The Pacific Coast Highway drive along the length of California regularly features on top ten lists of the world’s most scenic driving routes. People from all over the globe fly to this western state, jump in a car or RV and head south from San Francisco or north from Los Angeles to witness some incredibly beautiful ocean views.
My best friend Lynne Firth and I had decided to fly to San Francisco from Vancouver after a one-week Alaskan cruise to make the epic journey recommended by so many. We planned to stop along the way to visit with friends and see some of the interesting sights as we went.
San Francisco is a cosmopolitan, bustling city famous for its bay, Alcatraz and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. Its average temperatures year round range from about 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the perfect climate for those who don’t appreciate extreme cold or heat. You’ll find a wealth of terrific shops, restaurants and theatres in this culturally-rich northern California mecca, renowned for its arts, entertainment and museums.
Although we had planned to take a segway tour around Golden Gate Park, we ended up running out of time thanks to a lot of traffic and a few wrong turns along the way. In the end we had to decide between the segways and the Golden Gate Bridge. It really was a no-brainer.
Even though the Golden Gate route would take us completely in the other direction from where we needed to go, we felt we had to drive over it just to say we had.
The Golden Gate Bridge officially opened on 27 May, 1937, and it was the longest suspension bridge span in the world at the time. There is a toll charge to cross it – anything from US$6 to US$42 depending on the number of axles – and in our case it was worth every penny (thankfully we only had two axles). We drove over and then pulled into a popular viewing spot so we could get a proper look at the bay and Alcatraz out there in the middle. The bridge really was breathtaking when you saw it from the land; an amazing piece of architecture.
After a short time appreciating the vista, we got back into the car, found the first place where we could turn around and paid the toll once again to go back over the bridge in the right direction for our destination. Our next stop was Carmel-by-the-Sea, at least a couple of hours’ drive away.
Place to stay: Hotel Vitale on the corner of Mission Street and The Embarcadero is where we stayed and we loved it. It is a luxury boutique hotel ideally located near many restaurants with an excellent view of the Bay Bridge from certain rooms and terraces.
Place to eat: Ozumo on Steuart Street, particularly if you’re a fan of sushi. You can sit at a table or at the sushi bar and enjoy quality cuisine with terrific, prompt service. It’s only a stone’s throw from Hotel Vitale, so a great choice if you’re staying there.
Tips: If you’re interested in taking the Alcatraz tour, buy your tickets a week before if you can. It is sometimes sold out days in advance, so buy early to avoid disappointment.
If you have a few days in San Francisco, consider taking a day trip to Napa. It’s only about an hour away by car.
It took us a while to get out of San Francisco and onto the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1. Once we were on it, we were able to relax and enjoy the view a bit more.
The section from San Francisco to Carmel features more of a beach-laden coastline – wide, sweeping beaches with large areas of driftwood. As we drove we witnessed a number of hardy kitesurfers flying above the waves. With the wind blowing a gale, we couldn’t imagine the temperature of the water, but it didn’t seem to faze them in the slightest.
We pulled over a couple of times to walk out onto the sand and survey the majesty of the ocean before running back to the warmth of our vehicle. Even though I had really pushed for a convertible in the early days of planning our trip, I was privately grateful that Lynne had insisted on an SUV.
One of our unplanned yet incredibly memorable stops was at Swanton Berry Farms’ Farm Stand. They sold the biggest, juiciest strawberries I think we’ve ever had in our lives, and I bought two jars of blackberry jam that reminded me of the stuff that my mother used to make from wild blackberries when we lived in Ireland. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more when I was there. It would have been worth the cost of an extra piece of luggage home.
We got into Carmel nearly three hours later, proving what everyone had been telling us: if you take the Pacific Coast Highway, expect it to take significantly longer than if you’d chosen one of the other major highways like Interstate 5.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a delightful place to stop and explore. Not only is it nestled in a stunning landscape, including its famous beach; it also features a cornucopia of art galleries, little shops, antique stores and boutiques that could probably keep you busy for days. Just pull off the highway at Ocean Avenue, find some parking and stop by the Visitor’s Center to get a walking map.
Place to stay: Well of course we had to stay at the Cypress Inn on Lincoln Street, owned by famous film star and singer, Doris Day; and as she is a great animal lover, the inn is completely doggie-friendly. Patrons with their pooches stop by all the time and overnight guests are welcome to bring man’s best friend with them. The more the merrier!
Place to eat: We had to hit the road pretty quickly if we were going to stop by Hearst Castle on our way to Santa Barbara, so we visited Salumeria Luca Italian Deli and Bakery on Dolores St for some sandwiches, gelato and beverages. If you have the time to sit and eat, they have a restaurant next door.
Tips: Try to stay here for more than one night. We didn’t get the chance, but Carmel is definitely somewhere we would have chosen to linger if we’d had the time.
Look out for Swanton Berry Farm on your way to Carmel; you don’t want to miss it.
The next section of the Pacific Coast Highway was the most impressive, and although what we had driven through previously had been beautiful, the route through Big Sur was truly stunning. The road twisted and turned through various elevations, always with an incredible view of the dark blue ocean relentlessly battling rocky outcrops and the majestic coast rising up.
Pine trees and magnificent redwoods were thick across the landscape and we passed a number of parks along the way. This was ideal camping country.
There were many places to pull over in Big Sur, and we stopped multiple times to take photographs along with other travelling sightseers. We met people from Australia, South Africa and Canada as we went; all of them on vacation taking their dream driving trip.
Lynne had wanted to see the famous Hearst Castle in San Simeon, so we continued on our journey, finally leaving the craggy beauty of Big Sur behind us to reveal the more gentle sloping coastline of the south.
Tip: This stretch of the highway will take you the longest to finish, so give yourself plenty of time. You’ll want to pull over a lot to gasp at the vistas, and chances are good that you’ll also get stuck behind an RV driver riding the brakes through some hairpin turns.
Hearst Castle was the beloved home of William Randolph Hearst and the Hearst Corporation donated it to the state of California in 1957 on the condition that members of the family could use it whenever they wished.
Hearst Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking its significant estate and is very easy to spot when travelling on the highway due to its size and location in an otherwise quiet landscape. Visitors have to park at the Visitor’s Centre, and then buses transport them up to the house.
There are many different tours available for purchase, each covering different floors and rooms of the property. We went for the Upper Floors Tour based on a recommendation, which took us through a number of the bedrooms including Hearst’s, the library, many hallways and stairwells. It was 45 minutes long and our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable, able to answer questions on every subject including where Hearst sourced some of the magnificent ceilings to be found in the rooms.
After the tour we were allowed to wander the grounds, which were vast and ornate, including Neptune’s Pool and the indoor Roman Pool; an incredible creation in a large room covered in small glass tiles.
We finally took the bus back to the main centre and then got ready to continue on our journey.
Tips: If you’re on any kind of schedule, book tickets for the Hearst Castle tours in advance online otherwise there may not be any available for when you want to go.
Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to climb up and down a fair number of steps.
Make a quick stop to see the elephant seals lounging on the beach just before you get to the castle. You’ll see the signs indicating where to turn.
By the time we arrived in Santa Barbara we were very glad that we had decided to break up the journey from Carmel to Los Angeles with an overnight there. It had been great to see all the new scenery, but after four hours of driving, not to mention walking miles around Hearst Castle, I was pretty tired.
It’s not too shabby a place to stop over, with funky shops and restaurants along the thoroughfare of State Street that runs to the water. You can rent bicycles if you wish; a great way to get around the town even in the day as the temperatures are quite balmy throughout the year.
We got to our hotel, had a shower and changed and went out exploring. By the time we were walking towards the ocean it was quite dark, but a lovely stroll nonetheless as cyclists drifted past us along the path that followed the water’s edge. We ended up going for dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant and then back to the hotel for the night.
The next day we drove out to the State Street area, window shopped for a while and got some lunch. Santa Barbara has a great artsy vibe about it, and even though it was only supposed to be a rest stop, it ended up being a place of interest that we would definitely revisit in the future.
We wandered around for a bit longer, but then decided it was time to hit the road again. We wanted to get to Los Angeles before the sun went down.
Place to stay: Brisas Del Mar, Inn at the Beach. This charming inn is only about two blocks from the water and excellent value for the money. The rooms are like small apartments with a kitchen and separate living room. The only disadvantage is no lift, so if you’re physically challenged ask for a ground floor location.
Place to eat: Toma Restaurant and Bar on West Cabrillo Blvd. Terrific Italian food and an extensive beverage menu.
When we left Santa Barbara we got onto Highway 101 to Los Angeles, which runs concurrently with Highway 1 for a good part of the southern route. It wasn’t long before the traffic began to get noticeably heavier as we approached the city. The area surrounding the highway became more built up and the number of lanes increased to handle the volume.
Los Angeles, otherwise known as the City of Angels, really needs no introduction. It is home to myriad movie stars, a huge film industry, and numerous award-winning restaurants where almost every member of staff is a budding actor, director or screenwriter trying to make it to the big time.
There is so much to do in this city, you’ll hardly know where to begin. Film buffs should stop by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see the famous hand and footprints in the ground, while art lovers must not miss a jaunt to the Getty Center.
Families can visit Disneyland for a day or two of fun and shoppers will drool over the brands lining Rodeo Drive.
If you’re into the kooky and bohemian, head to Venice Beach for the afternoon and in the evening you’re bound to find a wealth of live music and entertainment happening on the Sunset Strip. The list of activities goes on and on.
There is a wide range of hotels to book in Los Angeles from the dodgy and simple to the insanely extravagant. No matter what your budget, you’ll find somewhere to hang your hat for the night.
Place to stay: The Beverly Hilton Hotel, Wilshire Boulevard. This iconic property is the essence of Hollywood glitz and glamour. It is known for, amongst other events, the Clive Davis pre-Grammy Awards Gala, and its famous Trader Vic’s Lounge. Spring for a room on the pool deck if you can, or at least one overlooking the pool to feel like a part of the action, although it might get a bit loud on weekend or event nights, so be aware of that if you’re an early-to-bed kinda person.
Place to eat and drink: Trader Vic’s in the same hotel. The food and drinks are fabulous, including the original Mai Tai, and you can secure yourself a set of lounge seats, complete with your own fire pit, by the pool once you’ve finished dinner.
The trip was officially over when the alarm woke us at 6am in time to return the rental car and get to the airport for our 9am flight to Miami. We were sad to wave California goodbye, but made a note to return to the Pacific Coast Highway in the future.
I can’t recommend this journey enough. It’s ideal if you have a week or more at your disposal because then you can stay overnight at the many wonderful places along the way. Take the family, go with friends, drive it with the one you love, or just go it alone with a fantastic soundtrack lilting through the speakers. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.