I was in a losing battle with the setting sun as I gunned the Mustang convertible to a hideaway in Big Sur. The top had long been buckled up against the frigid Pacific wind as dazzling shades of yellow melted into darkening blues and a star-lit sky.
The famed Pacific Coast Highway unfurled in my headlights, a ribbon of asphalt tying together California’s most scenic regions – and a bucket-list wish for many road trip enthusiasts.
Over the years, I have criss-crossed the country and traveled the length of I-95 from the Florida Keys to Mount Acadia in Maine. But nothing on the East Coast matches the raw beauty of the Golden State, providing a natural high that rivals California’s better-known medicinal alternatives.
The PCH is actually a collection of rural roads, freeways and highways that hug the edge of the banana-shaped state for about 560 miles from north of San Diego to northern California.
Many recommend driving the route north to south, putting the wheels of a car that much closer to the rim of the continent. Whichever direction one chooses, there is never a bad time to set off on this ultimate straycation, however, in the summer months, the narrow stretch through Big Sur is packed with slow-moving RVs and rubber-neckers.
I traveled from San Diego to San Francisco last fall after a confluence of events – a round-numbered birthday, a destination wedding and an academic visit to Stanford – gave me the green light to leave my too-pregnant-to-fly wife for a week. Though the PCH picks up near San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, my journey began just north of the Mexican border on the island of Coronado off San Diego, where one of my last single friends celebrated his nuptials.
Plan on breaking up the trip into three stages – Southern California, the Central Coast and the Bay Area – to experience the full breadth of the state’s diversity. But don’t try to squeeze too much into one day, or else you may miss the sunset.
SAN DIEGO:The Gaslamp District draws most of the tourists but to enjoy this city’s relaxed vibe, head to the Hillcrest section. The gentrified neighborhood abuts the 200-acre Balboa Park, which is dotted with Moorish-style buildings housing museums and theater spaces. It’s also home to the San Diego Zoo, the largest in the U.S. Back toward the coast, drop a towel at Ocean Beach to spot surfers cutting through the waves or take a drive through nearby Sunset Cliffs and Point Loma, the appendage at the southwest tip of the state.
Foods to try: Don’t leave San Diego without sampling the fish tacos, one of the greatest contributions of Mexican food. The simple delicacy of lightly battered white fish and shreddedd cabbage in a corn tortilla has been elevated to fine cuisine at Mama Testa Taqueria in Hillcrest.
Side trips: Head over the 2-mile-long Coronado Bridge, which rises 200 feet to let the U.S. Naval fleet stationed nearby pass underneath, and pull into the Hotel Del Coronado, which opened in 1888 and is identifiable by its iconic red-tiled roof. The hotel’s cavernous Crown Room, with its arched ceiling of notched sugar pine, serves a gluttonous Sunday brunch perfect for fueling up before a long adventure. Make sure to jump on I-5 and catch a glimpse of the Mormon Temple, an all-white castle more fit for a Disney princess, then make a pit stop in La Jolla to watch the sea lions frolic at Children’s Pool Beach. You can spend the night at La Valencia Hotel, a boutique hotel built in 1928 and nicknamed the Pink Lady of La Jolla, or head north to Orange County to bunk along the coastal towns of Dana Point, Laguna Beach or Newport Beach.
Where to stay: The Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel puts you blocks from the center of the nightlife, as well as Petco Stadium and the convention center.
LOS ANGELES: This sprawling city choked by traffic will make you want to bypass it if not for the allure of glamour mixing with the smog in the air. The PCH, called State Route 1 through Orange County, skirts around much of the entertainment capital and rejoins the coast at Redondo Beach, before rolling into Venice Beach. Park along the shore for some people watching or head a few miles up to Santa Monica and wander along its famed pier. Santa Monica Place, a recently opened multimillion dollar mecca for shopping and dining, is a good spot for loading up on souvenirs or a special gift for that understanding spouse. The PCH continues its dramatic sweep for another 20 miles up to Malibu, where celebrity homes dot the hillsides overlooking the Pacific.
Foods to try: The options in this international city are limitless, but nothing goes better with a road trip than some fast food, and the burger chains out here put New York’s to shame. Get a Double-Double from In-N-Out burger, a Big Carl at Carl Jr.’s or a Jumbo Jack from Jack in the Box and you’ll wonder why we’re stuck with only McDonald’s and Burger King.
Side trips: Cruise through Beverly Hills to gawk at the hedged-off mansions or do some window shopping on Rodeo Drive. You can catch the view of the Hollywood sign as you cruise toward the Sunset Strip than head over to the rooftop bar atop the Standard hotel in the revitalized downtown area.
Where to stay: The Thompson in Beverly Hills is a trendy hotel with a popular roof deck and stylish crowd.
SANTA BARBARA: A coastal gem in the shadows of the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara bills itself as the American Riviera. The waterfront area is the hub of activity and is packed with restaurants, shops and art galleries.
Foods to try: Grapes, specifically, those made into award-winning Santa Barbara County wines and served along the Urban Wine Trail downtown. Turn your car keys in and spend the night at The Canary, a stylish hotel within stumbling distance of the 11 tasting venues.
Side trips: The wine-cult film “Sideways” put the nearby towns of Solvang and Montecito on the map, so swoop in to pick up a few bottles of wine and stop for lunch in the quaint towns, filled with mom-and-pop shops and unique boutiques.
BIG SUR: The towering Santa Lucia Range juts out of the Pacific as you pick up the PCH, now called the Cabrillo Highway, in San Luis Obispo. The 120-mile roller coaster ride through Big Sur begins at sea level at Morro Bay, where a volcanic cone eroded down to a 581-foot rocky nub houses peregrine falcons. The two-lane road soars to a height of 1,400 feet as it carves a treacherous path of hairpin turns along the edge of the mountain range. Every bend brings a postcard-worthy vista, forcing drivers to pull over to the shoulder in hopes of snapping a piece of paradise.
Foods to try: Whatever is on the menu at Sierra Mar, the restaurant at the exclusive Post Ranch Inn perched on a 1,200-foot-high cliff overlooking the Pacific. The breath-taking view and innovative food is open to nonguests during lunch and select dinner hours. If you want to insure a sunset seating – and a possible celebrity sighting – splurge for a night at the highly acclaimed eco-resort, where room rates begin at $550 a night.
Side trips: The famous twin turrets of Hearst Castle can barely be seen from the PCH when you stop to stretch your legs in San Simeon. Detour up to a 1,600-foot-high hilltop that delivers you at the gate of the 56-bedroom, 61-bath former home of the newspaper baron.
Where to stay: Those not planning to camp out in the state parks that comprise much of Big Sur should spend the night in nearby Cambria, a charming town with an abundance of lodging choices, including the El Colibri Hotel and Spa.
MONTEREY: After darting inland to cut through ancient redwoods, the PCH again traces along the claw-like toes of the Santa Lucia Range as it traverses the Bixby Creek Bridge, an arched span completed in 1932 that opened the untamed wilderness to the Monterrey Peninsula. The reward for completing the dizzying drive is a stop in Carmel, an artistic haven packed with tourists filling trendy restaurants and pricey shops. Up the coast is the funky city of Monterey, immortalized by John Steinbeck in “Cannery Row” and home to the annual jazz festival. Today’s Cannery Row has undergone a Times Square-like scrubdown, offering little evidence of its rowdy past. The main attraction is its world-renowned aquarium, which provides an underwater window on the Pacific’s endless bounty. Golf fans will want to make a pilgrimage to Pebble Beach, which branches off the PCH onto a toll road called the 17-Mile Drive. The $10 fee is less than it costs to go over the Verrazano into much-less scenic Staten Island.
Foods to try: The tri-tip steak is king throughout northern California. The flavorful, yet cheap cut of meat comes from the bottom of the sirloin and perfect for barbecuing. You can get it as a mouth-watering sandwich at Bruno’s Market and Deli in Carmel or as an entree portion at the laid back Henry’s BBQ in Monterrey.
Side trips: Pull away from the PCH for the ride north on U.S. 101 through more Steinbeck, as well as Kerouac, country to Palo Alto, where you can tour Stanford University or possibly run into Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The return leg on Highway 17 slaloms down the forested hillside to the surf town of Santa Cruz.
Where to stay: The Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto is a perfect place to decamp while touring around Silicon Valley.
SAN FRANCISCO: Tony Bennett isn’t the only one to have his heart stolen by the city by the bay. America’s prettiest city, as well as its most vertigo-inducing, is built on some 40 hills, with some roads diving toward the shore at 30-degrees inclines. The most famous of them is Lombard St., which has eight switchbacks. One area more suitable for exploring on foot is the South of Market, or SOMA, a neighborhood, which features many if the city’s top museums. Nearby is AT&T Park, which is surrounded by bars and clubs that were packed as my arrival coincided with the Giants’ magical run to the city’s first World Series.
Foods to try: The farm-to-table craze sprung from the ingredient-obsessed foodies in the Bay Area. One of the pioneers of vegetarian cuisine is Greens Restaurant, in historic Fort Mason with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the menu offers food even a carnivore can enjoy. You can also stop in for some dim sum at the largest Chinatown east of Canal St. or mop up a sourdough-bread filled with clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Side trips: The PCH continues to hug the coast north of San Francisco for another 200 miles into the Redwood Empire. It then merges into U.S. 101 the remainder of the way to the Oregon border and the stunning Pacific Northwest – a road trip for a future day.
Where to stay: The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco in the tony Nob Hill section recently completed a $12.5 million renovation.
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