Stylish, affordable green at Glen Oaks Big Sur

25 April 11

| Greening with Adobe |

Beach waterfall, Julia Pfeiffer State Park in Big Sur, California USA

Pacific fury flashing on rocks that rise like gloomy sea shroud towers out of the cove, the bingbang cove with its seas booming inside caves and slapping out, the cities of seaweed floating up and down you can even see their dark leer in the phosphorescent seabeach nightlight.—from Jack Kerouak’s novel, Big Sur (1962)

The 75-mile stretch of Highway 1 running through Big Sur, California is justly famed as one of the most scenic driving routes on the planet. Its breathtaking coastline has been compared to Italy’s Amalfi Coast, but without the gawking crowds and stifling traffic jams.

Colorful art gallery in Big Sur, California USA

Big Sur art gallery: spiritual meets zany

Here, the Santa Lucia Mountains rise an average of 3,000 feet only 3 miles from the blue Pacific. Some peaks even top the 5,000-foot mark. Deep ravines pierce the face of the mountain range and plunge perpendicularly into the sea. Hundreds of hidden streams and secret waterfalls lurk in old-growth forests. Nine state parks beckon hikers and picnickers. An unhurried pace calms the heart and soothes the soul. It’s a place that inhabits your psyche. And it can haunt you for a lifetime.

Far-out bus in Big Sur, California USA

Big Sur bus: far out

Big Sur’s rich and colorful history is well documented—and liberally seasoned with famous writers and artists, including Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Emile Norman and Jack Kerouac. The area is also regarded as the birthplace of the New Age movement, and remains home to world-renowned centers of study and contemplation like the New Camaldoli Hermitage, Esalen Institute and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

No room at the inn

We return often to Big Sur to re-immerse in its timeless beauty and raw spirituality, qualities shared by other so-called “sacred places,” where powerful energies of mountains and waters converge. We also return because we were married here, amidst the flora and fauna of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Glen Oaks Big Sur motor lodge in Big Sur, California USA

Glen Oaks Big Sur: motor lodge, revisited

But finding just the right eco-friendly lodging is seldom easy. Most of the 3 million tourists who visit Big Sur each year never leave Highway 1 and often pass through without staying the night. Land use restrictions that preserve its natural beauty also mean that tourist beds are limited, often expensive, and fill up quickly during the busy summer season. In fact, there are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90 mile (140 km) stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel, only three gas stations, and no chain hotels, supermarkets or fast-food outlets. The lodging options are rustic cabins, motels and campgrounds, or costly, exclusive five-star resorts, with little in between.

So when we hear from a friend about Glen Oaks Big Sur, a 1950s-era motor lodge that has been artistically renovated with recycled materials in a “fresh rustic-modern” style—and advertising surprisingly affordable rates—we decide to see for ourselves.

Connected to the land

Owners Tracy and Basil Sanborn purchased the 16-room motel from a family friend in 2006. “I wanted to offer a high-quality lodging experience at a moderate price using earth-friendly materials,” Basil tells us. “Having grown up right next door, I feel connected to this land.” His parents managed the neighboring Ripplewood Resort for two decades.

Firepit at Glen Oaks Big Sur in Big Sur, California USA

Glen Oaks firepit: nature's cathedral

A licensed contractor, Basil teamed with San Francisco architect/designer Steve Justrich to upgrade the property, while preserving its historic Monterey Post/Adobe style. “The design process between us is as organic as the place is,” as Steve puts it. “A natural evolution of ideas inspired by nostalgia and innovative materials.”

Together, they began by determining the structure had “good bones”­­—exposed redwood post-and-beam construction filled with adobe bricks.

Back to the future with adobe

”Adobe is an ancient from-the-earth building material,” Steve explains. “It offers natural insulation without the need for drywall. Basil continues: “Our remake takes the lead from the original adobe walls, known for keeping the hot sun out and the warmth in, and uses recycled and renewable stone, wood, bamboo, resin, wool carpets and organic cotton for a healthy and natural environment.”

Their main challenge was to convert the small (12’x24’) guest rooms into attractive and comfortable living spaces.

Cabin kitchen at Glen Oaks Big Sur in Big Sur, California USA

Cabin kitchen: eco-Zen

Steve credits Dwell magazine for helping locate key sources for the sustainable products incorporated throughout the property. Floors and table tops are made of recycled stone from Island Stone. Vanity tops are fabricated out of kirei board made from sorghum wheat. Recycled tent canvas is used on couches. Bed frames and dressers acquired from Environment Furniture are constructed of recycled Peroba wood. All mattresses are supplied by the local, family-owned Monterey Mattress Company, well known for its custom-made natural and organic products. True to their eco-ethic, the Sanborns employed local carpenters and craftspeople at every opportunity.

Our guest suite

We enter our guest suite through an artistic metal gate. Shadowed stalks of field grasses pressed between amber glass door panels mark the entrance to our room. The interior decor fuses elements of old and new, recycled materials enlivened by contemporary design, to create a spare, Zen-inspired elegance.

Our end unit features a thermostatically controlled two-way gas fireplace, visible both from the private patio and the interior. Wool felt rugs snuggle on the bamboo floor, leading to a seating area with leather sofa, modern fiberglass shell chair and organically shaped coffee table.  Concealed behind a fabric curtain we find a European-style closet made from color-dyed eco-plywood that also houses a compact refrigerator.

Bathroom at Glen Oak Big Sur in Big Sur, California USA

Bathroom: rustic modern

The bathroom is beautifully appointed with tasteful attention to detail, including a radiant-heated, recycled pebble-stone floor and a large oval porcelain sink set on a natural kirei wood vanity. The two-person shower is both modern and rustic, with stone floors and rusted steel wall tiles pleasantly accented by stylish chrome fixtures.

In our connected world, complimentary wireless internet is a welcome amenity. The absence of a TV helps to preserve the tranquil ambience.

Green Ethos

Bedroom at Glen Oaks Big Sur in Big Sur, California USA

Bedroom: invitingly spare

Glen Oaks’ mix of cabins, cottages and lodge rooms offers an appealing variety of hospitality options. More units are being added, including several modular cabins manufactured by Cavco Homes. “These structures are attractive, compact and energy efficient,” promises Basil. “They are light on the land, with no grading or foundation required.”

“The natural ethos of Big Sur has always been ‘green’ with a strong sense of place,” says Steve Justrich. “That’s what we tried to embody throughout the entire renovation process.”

Based on our first-hand experience, they have succeeded admirably.

Big Sur remains one of those rare places you can count on not changing much. Harsh elements and limited services, coupled with a scarcity of flat land and the difficulties of building on its steep slopes, have kept the area sparsely settled and underdeveloped.  And that’s precisely why we love it here! Linda & Rolly Wahl, Contributing Editors


  • Ramona

    Thanks for the info! I’ve been looking into Big Sur resorts and Post Ranch Inn is my favorite so far — the views seem amazing.

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