Henry Miller and breathtaking Big Sur

James Lane

"Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago ...the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look," waxed Henry Miller in his memoir, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.

"Skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold... the unfathomable silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars."

This peaceful place of sea mists and spectacular Pacific coast, south of Monterey, has for decades lured artists and bohemians looking for their slice of paradise to reflect.

Consider the rollcall of residents past and present: Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Hunter S Thompson, Jack London, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Ted Turner, Ansel Adams, members of The Beach Boys, Alanis Morissette, Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea and even Mark Twain. Big Sur's beauty speaks to a broad spectrum of people, all drawn by its meditative magic.

Miller lived in Big Sur for 18 years and claimed it was the only place where he felt at home as he was on Corfu, the setting for his seminal travelogue, The Colossus of Maroussi. It was in Big Sur, where Miller, whose books were banned for years for their eroticism, found kindred renegades and a sense of community.

"The most important thing I have witnessed since coming here," he wrote in 1957, "is the transformation people have wrought in their own being. Nowhere have I seen individuals work so earnestly and assiduously on themselves ... In paradise you don't preach or teach. You practice the perfect life or you relapse."

The Henry Miller Library is set in a pine house amid a lush garden and towering redwoods off a sharp bend on Highway One. The house belonged to Emil White, who was a close friend of Miller and left it to the Big Sur Land Trust to become a memorial to the literary lion.

It's a landmark that not only salutes Miller's legacy but also serves an arts centre, bookshop and performance venue. Acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith and Band of Horses have performed in the intimate grove next to the library.

In the brief time I spend in Big Sur, I begin to feel what Miller and co tapped into. As with his best writing, Miller anchors the reader in a place. You see what he sees: the Peregrine Falcons flying along the cliffs or a Brandt's Cormorant and other seabirds which I sight off the coast.

For most of the drive to Big Sur you're very high up, above cliffs that tumble into a jagged shoreline and, in places, wide, windswept pastures leading out to sea.

The Pacific Ocean completely occupies your field of vision, choppy and white as it crashes against the rocks, deep blue elsewhere, and pale green as as it reaches out toward the horizon. A 50km drive easily takes two hours when the scenery is this good.

Even today, despite the influence of mass tourism, Big Sur retains a hidden village feel with a scattering of motels, restaurants, galleries and small shops.

But all the words and all the pictures can't convey the awe and mystery of wandering among a forest of ancient Redwoods or the sweeping drama of Big Sur's coastal ridge that plunges into the Pacific.

I stop for a few minutes surrounded by the stately, towering trees with the silence broken only by the distant sound of breaking waves. Beautiful.

A note at the Henry Miller Library captures the essence of Big Sur's natural beauty perfectly.

"Listen very carefully. This is one of the very few healing spots on the Earth." Amen.

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Qantas is offering Sydney to Los Angeles return economy flights starting from $1156.

Sydney to San Francisco return economy flights are priced from $1256. Details: qantas.com

From San Francisco visitors can drive the coast-hugging Highway One for 230km via Monterey and Carmel to reach Big Sur.

PLAYING THERE: Henry Miller Library is located at 48603 Highway One, Big Sur. This nonprofit arts centre, bookstore, and performance venue is open daily, except on Tuesday. Details: henrymiller.org

STAYING THERE: Featuring lovely bay views, the award-winning InterContinental The Clement Monterey is located on Monterey's Cannery Row. The Clement has garnered numerous awards since opening in 2008, including the Conde Nast Traveller Top 25 in Northern California Readers Choice Award and TripAdvisor's 2014 Certificate of Excellence. Rooms start at $A290 per night. Details: ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/gb/en/monterey/mryha/hoteldetail

The writer travelled as a guest of Visit California and Qantas.