The Big Sur is a drive of a lifetime.
The Pacific Coast Highway is consistently rated one of the greatest road trips in the world for it’s winding roads, staggering cliffs, beautiful beaches and scenic stopovers along the way. It also lies in central California connecting two of America’s coolest cities – LA and San Francisco.
Whether you’ve read Kerouac’s The Big Sur, found inspiration in the lyrics of Phantom Planet’s California or if you want to embrace the freedom of your 20s by an iconic American adventure; it’s time you hired a convertible and hit the road.
Summertime is peak season. Californian bikini babes and surfers decorate the beaches, the sun-kissed evenings last for eternity and everything feels like a never-ending dream. It is also the busiest time for tourists and accommodation is more expensive. Traveling off-peak is worth some consideration as Californian winters are mild and the scenery is just as breathtaking.
Heading north from Los Angeles to San Francisco is straightforward. Most of the drive is along the famous Route 101 and the coastal HWY 1. Slow down to enjoy the stops along the way.
Although you could race through the journey in a couple of days, this is truly a case of the journey and not just the destination. A week (minimum) is preferable so that you can explore the region, feel the wind in your hair and cruise a comfortable pace.
Hire a car in Los Angeles. We opted for a red Mustang, because you only live once. Spend a few days cruising around ‘La La Land’. This is well worth doing as LA is notoriously difficult to get around without a car.
Famed for being a playground of the rich and famous, Hollywood is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Los Angeles. It’s a city brimming with ridiculously good-looking people, either working as actors or waiting tables hoping for their big break. Whilst, the beaches are a hive of activity – surfers, basketball players and skaters take advantage of the sunny outdoors.
This mythical, sprawling metropolis is whacky, tacky, fake and over-the-top in every way. Golden sunshine, palm trees, rolling hills and freshly squeezed orange juice meets freeways, frauds and traffic jams.
A world of big dreams and harsh realities; it’s exciting getting caught up in the whirlwind of hedonism, idealism and narcissism that runs through the veins of The City of Angels.
3515 Wilshire Blvd Los Angeles
Arguably the hippest boutique hotel in Los Angeles; complete with striking design, staff that look like models straight out of Monocle Magazine and set in the up-and-coming Koreatown neighbourhood. Although it’s not located in central Beverly Hills or by the beach, it’s ideal if you have use of a car to cruise around the city.
Make sure you have breakfast at the hotel’s sun-drenched rooftop greenhouse before you set out for your Californian adventure. This plant-centric restaurant is so ‘LA’ with a focus on farm-fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s a nourishing start to the day.
At some point on your road trip you will simply have to order drive-in from this cult Californian burger chain. Rumours of a secret-menu are rife, but basically ‘Animal Style’ (w/ pickles, extra sauce, grilled onions and mustard fried onto each meat patty) burgers and cheese fries are what the cool kids are ordering. You may also want to get a little creative and opt for a Neapolitan ice cream shake.
This chic coffee shop nestled in the tree-lined Melrose Place is a great for designated drivers needing a caffeine hit. It’s some of the best brew in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the iced-tea is rather refreshing.
Santa Barbara is a relatively short drive from Los Angeles. Often referred to as the ‘American Riviera’, it’s an idyllic little holiday spot nestled between the foothills of Santa Ynez Mountains and the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Palm tree lined main street, upmarket shops, touristy waterfront and Spanish colonial architecture make up the majority of this enchanting stopover.
Be sure to stroll along State Street, enjoy the outdoor boutiques and experience the fine dining of historic downtown Santa Barbara. Swing by Stearns Wharf, soak up some sun along the beach and pay a visit to the picturesque Mission Santa Barbara . Stay a night in Santa Barbara as your first stopover.
Stay: The Wayfarer
12 E Montecito Street Santa Barbara
This downtown hostel-hotel hybrid is ideal for a road trip stopover with the winning combination of being trendy, clean and inexpensive. The complimentary breakfast, on-site parking and a swimming pool are appealing too. It’s walking distance to the main shopping and restaurants on State Street. Dorm style rooms and private suites are available so it’s great for couples or a group of friends.
Set in the historic fishing building in the arts district of Santa Barbara this hip restaurant serves up plates of delicious, locally sourced fare designed for sharing. Warehouse vibes, communal tables and dreamy outdoor courtyard make it the perfect place for a good feed, a few drinks and a chance to socialise with the locals.
Good old-fashioned creamery selling scoops of artisanal ice cream since 1949. Cool down with a hearty cone, with flavours like sea salt cookies and cream, churros con leche and toasted coconut almond chip.
The most unusual place to stretch the legs is a town founded by a community of Danes who immigrated to the USA during the 19th Century. The city is modelled to look like a Danish village and evolved into what appears to be an out-dated and kitsch homage to Denmark. Expect to see buildings designed with traditional Danish facades, such as bakeries, merchants selling touristy trinkets and an old-fashioned windmill in the heart of town. Other sites include replicas of Copenhagen’s Round Tower, the Little Mermaid statue and a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s childhood home.
The historic hilltop mansion of American media mogul William Randolph Hearst towers over the central coast with 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces and pools and sweeping views of the handsome landscape of San Simeon. For first time visitors the Grand Room Tour is recommended. Take 45 minutes of out of your trip to explore the majestic property from the sumptuous rooms, prized art collection to the opulent Neptune’s pool.
ELEPHANT SEALS AT PEIDRAS BLANCAS
A few miles south of the Peidras Blancas Light Station you’ll discover a sight to behold – thousands of elephant seals lying on the beach. You’ll hear them grunting before you see them strewn out in their natural habitat. The best time of the year to go is breeding season between November- February. There is a pleasant viewing platform and plaques providing interesting facts about these giant, wobbling creatures. Bring a jacket as it can get quite windy.
A special detour to a hidden gem that boasts striking natural beauty. Blink and you’ll miss it.
PFEIFFER BIG SUR STATE PARK
Cruise through the secluded forest and look out for the turn off to the Henry Miller Memorial Library. The library is a booklovers sanctuary, a bohemian bungalow surrounded by towering trees. It serves as a literary, artistic and cultural space for locals and travellers. Make yourself a cup of jo, meander around the bookstore and hang out with the resident cat on the balcony. You might find some hippies strumming the guitar on the porch or discover some of the hosted events during the summer months from film screenings, lectures, theatre, art shows, music gigs and book signings at the Big Sur’s cultural hub. Buy a book to read on your road trip whilst you’re there.
THE BIG SUR
The next part of the drive is some of the most spectacular coastline you’ll ever see. The winding cliff side drive feels like you’re on the knife’s edge of the continent. Many travellers will enjoy a relaxing pit stop and bite to eat at Nepenthe, which is renowned for it’s outstanding views. Take a detour to Pfeiffer Beach to see the splendid rock formation shaped like an arch with a portal unto the ocean.
Further along the coast road after crossing the Bixby Bridge is an excellent place to stop and take an iconic photograph of the incredible man-made structure in the midst of natural beauty. There are plenty of lookout points along the Big Sur, take it easy as this is surely the highlight of the entire trip.
Quaint is the best way to describe this postcard-pretty little town. Even the name Carmel-By-The-Sea oozes charm. Set along a beautiful white-sand beach is the European-style village with boutique shops, upscale restaurants, art galleries and old-fashioned guesthouses. Take a stroll along Carmel Beach, visit the Mission and acquire some snacks for the road trip from Cottage of Sweets.
Camel is an excellent place to stay-over. This will allow time to explore the village and spend a few hours appreciating the sweeping views and impressive mansions along 17 Mile Drive with highlights including The Lone Cypress. Stay longer if you’re a keen golfer as Pebble Beach has one of the finest golf courses in the world.
You mustn’t leave Carmel without setting out for Point Lobos which is the “crown jewel” for nature lovers, and is said to have inspired the landscape in the classic novel Treasure Island. There are excellent hiking trails and sheltered inlets with turquoise water such as the magical China Cove.
Camino Real at Eighth Avenue, Carmel
The delightful beach cottage style 75-room mansion is steps away from the peaceful Carmel Beach and the art galleries, shops and European restaurants in this upmarket enclave. Ocean views, manicured gardens, balcony patio for complimentary buffet breakfast and tranquil swimming pool are some of the features of this romantic hotel. It couldn’t be cosier; they even offer warm milk and freshly baked cookies at the front desk in the afternoons.
Rustic village bistro serving French-Italian fare. This homely spot along the sweet Dolores Street is perfect for a romantic evening spent with a glass of Californian red and a thin crust pizza made in their special wood-fired oven.
Another popular stop along California’s rugged coastline is the waterfront city of Monterey. This spot has history steeped in fishing and a well-known tourist trap is Cannery Row, this old sardine canning part of town was made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name. Marine life still gives Monterey it’s reputation, it’s home to sea lions, sea otters, harbour seals and dolphins. You might spot some sea lions sunning themselves around Fisherman’s Wharf if you’re lucky.
While you’re here, grab a seafood lunch. A sure way to see some of the best of marine life is at the top attraction, the magnificent Monterey Aquarium.
Spend some time gawking at the cheeky sea otters, mesmerising jellyfish and try catch a feeding show.
This touristy joint at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf offers harbour-side views and Monterey’s best clam chowder.
Cruise along the famed Boardwalk and ramble down to California’s oldest surviving amusement park complete with the historical Giant Dipper roller coaster. Munch on some cotton candy and enjoy old -fashioned carnival fun. Santa Cruz is a refuge for all things counter-cultural – hippies, stoners and lefties a plenty. Due to the awesome beaches, there’s a reason people call it ‘Surf City’ as the surf culture is rife. There is even room for beginners and the best place to start out is Cowell’s Beach. An hour into your drive to San Francisco you’ll pass Mavericks, California’s most famous surf beach. Here you’ll find huge waves, and you may be able to get a glimpse of some of the most exciting big wave surfers in the world.
Swing by the ever-so-hip Verve Coffee on Pacific Avenue for some of the best coffee in Cali to keep you awake for the last leg of the journey.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by San Francisco, this trendy harbour city with rambling hills, steep streets, picturesque cable cars, hip neighbourhoods and stunning scenery. Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in a blanket of thick fog is an utterly romantic image. The city still retains elements of it’s culturally rich and bohemian past.
Cisco is always on the cutting edge of the latest trend or movement; most notably the heart of the 1950s Beat Generation, the hippie movement, gay pride and more recently the start-up boom in Silicon Valley.
There are plenty of sights and scenery to keep you busy for several days, remember to pack comfortable walking shoes and a jacket even in summer-time as it can be breezy.
386 Geary St, San Francisco
This luxury boutique hotel is in the heart of Union Square. It’s close to the shops and central cable cars that provide a fantastic way to explore the city. The historic building was recently renovated and now offers funky rooms with minimalistic interiors and personal Nespresso machines.
This local favourite is a must for any self-proclaimed ‘foodie’. The bakery is in the heart of the Mission District and serves up the best bread in San Francisco. Try the croque monsieur or other melty, hot-pressed sandwiches for lunch. Their coffee and croissants are top-notch, whilst those with a sweet-tooth will be in pastry paradise with their decadent offerings.