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Checking In: California’s Post Ranch Inn Continues to Innovate

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At Sierra Mar, the indoor air quality is now equal to or better than fresh air outside.

Photo by Kodiak Greenwood

At Sierra Mar, the indoor air quality is now equal to or better than fresh air outside.

Owner Mike Freed on why his hotel is one of the best in the world, how it has pioneered luxury sustainability, and his favorite room.

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The Great American Road Trip has made a post-COVID resurgence this year. It’s been great news for the 40-room Post Ranch Inn, set right along California’s iconic Route 1 on Pacific-hugging cliffs.

In fact, “we’re sold out,” says Mike Freed, managing partner of Passport Resorts and Post Ranch Inn. “We’re as busy as we’ve ever been,” pointing out that stretches of 2020 and 2021 have been among the best-booked months since the inn opened in 1992. This pioneer in ecoluxury is a definitive part of the dramatic Big Sur coastline, and a showcase for how high-end hospitality can pave the way in sustainability initiatives

To clear up a lingering misconception, as he calls it: Highway 1 to Big Sur from the north and south is fully open after the landslide in 2017. Although it was closed then, and periodically closes because of other landslides, the state of California has made it a priority to keep Highway 1 open; it is considered one of the most spectacular drives in the world.

I recently caught up with Freed about why his hotel is one of the best in the world, his favorite room (if he had to pick one), and how he’s taking on indoor air quality with a little help from . . . science. 

In this series, we are spotlighting a destination we love—California—through the experiences of people we admire who call it home.

Post Ranch Inn is one of those places that, if people have been, they get a starry-eyed look in their eyes and almost start swooning. Why do you think it’s so special? 

You have to start with Big Sur. There aren’t many places on this planet that are as special as Big Sur, with roughly 80 miles of coastline—ocean to the west and mountains to the east. Most of Big Sur is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. There are multiple micro-climates throughout Big Sur and because of our elevation at 1,200 feet, it is usually sunny at Post Ranch as we are generally above the clouds. So you start with Big Sur, and then add the history of the Post Ranch, which was the first property to be homesteaded in Big Sur in the 1860s by William B. Post, Billy Post’s great-grandfather, and stayed in the family for four generations. 

Billy Post, who was my partner and native Californian, grew up in Big Sur. Billy was not only one of my closest friends but kind of my surrogate dad [he died in 2009]. Post Ranch was my first hotel. We built tree houses on stilts to protect the roots of the redwood and oak trees. We built earth-sheltered rooms, rooms built into the side of the hill with natural grasses on top, which is kind of funny because you get deer on top and the guests sometimes call the front desk and say, there’s somebody on my roof. And we say, well . . .

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This is one of the few places on the planet where you have the California condor, an endangered species, in nature, and we occasionally have California condors perched on top of the roof of the Sierra Mar, our restaurant, a very rare sight. Yet at Post Ranch, it’s rare if you don’t see the condors flying in front of Sierra Mar. You have the clearest atmospheric conditions in our hemisphere, with no light pollution, no air pollution, and you’re at 1,200 feet elevation. And to be able to see the Milky Way at night is rare and a special experience.

The organic architecture—with reclaimed or repurposed redwood, steel, and stone elements—along with the touch of history, adds to the guest experience. Billy named all of the hotel rooms after original settlers in Big Sur with a brief biography of the family written by a local historian. 

Food and wine is an essential part of the guest experience, with chef Reylon [Agustin] overseeing Sierra Mar. Our wine list, one of the largest in California, offers more than 3,200 wine selections in a cellar of more than 12,000 bottles. A two-acre chef’s organic garden provides Sierra Mar with up to 40 percent of our fruits and vegetables, depending on the season.

Post Ranch is about enjoying nature—just being outside is so important to our health—and we have complimentary nature walks, yoga, and meditation sessions, along with some of the best massage therapists around. Unlike most “luxury” hotels, we don’t have televisions in the room because nature is the show. Instead, we have a sophisticated music system in each guest room. Post Ranch is about connecting with yourself, your partner, and with nature.

Our guests often comment about the friendliness of our staff and their passion for hospitality and Big Sur. 

It’s no secret that it’s not inexpensive to stay at Post Ranch, but our rate includes the room, breakfast, a fully stocked mini bar, and a whole slew of complimentary group activities. We also have added a falconry program, and a number of unusual spa therapies, including a shaman session, sound therapy, and forest mediation, among others. 

The view from an ocean house room at Post Ranch Inn

You’ve had a cabin in Big Sur since 1980, and it was one of the first to have solar panels, so sustainability has really been a part of you, personally, for a very long time. 

Yes, it has—I am a big fan of solar power and it was the impetus for the solar project at Post Ranch. Big Sur has the most restrictive land-use plan in the U.S., with no large hotels allowed. In my opinion, there’s a misconception in our industry that bigger is better, more is better. From a sustainability standpoint, in a community like Big Sur, your impact on the environment requires a commitment to protecting the land. 

Can you describe the sustainability program at Post Ranch?

In 1992, when we first opened, we were the first hotel in the U.S. to add recycle buckets in all of the hotel rooms, as far as I know. My understanding is we were the first, or one of the first hotels in the U.S., to use organic towels and sheets, and mattresses made without fire retardant chemicals. 

Our sheets are 600-thread-count organic cotton, made without any chemicals or dyes, and custom made in Los Angeles, reducing our carbon footprint. Our fruits and vegetables are all organic and so are the products in our spa.

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We eliminated all single-use plastic bottles more than 10 years ago and have our own water bottling plant with filtered water in glass containers—we give our guests as gifts steel water bottles for hiking around the property. Our hot tubs are custom made locally out of recycled stainless steel. Virtually all lighting throughout the Ranch, both indoors and outdoors, is LED. 

In 2009, we built the largest hotel solar system at the time in California with 990 solar panels. As far as I know, we were the first hotel in California, and maybe in the U.S., to build tree houses to avoid cutting down any oaks and redwoods, as well as earth-sheltered living roofs on the ocean houses. We also established the Big Sur Community Fund where we add $4 per night per room to support local nonprofits, including the Big Sur Fire Brigade [it donated the land for the fire house], the Big Sur Health Center, and the Ventana Wildlife Society to protect the California condor.

I am probably most proud of the indoor air quality measures we have taken in 2021 in the restaurant and throughout the hotel to protect our staff and guests, not just from COVID, but from colds, flus, and viruses in general.  

I wanted to ask you more about indoor air filtration, which as we now know, is more important than surface spread with COVID-19. What have you been learning and working on this year?

We retained indoor air quality experts, building scientists. What we learned is if you bring fresh air into your indoor space by deploying the proper engineering controls—which we did—you can demonstrably show the indoor air quality is comparable to outdoor air quality. In our restaurant, for example, by opening windows and/or utilizing our ventilation and HVAC system, we can bring fresh air into the restaurant six times an hour. We also have added portable HEPA filtration between the tables and portable air purifiers on each table. 

Our restaurant was the first in the U.S. to do an evidence-based demonstration—led by Dr. Mark Hernandez, a professor at the University of Colorado—that proved indoor air quality with the proper controls can be as good or better than outdoor air quality. This reduces risk. You can go to postranchinn.senseware.co to confirm the quality of indoor air in real time yourself. 

You’ve talked about lingering misconceptions after the landslide. Tell us more about that. 

In 2017, that’s when we flew helicopters to get our guests into Post Ranch because Highway 1 was both closed north and south of Post Ranch. That didn’t stop our guests who either hiked in to Post Ranch or we flew them in by helicopter. Although Highway 1 closes on occasion, it’s rare that guests can’t get to Big Sur, although you would never know it as press always highlights Big Sur when there is a landslide. The state of California does a great job of keeping Highway 1 open year-round.  

This past year, many people wanted to travel and be in nature. We continued to focus on sustainability during the pandemic. You don’t pause sustainability, right? 

If you could only eat one thing at Post Ranch Inn . . .

  • It’s simple—abalone, a delicacy from a small abalone farm in Monterey. It is generally on the menu and available.

The Luci & Bill Post room at Post Ranch Inn

If you could only book one room . . .

  • That is a very tough question to answer. The Luci and Bill Post room, or L&B Post, is a cliff house, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the Big Sur coast. All of the tree houses are fun to stay in, and the sod roof ocean houses have amazing views of the ocean, sitting literally on a cliff. Frankly, all of the rooms have a special quality to them, and most have repurposed redwood interior paneling from redwood wine vats from the 1940s. This redwood is incredibly beautiful and nothing is more sustainable than reusing materials. 

>> Next: 13 New Luxury Hotels in the U.S. and Europe for 2021 

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