As we were coming out of COVID in January of 2022, we visited Big Sur and stayed in a cute and new "tiny house" at the Carmel River Inn. It suited us perfectly, but we only stayed for three nights. The views as we drove down the coast to Big Sur and beyond were stunning.
The area was so beautiful, and there was so much we didn't have time to do, so we vowed to return again soon and stay longer.
That led us to book five nights this past January; this time at a tiny cottage on a cliff in Big Sur that claimed to offer beautiful views of the ocean. We figured it would give us the opportunity to experience more of the scenery and eliminate a lot of driving. It was a splurge, but we figured we aren't getting any younger, so why not?
We found the place via Vrbo and were instructed to contact the owner before booking to explain "a little about ourselves". We did, and that led us down an ... interesting ... application process. After reviewing the ten documents we were sent (18 pages in all), and returning the three forms that required initials, signatures and/or answers (e.g. "What do you plan to do in Big Sur?"), I was invited to continue the application process with a phone interview.
The owner was inquisitive. She wanted to know our ages and how we spend our time, whether or not we'd been to Big Sur previously, and she was eager to answer all of our questions about the cottage and the surrounding area. I was eager to get off the phone, so after supplying polite (and enthusiastic) answers to her questions, I let her know that my husband wasn't eager to sleep with mice (nor was I, for that matter), and she confirmed that they'd never had a problem. Finally, we wrapped up the call, she rendered her verdict ("approved"), and we exchanged our good-byes.
Was I starting to wonder if this had progressed from unusual to weird? Yes. But I figured the owner might have had some sketchy renters in the past, and I was eager to help her understand that we'd be great guests. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, and I did.
But more importantly ... I had passed all of the tests! I was then invited to pre-pay the splurge-level price to reserve the little cottage by the sea. Confident that this would be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I was starting to feel like I'd been accepted into an elite group. It really didn't occur to me that it might have been smart to slowly back away from this opportunity. Afterall, it was already starting to feel like the beginning of a really great, and somewhat humorous, story.
And the views ...
As luck would have it, the weather reports started to predict rain showers all day and every day of our stay. It wasn't the experience we'd imagined, but we've always been able to entertain ourselves, so started to plan some indoor activities. We were even trying to convince ourselves that watching the rain along the coast might be a ... different ... sort of beauty. Given that the place boasts a total lack of connectivity, we figured we might even experience some sort of spiritual awakening or enlightenment.
The day before we were scheduled to start driving out to California, and after watching the weather reports degrade from rainy to muddy to flooding to rock slides, we were informed that all access to the cottage had been blocked due to road closures, so we'd need to re-book our visit. On one of the pages of one of the ten documents we were sent, it clearly stated that refunds were not an option, but we were happy to rebook and selected some new dates in March, so that wasn't a problem. Really, it felt like a stroke of good luck given the weather forecast.
Again we were sent ten documents, and again we completed and returned three of them. We even let ourselves hope that we might have some nicer weather at a later date. All was not lost, and once again, we appreciated the flexibility of being retired.
Fast forward a month, and Jim hurt his back; big time. It became immediately obvious that there was no way we were going to be driving to California anytime soon, so once he was home from the hospital (a relatively quick trip to the ER) and we'd worked ourselves into a healing routine, I contacted our Vrbo host to let her know about the injury and to ask about rescheduling ... again.
Suddenly, the long application and interview process was starting to feel like a benefit; after all, the host and I had become friends, and I figured that was going to be a benefit since we'd need a favor in order to re-book again. (The ten documents clearly stated that our problems were not the hosts' problems.) But even though I thought we'd become "friends", I quickly realized that it hadn't rendered any of those documents we'd signed moot, and that clearly meant "No Refunds!" But I figured, why worry about money, when the value of good health had just become so obvious?
My new "friend", the host, generously offered to credit us for any days she was able to re-book during our scheduled stay. That ended up being three nights, so all was not lost (just two of the five nights), and we re-booked for October. She offered to let us re-purchase the two nights we'd lost, but I was thinking more clearly this time and wasn't willing to dig the hole any deeper. Again, we were sent ten forms, and again we completed and re-submitted the three requiring answers, initials, and/or signatures.
Thankfully, Jim's back steadily healed, and on a Saturday in late October, we finally pulled out of the driveway, and headed toward California. We planned a leisurely drive with multiple stops along the way including Mesa Verde National Park and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley north of LA. The weather was beautiful, and all was right in our little corner of world (if not chaotic in other places like Washington DC, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine).
The drive to California, and then up the coast, was really beautiful! Nature was clearly on our side this time around.
Our Big Sur Vrbo host instructed us (three times) to text when we were within an hour of the cottage. And just to prove how responsible we were, I texted the night before our arrival to confirm that we were in the the state and to let her know what time we expected to arrive the next day. We'd been informed that we'd be able to access the cottage without her help, but still the owner seemed determined to understand all the details surrounding our arrival. Surely they'd had issues with others in the past, right?
As we drove up the coast, Jim commented about how easy it is to travel when there are no deadlines, and that had proven to be true, so when the owner suggested that we should meet up at the Starbucks in Carmel before checking in, just to say hello, we were a little disappointed. But again, I was determined to prove we were friendly, responsible, sociable, and all the other good stuff I assumed she sought from her best renters. I even thought she might like us so much she might decide to throw in the two nights we'd paid for originally, but lost when we re-booked the second time. Thank goodness we'd brought extra clothes, I was starting to imagine the extended stay already.
We arrived at the Starbucks five minutes early and smiled profusely at every woman who walked through the door. They all smiled back, but none seemed at all interested in who we might be. Finally, five minutes after the scheduled meeting time, I pulled out my phone to text our host and saw her text to me: "I am parked behind Starbucks in a white Volkswagen camper van. See you soon." Sure enough, we walked around to the back of the building and there she was, looking like a supermodel posing for an Instagram photo.
We exchanged pleasantries, and then she got down to business (yet again), summarizing rules, instructions, questions and guidelines. Early on in the conversation she said, "something recently chewed a hole through the screen in the kitchen window, so don't open that window" and "don't leave the door open, because we don't want whatever chewed through the screen to get inside" and "a guy will be by to fix the screen tomorrow". I took one look at Jim, and knew we were in trouble.
Neither of us remembers too much about what she said after that, although we have pieced together a few snippets of the conversation.
I remember interrupting to remind her that I'd told her that my husband doesn't like mice, that he really doesn't like them, and suggesting that we change the subject. She claimed she didn't remember that part of our conversation, and then we all agreed that we needed to understand the situation, so a bit more conversation would be necessary.
We also remember that we were given instructions about where to purchase groceries and to get on the road so we could arrive before dark. We both smiled and nodded, but our brains had drifted elsewhere.
She also raised the topic of mice a second time, assuring us that if we simply followed her six (or so) suggestions, she was sure they wouldn't get in the house. She even added that traps (both traditional and electronic) were set inside the house in both the living room and kitchen. And Jim remembers that she said, "Don't worry if you hear a zap."
Later in the conversation, she, get this, raised the topic of mice a third time. At that point I remember that I was no longer able to keep a fake smile on my face, and I stopped trying. Given that she'd told me she'd never had a problem with mice when we talked on the phone in December, I was having a lot of trouble believing that now.
But I figured that anger would not be my friend in this moment, so I didn't express my feelings ... at least not verbally.
Finally, we were released from the conversation and made our way back to the car. We decided to purchase some groceries and discuss our options during the hour-long drive to the cottage. I assured Jim that I would not try to convince him to (try to) sleep in the place if he had any concerns after we saw it. Our goal was to arrive before the sun set, since most situations seem better in the daylight. We'd assess everything after checking the place out for ourselves.
Inside the grocery store, we realized that we were mentally distracted. It was all we could do to grab some breakfast items, salad fixings, peanut butter and crackers ... along with a four-pack of mouse traps. We didn't remember many restaurants or stores along Highway 1 and figured a trip back to Carmel wouldn't be the end of the world. Mostly we just needed to get on the road and consider our options.
During the drive, Jim suggested that he could sleep in the car each night. And I knew there were a few small (and very nice) hotels along Highway 1; I'd just read about one of them in an article entitled, The Most Romantic Hotels in the US. I also knew that those hotels were even more of a splurge than our (non-refundable) cottage. Jim also suggested that he could get a place for himself in Carmel. We settled on the plan to wait until we arrived at the cottage to make any firm decisions. I had high hopes, still clinging to the fact that our host had assured me (in late 2022) that she'd never had any problems with mice. Unfortunately, our parking lot meeting had undermined her credibility.
We arrived at sunset and the views really were something.
As instructed, I used the land line provided to call our host and let her know that we had arrived and made it into the house. She then went through another list of instructions, guidelines and suggestions, including the tip to keep all of our food in the refrigerator, even dry goods, just to be sure there was nothing that might attract mice, and she let me know that there was an electronic rodent repellant device in the house. (We soon realized that it chirped every 15 seconds or so, which made it impossible to forget about our concerns!) She also instructed me to be sure to keep all linens on the bed at all times to avoid creating a fire hazard given that there was a heater in the teeny tiny bedroom, and we were also asked to avoid use of the wood stove in the the living room. Signs posted all over the cottage itself instructed us to minimize our use of toilet paper, stagger our showers, and call if we had any questions, among other things.
Finally, our host asked if we would be OK, and I let her know that I was sure we would be just fine. I'd found my way back to my friendly voice and was eager to move on and salvage our trip. I did let her know that one or both of us might not stay at the house overnight, so if she called back and we didn't answer the phone, she shouldn't worry.
It's probably worth mentioning that when we walked into the cottage for the first time, we found two "droppings" on the kitchen floor. One looked like a mouse dropping and the other was bigger. I tried to assure Jim that they were some sort of seeds, but after I pulled out my glasses for a better look, there was no denying that neither was a seed. I'd mentioned this to our host on the phone, and one of the times she called back, she asked me to text pictures. So I dug the droppings out of the trash, photographed them, and texted her a photo.
She called back (was it multiple times?) and offered to let us stay at her house, although I'm sure she must have meant her other Vrbo rental right on the property where she lives 20 minutes east of Carmel (not even close to the water), and she said a bunch of other things I don't remember. I was sure that staying closer to her was not the secluded getaway experience on the ocean we were seeking, so politely declined the invitation.
One time she called back to let me know that she was sure her husband had tracked those droppings in from outside when he'd been at the cottage earlier in the day applying ... get this ... rodent repellant to the outside of the house. Honestly, every time we talked, things sounded a little bit worse.
In the end, we considered sleeping in the car, but we didn't see any extra bedding, and pulling the sheets off the bed seemed like it would be a real pain in the neck. Plus I feared it might violate some rule included in one of the ten documents we were sent. So I pulled out my computer, found my way to an old email message containing the phone number for the Carmel River Inn where we'd stayed in 2022, called them on the land line, and made a three night reservation. We then drove the hour back to Carmel.
Thankfully, we love the Carmel River Inn tiny houses! They're very clean, comfortable, and perfectly designed for a short term stay. When we walked through the door of our unit, a space had never looked so inviting!
Jim took a shower, and then, of course, the owner of the cottage both texted and called me. Again! She wanted to know where we were, and I told her. She wanted to know why we hadn't stayed at her house. I explained that we were striving to have some time to ourselves, I let her know that we'd probably picnic at the cottage each day, and I assured her that I'd call her, as instructed, when we left the cottage for the last time; sometime on Friday, a day before our scheduled check-out.
She then asked if we liked whale-watching and said her husband, a photographer, could probably get us on a boat. I thanked her and insisted we were really wanting time to ourselves and again assured her we were fine, and I'd call her when we left the cottage for the last time.
At one point, during one of our phone conversations, I was trying to lighten the mood and let her know that when my son heard our story, he'd probably say, "Your trip was cursed!" That triggered this text exchange a few hours later:
There was no doubt we were in California.
Thankfully, this story has a happy, albeit expensive, ending. We learned that renting a vacation home for your vacation home is kind of fun. Given that the expense was downright ridiculous, we're not recommending it, but we were able to enjoy it (and laugh about it) while we had it.
And on a final humorous note, check out this framed suggestion I found in the cottage kitchen when we visited the next day:
Had all gone according to plan, we'd have returned with boring stories about the beauty of Big Sur. Luckily, this story is a lot funnier!
I'm happy to report that our time in Big Sure ended on a high note with a cozy dinner at the Big Sur Bakery on Highway 1.
It's also worth mentioning that before we left the cottage for the last time, and as instructed, I called our host to let her know we were "checking out". Highway 1 was still closed to the south because of the January rock slides, so it just didn't make sense to visit the cottage again the next day given the morning check-out requirement and the fact that we'd need to turn around and drive north to Monterey to start heading toward home ... or anywhere.
After answering most of the host's questions (so many questions), she asked about our plans for leaving town and then asked to meet with us in-person again before we left the area. (I was mentally prepared for the question, because Jim and I had speculated earlier in the day about how she might handle that final phone call.) I really had lost all patience and asked why we needed to meet again. She told me, "I'd like to put a little cash in your hands" suggesting "maybe half of your three-day credit". I told her that would be nice, reminded her that we were striving to have lots of alone time, and asked if she could just credit our account or mail us a check. Thankfully, she agreed to mail us a check. Then she asked if, after seeing the cottage, what I thought of it and if I had any suggestions for her.
Of course I had suggestions! But I only mentioned two; replacing the worn sofa and upgrading the bedding. I'm not sure what she was expected to hear, but apparently that wasn't it. She got extremely defensive, and ended her ... slightly emotional rant ... by telling me that she would not be replacing the sofa nor the bedding! I had been prepared to offer more suggestions, but sensed she wasn't really interested in my ideas.
Because our original booking had occurred over a year before our stay, and all of the rebooking was managed outside the Vrbo app, we are unable to leave a review for our visit. I'm not sure what I'd have written anyway. While the host was unusual, I do think she's well-intentioned. I'm also guessing that she believed that all of her talk about mice and her efforts to repel them would put our minds at ease. i.e. She just didn't get that she was increasing our anxiety every time she spoke.
It's also worth mentioning that the vast majority of reviews for the cottage are 100% positive. The setting really is unbelievably beautiful and the inside of the cottage was clean and thoughtfully and artistically appointed, if not a bit worn around some edges. I don't think there were any mice in there. If you're not afraid of the idea of mice being in there, you'd probably love it.
Even ten years ago, this experience would have really upset me, but one of the great things about being retired, or maybe just older, is that we have enough perspective to recognize that this wasn't even a first world problem, and does make for a very funny story ... at least for us.
Plus, it's hard to get too worked up when you're looking at this view, even if it's just for a few hours a day.
Epilogue (Nov 2, 2023): When we arrived home from the trip, a partial refund check from the Vrbo host was sitting in our mailbox. The check was for half of our three-day credit or 24% of the total amount we paid to rent the Vrbo.
Jim considers the check a win because it's an acknowledgement by the Vrbo host that our change in plans wasn't totally unreasonable. I agree, and choose to reflect on the fact that we were evolved enough to focus on the big picture and not let this "blip" ruin our vacation. Even at the height of our stress, we recognized that this was going to be a funny story.