, with grander updates in the works for the hotel, said managing director Mel Bettcher.
"We're planning renovations of the hotel rooms, the restaurants and the lobby area, but absolutely we're looking to preserve our rustic coastal feel," Bettcher said. The project is scheduled for completion in early 2016.
The Highlands Inn has been a special destination for generations of Californians, and for the celebrities-of-the-day who have stayed and played here over the decades — Ansel Adams, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julia Child, Robert Redford, Steven Tyler and Christina Aguilera among them.
One of the hotel's primary draws has long been as a wedding and honeymoon destination. A wedding chapel was part of the grounds from the 1950s through the 1980s (when brunch was $5), and the brass bell that hung in its spire is now an attraction in the lobby. "[Hundreds of] couples young and old came to the romantic retreat to exchange and renew their wedding vows," reads the plaque.
These days, the hotel hosts about 60 formal ceremonies a year, and their attendant rehearsals, dinners and receptions. During our visit, a jubilant wedding reception for 120 guests briefly brought to mind some of the more amusing scenes from Vince Vaughn's "Wedding Crashers."
Weddings aside, the inn's biggest attractions are its prime location, hidden on a hillside above twisting Hwy. 1, and its reputation for exclusivity as a "boutique hideaway." An underlying but pervasive sense of privacy and discretion are included in the room rates, which are adjusted seasonally. Hotel rooms go for $350 to $900 a night, and condos range from $500 to $1,500. Part of what that buys are unsurpassed vistas from dining rooms and decks of sunsets and ocean views, stands of coastal cypress and rocky coastline.
The good news for visitors to the Monterey Peninsula is you needn't be a hotel guest to sample some of the amenities, including the restaurants, and explore the lush grounds, where trails and stone stairways meander through cypress and color-splashed bougainvillea.
We strolled past walls of native stone supporting balconies that look over the ocean on one side and up at the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other.
Inside the high-ceiling main lodge are the intimate Sunset Lounge (small plates and drinks) and the sprawling wood-and-stone Fireside Lounge, where local bands show up to play on Friday and Saturday nights. One evening, the space was packed with exuberant couples showing off the finer points of West Coast swing.
The showcase restaurant, the four-star Pacific's Edge, was included on USA Today's list of the nation's top 10 restaurants with a view. Its wine cellar holds 3,400 bottles. We shared wild mushroom-stuffed ravioli and a chunk of grilled wild salmon, the flesh juicy, the skin as crisp as a cracker.
Highlands Inn also has a unique program: The public can call ahead and arrange for a picnic to be packed in an old-school wicker basket (for up to four) or a backpack (for two), for $35 a person, with a refundable $50 deposit. Any necessary cutlery is included.
Our picnic came with prosciutto sandwiches, fresh fruit, salad, cheeses with apricots, strawberries and candied pecans, and other items. We drove a short hop to Carmel River State Beach, spread a blanket and listened to the whoosh-boom of waves on sand. For a while, the world was on hold.