Classic Road Trip Down the Pacific Coast Highway
The coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles is all about slowing down and swooning. Backdrops like this will bring out anyone's inner romantic.
It wasn't long before we arrived in Big Sur, once a magnet for beatniks, now a haven for artists and wealthy spa-goers. We turned right at unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road (the first paved road past the post office) and drove two miles to Pfeiffer Beach, where the currents have carved arches in the sandstone and greenstone rocks. It was just us and the seagulls.
The Henry Miller Library, set in a shaded redwood grove a short drive south, was peaceful and meditative. "Library" is a misnomer, since you can't borrow anything. But you can buy books, read letters, and gaze at watercolors by the famous writer (and less-famous painter) who lived in Big Sur for 18 years.
As we progressed, the views became more dramatic; every turnout in the road was a temptation to pull over and snap photographs. Sara gazed at the rocky shoreline, while I concentrated on not steering us off a cliff. Still, by the time we arrived at aptly named Ragged Point, Sara's queasy look was a reminder that on Highway 1, it's easier to drive than navigate.
I'd read that Piedras Blancas was a winter hangout for elephant seals. The giant beasts were lolling about on the windy beach, as unself-conscious as experienced nudists. Signs informed us that we had come a few weeks too late to see the real highlight: the young being born and the seagulls eating the afterbirth. Shucks.
Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is a popular stop along this drive, but we decided to continue on to Cambria, where another obsessive built a very different kind of home. Nit Witt Ridge is the anti-Hearst Castle, constructed by local garbageman Art Beal, who used tire rims, beer bottles, abalone shells, anything he could get his hands on. Beal died in 1992, but a man named Michael O'Malley owns the place now and runs entertaining tours. O'Malley showed us one of Beal's bathrooms. Lovelorn for much of his life, the garbageman never fully gave up hope: He equipped the tiny room with his-and-hers toilets.
San Luis Obispo, a college town with an easygoing surf-side vibe, holds a farmers' market every Thursday evening. We arrived just in time. The main street, Higuera, is closed to traffic for the occasion, so we took a streetcar. There were fewer farmers than restaurateurs operating sidewalk stands, but we couldn't complain. Sara got a burger, and I had a sausage. That night, we checked in to the La Cuesta Inn, a clean, comfortable hotel with soft beds and bathrooms with just one toilet.
- La Cuesta Inn2074 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 805/543-2777, lacuestainn.com, from $89
- Earthbound Farm7250 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel, 831/625-6219, ebfarm.com, smoothie $4
- Nit Witt Ridge881 Hillcrest Dr., Cambria, 805/927-2690, $10, kids $5
- Henry Miller LibraryHwy. 1, Big Sur, 831/667-2574, henrymiller.org, donations accepted
Day 3: San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara
The Big Sky Cafe, downtown, serves all the great morning standards, plus a terrific posole, a pork and hominy stew. At our waitress's suggestion, we strolled into the parking lot across the street to see a local landmark called Bubble Gum Alley. It's a walkway between stores where, for decades, San Luis Obispans have been sticking their chewed gum. Sure enough, the alley was covered in the gooey stuff, some fresh and pink but most brown with age. Far from an example of public art, the alley struck me as a threat to public health.
This part of the California coastline is still beautiful, but less rugged than up north. It's also more developed, scarred by subdivisions. We found refuge in Pismo State Beach, a winter breeding ground for monarch butterflies. They were flitting around the bushes and eucalyptus trees. In a tranquil clearing, a sign promised butterfly talks daily at 11 a.m. We waited. And waited. We watched the butterflies. No one came to talk, but it didn't matter. The butterflies were best observed in silence anyway.
On the way toward Solvang, we cut inland through rolling wine country, the stunning vineyards featured in Sideways, and stopped at La Purisima Mission, founded in 1787. The Mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, and it's since been faithfully rebuilt seven miles from its original location. The big, bucolic compound has low-slung Spanish-style adobe buildings and artifacts depicting life some 200 years ago. We were the only visitors in the sprawling place, and burros and horses grazed in a fenced-in pasture.
Solvang is a peculiar place, a city that was settled by Danish immigrants that's now a tourist draw. It looked to me like Danish Disney World: windmills, wood-frame gingerbread houses, a store selling Christmas ornaments year-round. Even the Best Western has the chutzpah to call itself the Kronborg Inn. At the New Danish Inn Restaurant (now closed), we ordered smorgasbord, a buffet of meatballs, cabbage, and forlorn-looking salads, only to discover that smorgasbord is Danish for "lots of food we're not in the mood to eat." So we headed next door to Paula's Pancake House for delicious Danish pancakes--big, light, and dusted with powdered sugar.