It’s been written about in song lyrics and books, shown in thousands of movies. The California coast has called out to millions of travelers and turned an occasional visitor into a permanent resident. Some have even left their hearts there. For some people, like me, experiencing the California coast was really a dream. I took in this long and winding sliver of heaven on a nine-day drive down Highway 1, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
Choosing a starting point was difficult because the PCH stretches nearly the entire length of the California coast. Most people choose a route based on what they want to see and how much time they have. I chose to fly into San Francisco, drive south and fly home from Los Angeles. However, acting on a tip from a bartender at the near century-old Final Final pub, I decided to head north and begin my adventure at Stinson Beach. This popular surf spot has managed to maintain its small-town charm through the years. Arts and crafts shops, B&Bs and a few choice eateries are along the main road. The surf can be extreme here, so swimming is not recommended, but a stroll along the beach is a great way to walk off a wonderful meal.
Heading south from Stinson Beach, I made my way back to the Bay Area. As I approached town, I pulled over and soaked in the sights from the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge, appropriately dubbed “Vista Point.” Some say this view is one of the top-10 city views in the world. As I leave the Golden Gate Bridge behind, I thought of the long trek ahead and wondered, “Could it get any better?”
The next day, I cheated and took U.S. Route 101 south to Hwy. 17 toward Santa Cruz. Purists will say “stay on the PCH,” but time was not on my side. Driving through the mountains toward Santa Cruz, I realized the extra money I spent on renting a convertible was paying off. All my senses kicked in when I passed over the Santa Cruz mountain range. The fresh scent of pine and cool mountain air soon gave way to the warm, fresh breeze of the Pacific Ocean as I pulled into Santa Cruz. This summer seaside staple is a fantastic family retreat. Santa Cruz features a long walking pier and a Coney Island-style boardwalk loaded with playful children. Adults seemed more interested in the many arts and crafts galleries.
The road southward runs along Monterey Bay, a stretch of coastline that seemed to bend endlessly to the right. Just when I thought I had gone in a circle, I reached the bay’s namesake. This old fishing-village-turned-tourist-spot boasts world-class golf, shopping, kayaking, sea otter watching, hiking and lots of beach. A variety of restaurants and shops line the famed Cannery Row, pier district and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Teaming with wildlife unique to the area, it was one of my favorite stops.
A short drive from Monterey is Carmel-by-the-Sea. This Clint Eastwood-run community beckons the upper class. Victorian style B&Bs, arts and crafts and tourist shops make up the quaint downtown area; surfers are usually riding the waves along the public beach. While water warriors continued their quest to find the perfect wave, I headed south along the Central Coast towards Big Sur (Tip: Fill the gas tank in Monterey Bay). Passing through Los Padres National Forest and a handful of state parks, the road seems to wind endlessly upward into the ever-growing mountain range. Along this stretch, the PCH tests your driving skills. Towering mountains seem to fight man’s progress; nature appears to be winning. A long series of switchbacks snake their way along the coast, almost defying gravity. Dozens of parking areas have been constructed along the road so tourists can safely take in the amazing panoramic views.
A few miles down the road is one of America’s most amazing homes, the Hearst Castle. I toured this compound of 165 rooms inside four separate buildings. Tour guides described William Randolf Hearst’s lavish lifestyle as we strolled through the home of one of the richest Americans to ever live. I wish I would have saved more time for this stop; you could spend two full days here and still not see it all.
I moved on to Morro Bay. This friendly fishing community is a nice place to relax, sit in one of the marina’s restaurants and enjoy some great seafood. The sunset was stunning. From there, the PCH begins to succumb to the modern world as it merges with the freeway and all but disappears into the populous of San Luis Obispo. I made my way to Malibu where an endless curtain of coastal mansions house Southern California’s most famous (and infamous) residents. I left without a glimpse of a single movie or rock star. Heading south along the coast through Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Newport Beach, I was nearing the end of my journey.
I had time for a couple of stops. Laguna Beach, home to true “beach bums,” is also known for competitive beach volleyball games, top restaurants, five-star hotels and shops. Dana Point, the end of my Pacific Coast Highway adventure, has been taken over by the privileged masses. Once a sleepy resort community, it is now a place where wealthy southern Californians go to get away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. It’s said realtors measure California ocean views in glimpses. If that’s true, then I definitely got a great bargain on my Pacific Coast Highway adventure.