BIG SUR, Calif. -- On the sun-drenched patio of Nepenthe's, tourists are sipping lemonade and admiring the ocean view for the first time in nearly four months.
At the Ventana Inn, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs are once again pulling into the parking lot, and guests are lounging on the clothing-optional sun deck. At the Big Sur Lodge, the phone is ringing nonstop with reservations.
A whole season after winter storms felled redwoods, gouged out hundreds of feet of scenic state Route 1 and forced helicopter evacuations of visitors and residents, Big Sur is coming back to life. And that is good news all along California's central coast.
"It is just so great to see people coming back," said Tom Birmingham, manager of Nepenthe restaurant, happily surveying his customers. "We shined the tables and made repairs, but we missed the people."
Big Sur's isolation had a ripple effect to the south, where San Luis Obispo County saw tourism plunge, and to the north, where Monterey County recorded a $41 million loss in tourist business in February and March.
"Highway 1 is known the world over as a one-of-a-kind experience," said Jim Allen, spokesman for Hearst Castle, south of Big Sur.
"The public's perception that the road was closed and that the weather was bad have been devastating."
Today, in time for Memorial Day weekend, the highway will be reopened through Big Sur for the first time since Feb. 2.
But for months to come, motorists still will have to dodge road crews spreading asphalt and shoring up bridges.
The repairs have cost more than $20 million and kept contractors working night and day for months.
For Big Sur business owners who have been getting by on loans and optimism, and for workers who have been collecting unemployment and eating at soup kitchens, the road's reopening comes not a moment too soon.
In Big Sur alone, the Chamber of Commerce estimated losses at $9 million. Even after the northern stretch of state Route 1 opened between Big Sur and Carmel on April 24, visitors only trickled in, said Laura Moran, manager of Deetjen's Big Sur Inn.
"We've been a cul-de-sac," Moran said. "Until it is a through road, xTC we're not going to have the business we usually do."
Big Sur residents call their four months of enforced isolation "The Great Inconvenience."
Pub Date: 5/21/98