Monday, February 1, 2010

Big Sur Style- The Magic of Nepenthe

There is an air of mystery about ‘Nepenthe’, the Big Sur landmark and restaurant, which sits high on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps it is the spirit of Henry Miller, who in pre-Nepenthe days, lived in a cabin on the property. Or the ghosts of Orson Welles and his new bride Rita Hayworth, who were the next owners. They came upon the spot while driving down the coast, fell in love with it, and bought the cabin. (Although they never lived in it.) Or perhaps it is the enduring creative energy of the Fassett family, who for 60 years has owned and operated Nepenthe. It might even be the memory of the passionate love of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who filmed scenes of their movie The Sandpiper on the restaurant’s terrace.

Certainly the bohemian kaleidoscope of visiting artists, cooks, writers, designers and just plain tourists has left its mark.

Whatever it is, ~ it is magic. There is something in the air. Sit at one of the outdoor benches on the terrace, looking out to the Big Sur coast, and you’ll be mesmerized.

Lost in the view, and sense of place; you will never want to leave.

For Bill and Lolly Fassett and their offspring, Nepenthe was home. It was also a place to celebrate their love of art, food and design. Some of the family are still involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurant and The Phoenix Gift Shop. Others live near-by, and some are further afield. But all carry a creative spark that was first ignited at Nepenthe.

One Nepenthe export is Kaffe Fassett, the internationally known textile designer. Though based in London, he travels the world for inspiration, and to give lectures and workshops. On a recent chilly evening, we joined 400 of his fans at the Pacific Grove elementary school, where we were dazzled by his illustrated talk on color and patterns.

The next generation includes, grand-daughter Romney Steele who is a chef, and writer. She has just penned a memoir titled “My Nepenthe". Her book sings with personal memories, and those of her family and friends. The pages are decorated with vintage black and white photographs from the restaurant's archives, and with color photographs by Sara Remington. All this is accompanied by eighty-five family recipes. Some of which, I had the pleasure to sample at her recent book signing at the Carmel Bay Company. (This is one of my favorite shops here in Carmel.)

Yet another member of this generation is the artist and writer, Erin Gafill. She tells her Nepenthe story in the book, "Drinking from a Cold Spring".

I have my own Nepenthe story. It all began with a scrap album that I found in an antique shop in Upstate New York. The album belonged to the wife of a American colonel in the US Army, who had been stationed in Paris in the 1940s. Pasted onto the pages were invitations to tea, engraved calling cards, and various other paper mementos. As I flipped through the album, I was intrigued by a vintage Christmas card with a striking black and white photograph, showing a distant view of a building overlooking the ocean. (See image at the beginning of this post.) Printed below the image was the word “Nepenthe”. Inside the card was the following poem:

The sea lions are our neighbors,
The Pacific at our door;
Ships tell us of their travels
And ebbing tides of ocean lore;
Here you are always welcome,
Won’t you tap upon our door?

I wondered, could this be the Nepenthe?

Big Sur Dreaming,


  1. Oh Marjorie,
    What a fabulous interesting and, as we have driven down the 'Big Sur', very interesting to me. I'm sure we went to Nepenthe and how glorious it was. the coastline is wonderful along there, isn't it ? I've also loved anything o do with Kaffe Fassett. One of my oldest friends is a potter and she loves colour and Kaffe Fassett is a great inspiration to her. Have you seen his London house ?It's amazing.
    I love the pebbls with Nepenthe on them...... and how lucky are you ? Coming across that scrap album? You also found that sketch book with drawings of lighthouses. You find some really good things, Marjorie. Thanks so much for your birthday wishes. XXXX

  2. Jackie,

    I thank you for always making my day with warm and friendly comments. You're a star in the blog firmament.


  3. HI Marjorie
    I've enjoyed all your west coasts posts.. It's one place I'd like to revisit but this time travel by car to stop in along all the charming spots along the way... Big Sur is somewhere I unfortunately missed on my west coast trip... I drove through the desert but unfortunately didn't have time for the coast road... thanks for filling in those gaps!!

    By the way... the images are from a British show called 'Little Britain'... we get it here in Australia also and Jacqueline and I giggle over it's irreverent nature... sorry about that.. didn't think of it at the time.. xx Julie

  4. Marjorie, one of my favorite things about your blog is the journeys you take us on to the fabulous, almost mythical places. This was fascinating! And, oh, I adore Kaffe Fassett. I recently gave one of his books to my husband's aunt who is an avid quilter. His colors are just stunning. xo Gigi

  5. Oh Marjorie, I love this post, especially now since here in MN it is so cold and grey. I have only been to Carmel once and it seemed a magical place!
    I agree with you, it would be fun for Anita, you and I to have a ballet blog together! It has been about 20 years since I have even given ballet much goes by fast!

  6. What a treat to happen upon your blog. My husband and I spent our wedding night at Deetjens. I have fallen in love with Big Sur more times than I can count. Thanks for sharing all of this.

  7. Hi Julie,

    It was so nice to hear from you. I was joking about the three of us with our ballet backgrounds forming a virtual ballet company. We could dance the three swans from Swan Lake. He He! There is already an excellent Ballet blog which my friend Elise in the UK writes called Ballet News. Do visit her. It will bring back many memories.


  8. Oh Marjorie..I LOVED you might know..we lived in Cambria for nearly 30 years before moving back to I know Big is one of John and my FAVORITE places in all the world. LOVE Nepenthe...been there many times....and love Deetjens so MUCH too...and Ventana...

    oh, I just loved this

    wish i was there right now....i could meet you for lunch!

    more later, my friend


  9. What a beautiful post about the most beautiful stretch of the California coast. Thanks!
    All the best,
    PS: Great blog!!

  10. Lovely story, and thanks for bringing me into your loop. Today the clouds to the south of Nepenthe are soft lavender, the sea pale blue, the red terrace in shadow. The restaurant is quiet, between lunch and dinner, and the terrace lamps have just come on. It is a magical mystical hour, the lacy sky etched with cypress silhouettes. Every day I get to live and work here I feel blessed, and am doubly blessed to know it is truly a blessing.

  11. That restaurant on the cliff looks amazing.

  12. Where my heart wants to wander. Think I'll be planning a trip there, someday soon. Thanks for this oh, so lovely post, Marjorie! xo, GG

  13. Thanks so much for your sweet words
    x desiree

  14. A lovely story and a very beautiful part of the world...Have a happy weekend. xv

  15. What a fantastic post, Marjorie! Nepenthe is rich with history. Wonderful read.

  16. A great tale... Nepenthe that melts away sorrow ... a drug a place a state of mind. Great post!

  17. Thanks Marjorie for sharing your part of Nepenthe and for giving a peek into my book for others to see/read. Enjoyed meeting you at my reading, and have the photo of "your" Nepenthe tucked in my files
    with all the other Nepenthe related materials. I don't think it is the same place in actuality, but, yes in spirit.

    Warmly–Romney (Nani)

  18. You are so lucky to live in such a culturally exciting place.

  19. Marjorie dearest! Thank you for coming to visit my dance post! This weekend is my last one to do homework for a long, long time! I only have one assignment left before I can say I am completely done with my 17 year school career!!!!!! Not to say that I won't take a class or too here later, especially writing classes, but for now, I plan to take a break. I LOVE THIS POST OF YOURS! I went to Carmel and Big Sur and well, a bunch of other places on the coast on my honeymoon.My husband introduced me to his world of fairytales out there and since then, the "bohemien" artist style is in my blood!! Lovely post my dear....Anita

  20. Oh Marjorie, what a darling post, the story about the album you found, I need to get a California fix. I loved the poem.....Maryannexo