California’s Pacific Coast Highway
Where you want to go and what you want to know Hi, or Konnichiwa as our traveling companions from Japan say. We’re the curious (and excited!) travelers on the PCH Road Trip. These are our favourite places (and detours) from what proved to be an epic scenic adventure.
When we landed in San Francisco to blue skies, the PCH was three letters and a few stories we had heard about its impressive scenery.
Over the next seven days, we came to truly appreciate why this historic highway is considered one of the most iconic roadways in the USA. No matter what you call it — “Route 1” or “Highway One” as they say on the North Coast, or the PCH as you venture south — driving this seascape highway is an exhilarating experience you won’t forget.
From the city to the sea cliffs and crashing surf, our adventure began with the colourful city life and spectacular landmarks of San Francisco. Invigorated and inspired, we pointed our GPS south and set out toward the remote 90-mile stretch of Big Sur.
We learned to love the fog-shrouded beaches, the creature comforts of inviting accommodations, feasting like locals on plentiful fresh seafood, locally grown meats and produce, and the wide array of culinary influences. From Mexican taquerias, to American “comfort food” diners, to Asian-fusion dining spots, there are hundreds of tempting eateries and farmer’s markets that pepper the coast, making this a “foodies” paradise. In between saying “Delicious!” a lot, we cranked our car radio (just like the famous band The Beach Boys did!) and savored the sunsets (take photos!). One thing we didn’t hear in the car as we twisted our way down the dizzying cliffs to the glamour of Southern California was, “Are we there yet?” Why? There’s so much to see along the way: the fairytale redwoods, the breezy beach towns, the wildlife reserves and the mountains that dive into the Pacific. But there are a few memorable destinations to mention.
Between San Francisco and Los Angeles, we soaked in the historic charm of Monterey, the artistry and silvery coastal light of Carmel Valley and the elegance of the golf mecca Pebble Beach. You may want to stop off where the landscape calms — where cypress trees, marine and land mammals and birdlife teem — at the “Crown Jewel” of the California State Park system, the Point Lobos State Reserve. Perhaps for us, though, one of the more memorable “getaways” of the Southern stretch of Big Sur, was Ragged Point, just north of San Simeon. Here you can hike a trail down the face of a cliff, cross your fingers for sea lion sightings, and then head inside for a storybook lunch at the Ragged Point Inn. We missed the sea lions this time, but not to worry. If you pull over at San Simeon Vista Park, the (sometimes hundreds of) elephant seals will greet you with their unique bark (and smells). Don’t be afraid to hold your nose while taking pictures!
It’s true, there’s fine wine outside of Wine Country. Since the 18th century when the Spanish missionaries planted one vineyard for every mission built (they needed the wine for mass), there has been a love affair with fine wine in California. Many travellers have heard of Sonoma and Napa Valley Wine Country to the north. We had a ball discovering the bounty of vineyards that the central coast has to offer. From Monterey to Santa Barbara counties, family-owned labels are flourishing and upholding those cultural traditions (and hard work!) with each bottle they produce. So whether you’re heading into Santa Ynez valley for the full vineyard experience (we made friends with the family dog!) or ambling along one of the charming downtown gallery scenes, chances are you’ll be invited in for a taste of a local wine. Don’t forget to raise your glass and say “Cheers!”
Down the winding road, there’s “SoCal” for sun, shopping and entertainment. We rolled into stylish Santa Barbara, recharged in star-studded Malibu and cruised over to what feels like the playground in the front yard of Los Angeles — Santa Monica. With the raw beauty of the PCH in our rearview, Santa Monica and LA offer a different kind of beauty — pure glamour. You’ll see it shopping on the 3rd Street Promenade, working under the movie lights at Universal Studios, and having drinks atop a skyscraper restaurant in Downtown’s LA LIVE. This is the place where dreamers go to get discovered. It’s the perfect last scene to close our PCH journey.
Whether for day trips or overnight stays, this is a warm and inviting region. You can thank in part the rich, cultural influences of early Spanish and Mexican settlers: the red-tiled roofs of the mission-style architecture, the culinary flavors of the Mediterranean and an easy-does-it spirit. This laid-back vibe makes the already picturesque settings all the more relaxing. In fact, our Japanese friends thought the culture of the coastal region was very easy to get used to (and very hard to leave!).
Next, we’re off to explore the open road and recipes of the Texas BBQ Trail with our friends from Korea. Check back for the smoking details on the ultimate in slow food.
Visit during whale-watching season — February through early April or May to September. If you’re lucky you might even spot the rare blue whales that have been sighted offshore in the past couple of years, due to an abundance of squid and krill that they love to eat.
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