After spending our first few days in San Francisco, we set out on the road trip we’d flown all that way to do. We now had week touring the coast ahead of us before we making our way inland to the national parks. The stretch of Highway 1 heading southbound along the coast is known as one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world – around 700 km to Los Angeles, 900 km if you go as far as San Diego.
I had already taken the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles in 2009 and 2011 and even the first time around I was fascinated by the long, sandy beaches, sheer cliffs, winding roads with views of the crashing ocean and all the small towns along the way. But this time it wasn’t LA we were heading for but San Diego…
Day 1: From Menlo Park to Monterey
Our first stop was Monterey. Whether you’re leaving from Menlo Park or San Francisco, it’s best to get straight onto Highway 1. The sat nav might try to trick you into taking other, faster routes but who wants to get stuck on a traffic-ridden highway when you can drive along this beautiful coastline?
Once we’d found our way onto Highway 1 with the ocean there before us, the more relaxing part of the journey could begin – leaving the city, the traffic, the crowds of people behind. It’s not long before you reach the first beaches and rest stops at the side of the road, calling for you to stop and enjoy the view. So that’s what we did over the next few days: Slowly making our way along the coast, stopping, jumping out, taking photos, feeling the sand beneath our feet, getting back in, driving on, stopping… you get the idea. A great, relaxed way to travel.
After many a stop along the coast road we finally made it to Monterey. It’s definitely worth getting a hotel here for a night or more. We didn’t go to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium but we did climb around on the craggy rocks that pepper the beaches there, admire the truly impressive houses on the promenade and drive the legendary 17-Mile Drive (costs $10). We also visited the smaller neighboring city, Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is just as nice if not nicer than Monterey.
Day 2: From Monterey via Big Sur to San Simeon
En route from Monterey to San Simeon you’ll find what is probably the most beautiful stretch of coastline, Big Sur. This area remains largely untouched: There are restrictions on how many houses can be built here and those that are built are not allowed to be directly visible from the coast. The street snakes along the coastline often frighteningly close to the ragged edge, a sheer drop down to the ocean and as a driver it’s pretty difficult to keep you eyes on the road and not be distracted by the beautiful views.
Some beaches afforded us glimpses of Californian see lions and see otters lounging in the sun and we even spied gray whales out at sea. Then when we arrived in San Simeon that evening, we realized that the city consists for the most part of motels, tourists and restaurants – not exactly the hottest tip for a cultural journey of discovery ;)
Day 3/4: From San Simeon via Santa Maria to Santa Barbara
Further down the track we headed for Pismo Beach, a cute little surfer town with a long, sandy beach that I already knew of before we set off on our trip. From the pier, you can watch the surfers waiting patiently for the next big wave or head to “Splash Cafe”, where it’s said you’ll find the best clam chowder in the area.
Our hotel was in Santa Barbara, a mid-sized city that is so close to L.A. that a few Hollywood stars also call it their home. It’s very clean, has a cozy feel and even has something almost Mediterranean to it. I personally really liked the pedestrian area, the likes of which I had never seen before in California.
DAY 5: FROM Santa Barbara TO Corona Del Mar
As we got further and further south, the road started to get really full… we had made it into the Greater Los Angeles area. Here you start to see more and more shopping malls and big SUVs on the colourful billboards lining the roads.
At this point you’re best staying on Highway 1 (101) and taking a look at the famous beaches that follow: Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Newport Beach. Here the small towns seem to merge seamlessly with one another and the views are no longer as varied as those we saw in the first few days on Highway 1. To the left, densely populated residential areas, to the right seas, sand, palm trees, piers broken up by the odd lifeguard tower. Tip: If you find yourself on Newport Beach Pier, you should definitely go to Ruby’s, where you can eat delicious (and even gluten-free) burgers in a cool 50’s-style restaurant with a great sea view.
DAY 5-7: FROM Corona Del Mar TO San Diego
Passing Laguna Beach and other cute sea towns we made our way to San Diego. The city has around 1.4m habitants, making it the second largest in California. San Diego is also close to the Mexican border but that’s an area tourists are often advised to avoid.
We’d been told that San Diego was nice and relaxed, which is the reason we’d planned to spend two nights there. But even that wasn’t enough time to explore a city like this! But we gave it a go anyway. We wandered through the fascinating botanic gardens in Balboa Park, took in a wonderful view of the city’s skyline from Coronado Island and got some interesting insights into the lives of the more wealthy Californians. Then in the Mission Beach district we saw the relaxed side of San Diego we’d heard about: Here Belmont Park theme park meets surfers’ beaches and night clubs.