On the Road to Big Sur

French illustrator Jean Jullien finds inspiration on a road trip along California’s central coast.

Please login to bookmark

Basking in Pacific Ocean views from the deck of my yurt at Treebones Resort. Illustration by: Jean Jullien

 The Route

Over five days I drove 550 kilometres north from Los Angeles in a rental car, stopping in Paso Robles, Big Sur, and Monterey, and ending in Santa Cruz. I stayed in a yurt, soaked in moonlit hot springs, idled in romantic vineyards, marvelled at the rhythmic beauty of jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and wiggled my toes in the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach—all while recording my adventures in a sketchbook.

Big Sur 9

Illustration by: Jean Jullien

When You Travel, Every Landscape is a New Playground

Working in a studio, I find it’s easy to get into a rut. That’s why last year I packed up my life in London and headed to Los Angeles, where I lived and worked for six months. Having grown up in Brittany, France, I’ve always found the seaside to be inspirational. So in November I set out on a classic American road trip along California’s central coast. I documented my journey by placing paper cut-outs on location and shooting vignettes with my iPhone. Here are the lessons I learned.


Embrace Nature

Big Sur 3

Illustration by: Jean Jullien

Walking in the wilderness sparks creativity—and there’s a lot of wild in Big Sur, from secluded, rocky beaches to misty forests. I spent a night at Ripplewood Resort, in a tiny but perfect cabin that was near the road and yet felt like it was deep in the woods. On another night, at Treebones Resort, I slept in a yurt near the edge of a cliff with an ocean view that occasionally vanished in the fog.


Press Your Nose to the Glass

Big Sur 4

Illustration by: Jean Jullien

Finding new perspectives leads to worlds of wonder. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, often the only source of light comes from tanks where the sea creatures live. You can forget you’re human and think you’re a fish. The aquarium is home to more than 35,000 animals and plants representing more than 550 species, including hypnotic jellies. I’m obsessed with drawing fish, so it was ideal for me.


You always need fun! And the Central Coast has lots of room to romp.

Big Sur 5

Illustration by: Jean Jullien

Drink It In

Tasting a place can be just as important as seeing it. Paso Robles, a wine region between L.A. and Big Sur, surprised me—and surprise is the point of a road trip, right? At Justin Vineyards & Winery (right) the landscape was hilly, drenched in sunset light, and reminded me of France. The wine was oaky yet bright, and seemed to reflect the spirit of the landscape. After my American wine epiphany I drove north, where I savoured American foods, such as burgers (left), while devouring grand views of Big Sur.


Goof Up and Go Local

Big Sur 6

Illustration by: Jean Jullien

Getting out of your comfort zone is difficult but rewarding. One of my favourite experiences of the entire journey was at the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, where late-night soaking in cliff-side hot springs is a thing. Native Americans have come to these baths for healing rituals for 6,000 years. It’s still a popular pastime, so I had to book right when online reservations opened at 9 a.m. I headed to the springs at 1 a.m. that night. It was ethereal: You’re in a moonlit hot bath, and all you hear is the sound of waves breaking. The springs are clothing optional, but I’m a French prude, so I kept my bathing suit on. As I said, getting out of your comfort zone is difficult.

Speaking of swimsuits, I looked pretty good in a bikini on the historic Santa Cruz boardwalk (top left). The boardwalk stretches a kilometre and a half along the beach and is a wonderland of fried Oreos and amusement rides. I managed to resist the temptation of the cookies and was still feeling pretty good from my workout (bottom) back in Monterey. But you can’t be a bona fide beach bum in Santa Cruz until you ride the Giant Dipper (top right) roller coaster. It was wild, rickety, and thrilling. I rode it four times.


Look for a Aha! Moment

Big Sur 7

Illustration by: Jean Jullien

Slowing down is the secret to recharging your creativity. I come from a small fishing village in Brittany, so I’m drawn to intimate, more remote beaches where I can find a bit of quiet and steal some time for reflection. I normally avoid super-touristy spots, and Big Sur was ideal for these types of discoveries. My favourite was a little beach blanketed with driftwood that I found after a 20-minute walk from the road. There were surfers but nobody sunbathing or swimming, so it felt secluded and secret.

Which is not what Pfeiffer Beach feels like. Pfeiffer is famous for its spectacular Keyhole Arch rock formation (left), its patches of purple sand, and its epic sunsets. The beach can become very busy. At one point dozens of people with phones and cameras gathered at the same spot to capture the sun setting through the keyhole. I focused on getting my paper cut-out positioned perfectly in the sand so I could create my own scene.


Get Dirty, Return Fresh

Big Sur 8

Garnet sand grains help give Pfeiffer Beach its patches of purple hue. Illustration by: Jean Jullien

Drawing in the field gets pretty messy sometimes, but that’s also the fun of it. I love nothing more than to create when I’m on the move. It feels unfiltered and genuine. But you have to stick to the basics and try not to think about whether you’re making something good or not. Travel is important to my practice because my creations are often inspired and influenced by novelty. I arrived back in L.A. with an empty tank and a sketchbook full of purple sands, foamy waves, seabirds, surfers, and towering trees, energised by this strange and cool pilgrimage.


Find the paper cut-out version of me in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller India magazine. Clip me out and share your inspired moment with the hashtag, #flatjean.

To read more about Jean Jullien’s Big Sur trip, go here.

Travel Wise: Big Sur

Chiselled into towering cliffs and dense redwood forests, Big Sur has long drawn hippies, writers, yogis, and artists seeking solitude and inspiration along California’s Highway 1, a twisting, rugged ribbon connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite recent natural disasters that have challenged locals and travellers, Big Sur still boasts some of the most stunning scenery in the entire country. —Kimberley Lovato


Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge stands as the gateway to Big Sur, along California’s Highway 1. Photo by: Juan Galvez/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Both cultural centre and bookstore, the Henry Miller Memorial Library pays homage to the author and long-time Big Sur resident. Pick up one of his novels, and listen to local musicians who often perform in the redwood grove. Turn-of-the-century Point Sur Lighthouse sits atop a volcanic rock and is now fully automated. Visit with a guide by day, or take a summer moonlight tour and find out if the rumours of hauntings are true. The locally made jewellery, art, note cards, and other one-of-a-kind gifts at the Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe make excellent souvenirs.


For Couples: Glen Oaks Big Sur

The retro-styled cottages, rooms, and cabins here breathe romance, but for a real splurge opt for the Big Sur Cabin, where a private patio hides two claw-foot tubs beneath redwood trees (Rooms starting at $300/Rs20,845 a night; glenoaksbigsur.com).

For Families: Big Sur River Inn

This riverside lodge is ideal for families thanks to a fenced-in pool and a choice of 22 rooms and suites (starting at $150/Rs10,250 a night). Stock up on burritos at the general store, then indulge in local ice cream from a shop inside a retrofitted blue and yellow bus. bigsurriverinn.com


For Comfort Food: Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn

This cosy restaurant/inn serves breakfast and dinner, and is filled with photos and other treasures that look plucked from a favourite aunt’s attic. Sunday brunch is popular, and choosing between eggs Benedict ($14/Rs950) and blueberry pancakes ($11/Rs750 for three) will be the toughest part of your day. deetjens.com

For Local Brews: Big Sur Taphouse

The closest thing to a neighbourhood pub, with 10 mostly local beers on draft, the Taphouse has an added bonus: fantastic food. Share the charcuterie platter ($15/Rs1,025), or go all out with the three huge tacos served with your choice of fillings ($10/Rs685). bigsurtaphouse.com

For the View: The Sur House

The signature restaurant at Ventana Big Sur resort doubles as a sunset-watching perch, especially at the outside bar, where a scaled-back menu, served from 6 to 9 p.m., offers a double patty burger for $16/Rs1,100 and crispy oyster lettuce wraps for $12/Rs820. ventanabigsur.com


An easy 10-minute walk to the fringe of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park reveals gorgeous coastal scenery, including the 80-foot-high McWay Waterfall. (Park in the lot, but head away from the park entrance.) For a highlight reel of spectacular forest and beach vistas, a hike along 14-kilometre Andrew Molera State Park Loop Trail is tough to beat. And spring brings a colourful bloom of wildflowers. Dog-friendly Sand Dollar Beach is the largest curve of sand on Big Sur’s coast and is a well-known surf spot, if you can handle the frigid water. Keep a lookout for dark green Big Sur jade, found here and almost a kilometre away at appropriately named Jade Cove. Both are close to Plaskett Creek Campground.




  • Jean Jullien has returned to London, where he makes illustrations, posters, books, videos, costumes, installations, and clothing. He has shown work at the Tate Museum and the National Museum of Singapore. He has illustrated for the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Phaidon Press, and other publications. Follow him on Instagram on @jean_jullien.


Please Login to comment