ROAD TRIP

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.

By Josh Sens, Tuesday, Jan 17, 2006, 11:46 AM

Big Sur

California's legendary Big Sur coastline

(Adeliepenguin / Dreamstime.com)

California's legendary Big Sur coastline

(Steve Giralt)

Day 1: San Francisco to Carmel

Shortly after we married, my wife and I discovered that the drive down Highway 1, California's coastal route, is much like young love: romantic, impractical, and filled with dizzying twists and turns. It was also crowded. Sara and I made our first trip together one summer on a day-and-a-half jaunt from San Francisco to L.A., a clip too quick to appreciate the views, but not fast enough for the leadfoots tailgating us.

Over the next seven years, on subsequent trips south, we forsook Highway 1 for I-5, the big inland interstate, the highway of pragmatic middle age. But the beauty of the coast always beckoned. Sara grew restless (the seven-year itch?) for a scenic road trip. So we waited for winter, the sleepy season. We would be more mature this time around. When other cars breathed down our bumper, we'd pull aside instead of flipping them off. We'd hold hands. We'd watch the sunset.

This highway--unlike most--was never meant to be hurried. It took 15 years to build, and even today, a lifetime after it opened during Franklin Roosevelt's tenure, it remains in a steady state of reconstruction--stretches of it buried under winter mudslides, or worn down by the ocean's constant kiss.

The sky was clear and so was the road as we eased our way south of San Francisco. On the right side of the highway, waves frothed white against empty beaches. On the left, farmland formed a carpet of emerald green. We passed the crescent coastline of Half Moon Bay and then, 18 miles south, took a short detour to the town of Pescadero, known for its artichoke harvests. A friend had told us we wouldn't want to do without a slice of artichoke bread at Arcangeli Grocery Co. More bread than artichoke, it wasn't worth the side trip, but it tided us over as we cut back to the coast.

Outside of Santa Cruz we shot north on Highway 9 to the mountainside town of Felton, where a local artist named Michael Rugg runs the free Bigfoot Discovery Museum. A cheery, bearish man, Rugg stood behind the counter when we walked in, relaying tales of Bigfoot sightings to a young, wide-eyed believer. Catching us eavesdropping, Rugg waved us over and showed us a term paper he wrote in 1967 as a Stanford undergrad: "A History and Discussion of the Abominable Snowman Question."

It was more persuasive than some of his other exhibits, like the Milton Bradley yeti board game, or the tabloid headline, complete with doctored photo, hanging on the wall: "World's First Bigfoot Hooker."

The museum is barely larger than a woodshed, but we managed to stay for an hour. I was delighted, though not entirely convinced, by a Roger Patterson film, a significant snippet from the canon of Bigfoot studies, which shows a large ape-man ambling along a wooded stream. "A lot of people say it's just a guy in a gorilla suit, but I know it's real," said a visitor, a man in his 40s with a dreamy stare.

Like Bigfoot, Santa Cruz has a reputation for attracting plenty of eccentrics--a reputation promoted by the city, whose residents buy bumper stickers that read keep santa cruz weird. The Gelatomania Café downtown(now closed) is odd, all right. Run by Buddhists, it's an Italian ice cream shop that doubles as an oxygen bar. Sara got a scoop of chocolate gelato, while I shelled out five bucks to inhale air scented like the sea.

That fragrance grew stronger when we got to Steamer Lane, one of the best surf spots on the West Coast. Dozens of surfers bobbed in the water, waiting for a fleeting shot at glory. The sun was hanging low by the time we arrived at the 17-Mile Drive, the famous gated loop that winds past landmark golf courses and zillion-dollar mansions. We paid $9 for the right to drive it, and left an hour later with a much clearer sense of how the other 0.001 percent lives.

For dinner, we split a wood-fire pizza at Cafe Rustica, a homey restaurant in Carmel Valley, the inland stepsister to Carmel. It's a 15-minute detour off the highway, a small sacrifice for a good pizza.

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Activities

Day 2: Carmel to San Luis Obispo

We awoke at daybreak to visit Earthbound Farm in Carmel. An all-organic operation, Earthbound sells its own produce and freshly made foods from a quaint storefront. I got a Like-a-lada smoothie (made with pineapple, coconut, and banana), which I liked-a-sorta, but not as much as Sara's Mango Tango. We grabbed organic chicken sandwiches for the road, strolled through the aromatic herb gardens, and climbed back in the car, feeling refreshed and pesticide-free.

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.

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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.

Late that afternoon, we started to see palm trees, nature's welcome to southern California. The Pacific Crest Inn, a no-frills motel in Santa Barbara, was remarkably inexpensive for a place only a block from the beach. An unadvertised bonus: The inn is also near La Super-Rica Taqueria. The Mexican restaurant was celebrated by Julia Child, and I'd heard so much hype about it, I was braced for disappointment. But the tamales, stuffed with chayote squash and topped with cream sauce, were the best I've ever eaten, and the salsa was hot enough to melt my teeth.

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Day 4: Santa Barbara to L.A.

As we loaded up the car, two young surfers passed us on their way back from the water. "Totally gnarly," they said, when we asked how the waves were. Our drive down toward Ventura was also pretty gnarly, skirting a coastline that seems to have sprung from a Beach Boys song. Turning inland, we merged with heavy traffic on the 405 freeway.

On a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles's Getty Center caused such a stir when it opened in 1997 that visitors had to make reservations. No longer. Still, it was crowded when we got there at 11 a.m., and the line for the tram--the only way up--was dishearteningly long. By the time we reached the top, about 40 minutes later, our schedule was too tight to tour the exhibits. But the building, designed by Richard Meier, is art enough--a gleaming modernist fortress of Italian travertine. The grand gardens are like a streamlined, modern version of those at Versailles, and a smaller cactus garden offers extensive variety--some round and squat, others tall and lanky, with arms outstretched like gunslingers. Beyond, a view of L.A. was spectacular but sobering--ocean to the west, smog to the south.

Leaving the museum, we cut back west to Santa Monica. Main Street was crammed: cars, cafés, cool dudes. We stopped at Urth Caffé for prosciutto sandwiches. On our way out, a blond man in hip shades shouldered past us. "An actor!" Sara whispered excitedly. He's the one, she explained, who played the hero in that film we saw that time, the one with those chase scenes and the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

"Are you positive that wasn't the sequel?" I replied.

On the way to the airport, we hit apocalyptic traffic. In the course of our trip, we'd watched one of the world's loveliest highways grow into a groaning urban thoroughfare, not so much ugly as monotonous. We sat in silence, a couple on the cusp of middle age, happy and comfortable together, even if the highway we love had become a road we no longer recognize.

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Finding your way

Highway 1 runs south from the Golden Gate Bridge, cutting across the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. It also passes through neighborhoods that are usually clogged with traffic and not especially scenic. An easier way to pick up Highway 1 is to take Highway 101 south from San Francisco to 280 south, which meets Highway 1 near the coast. Mudslides and flooding sometimes close parts of Highway 1 in winter. For road conditions, call Caltrans at 916/445-7623. The Getty Center isn't on Highway 1. To get there, head east on Highway 10 and backtrack north on the 405. If Highway 1 is closed through the Santa Monica Mountains, stay on the 101 south to the 405 south.