California state parks, especially in and around Big Sur, tend to teeter somewhere between magnificent and spectacular, a blissful experience for the senses, an unequivocal encounter with nature. So imagine how brilliant the blues, how verdant the greens, how intense the firs, and how friendly the seals and whales must be at Point Lobos, halfway between Carmel and Big Sur, aptly named the Crown Jewel of California parks.
We set out on a late February weekend with a smattering of others. There are a few various trails, none too challenging but all require eyes on the straight and narrow. On the Cypress Trail, we are quickly surrounded by one of the few remaining Cypress Groves on Earth. There are quite a few wonders on this .8 mile walk. Carotene, the same substance found in carrots which we say is beneficial for our eyes and hair, grows on a few of the north-facing trees. You will have to ask one of the utterly capable Monterey area geologists why this is so, but I understand that most people regard them as rust trees. Truly, they do look rather oxidized.
I suppose I could have worked up a bit of heavy breathing if I didn’t stop every three minutes to photograph the journey. We traversed rocks on the edge of the ocean, we cut through dirt paths surrounded by a rich plant population, and we befriended fellow hikers at a look-out point, where we all tried to stand in the exact same vantage point in order to spot the whales. ‘Oh, there it is again!’ ‘Where?’ Stand… right.. here….’
When we finished the loop, we crossed over the small parking lot to the flatter path that also circles the water’s edge. Below our feet some 60 feet are a giant extended family of sea lions, flopping around on the sand and wondering why we are all staring at them. Do not let their playful dispositions fool you: quite unlike the typical, easygoing, friendly Californian, the sea otter is a terribly cranky mammal with temperaments closer to wolverines than new-born golden retrievers. So it is a good thing indeed that we appreciate them from high above.
Sunday morning we coincidentally found ourselves at the Carmel Mission Parish as mass was finishing. We followed the sounds of song and watched as children skipped between friends and parents in front of the Basilica, a National Historic Landmark. There are a handful of museums on site, as well as a school, and ample photo-op-worthy corners. I can imagine a magazine-worthy dinner table set against the climbing flowers and the church bell, and perhaps a dream set for wedding photography. Of course, yes, there is history to be learned and appreciated here, where a community has worshipped since 1771, but on this Sunday morning, I had eyes only for the patina, the scent of the roses, and the Romeo and Juliet staircase. Of the varied scenery in Carmel and Big Sur, this is truly a different spot. It exudes a certain ambience, a different feeling altogether: a romantic one, an historical one, and a lovely demonstration of community in a town many of us consider Heaven on Earth, but which some simply consider home.