America is a road-tripper’s dream, and one of its most iconic drives is along the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), between Mendocino County up north and Orange County in the south, in California.
With an open road, Blondie on the stereo and some good friends to tag with, you are – as the Americans say – all set. But where should you stop, what should you see and how long does it take? Here’s our guide to cruising the Californian coast.
Down south, the Golden State city just a few kilometres away from the Mexican border often gets passed over for the Hollywood hub of Los Angeles or hip San Francisco. This can actually be a good thing, as the city lacks pretence, which is charming. It has also developed its own distinct food scene that rivals anything else in California.
Spend a morning at Balboa Park, a green and sprawling cultural park that is home to the city’s 16 major museums, the zoo, gardens and theatres. It often hosts free concerts on weekends too. Get used to being by the sea – San Diego has over 30 beaches across nearly 27km – and also visit the Californian Surf Museum, which documents the state’s obsession with the sport, tracing its roots in Hawaii to modern-day practices.
From San Diego, wind your way up the coast for a couple of hours through peppy seaside towns such as Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. Palm trees line bustling main streets while high school kids practise their volleyball shots on golden beaches. Newport Beach has a cute pier where pelicans perched on railings wait to be fed, and there’s a calm stretch of sand too, perfect to stretch your legs and just relax with a gelato.
Just south of Los Angeles City proper, Long Beach is an alternative and friendly way to experience the area if you’re not fussed about the City of Angels. There’s more here than LA folk would have you believe. History buffs will love a tour of or an overnight stay at The Queen Mary, the historic ocean liner, which is now a floating hotel. Launched in 1936, the ship was the fastest and most glamorous way to cross the Atlantic. She carried passengers like Winston Churchill and Audrey Hepburn before being put to work transporting troops during the Second World War. With ballrooms, swimming pools and even a wedding chapel, her luxurious interiors are stunning even today.
Back on land, the area around 3rd and 4th Streets is awash with hip art galleries and restaurants – all within walking distance, and with a very welcome feel.
You may want to avoid the bustle of the US’ second-largest city, but whether you love LA or hate it, it is an institution in California. Stretch those car-legs up in Hollywood Hills, and if you head towards the Griffith Observatory at dusk, you’ll join tonnes of people at the lookout point from where you can see the city’s network of lights spread almost as far as the horizon. Visiting the observatory is free and you might recognise it from numerous movies, from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause to Transformers, Charlie’s Angels and the Terminator films.
At sea level, spend the morning at Santa Monica Beach, which boasts an old-fashioned amusement park on the pier. Hire a bike to cycle between the sky-high palm trees a little way to Venice Beach where you’ll catch its famous muscle-machine gyms and alternative markets.
What’s imperative, though, is a trip to Bel Air, an almost gated community for mansions and millionaires. If your pockets run deep, put up at Hotel Bel-Air, which has its own stunning gardens that look over a small lake. Its alfresco restaurant, Wolfgang Puck, is a place to be seen, while the beautiful side booths have the air of a private dining experience in a garden. In line with LA being a city preoccupied with health, the menu is light, fresh and protein-rich. Try the lobster salad, but if the temptation is too much, you can always give in to the restaurant’s fresh cookies that come with post-lunch coffee.
Known for its string of beachside A-lister houses, Malibu is a welcome respite from the bright lights of Hollywood. Only an hour up the coast, it feels a world away, which is why it’s loved by LA’s elite.
It’s easy to spend a day here relaxing by the surf – Zuma Beach is one of the best public access beaches. If you’re stopping rather than driving through, inland there’s the hilly Topanga State Park, which has a number of trails and canyons to explore, or the thickly forested Santa Monica Mountains, where you can easily have a day on legs rather than four wheels. In the evening, call into Cafe Habana Malibu, a laid-back Cuban and Mexican joint owned by George Clooney’s buddy Rande Gerber, for some celeb-spotting. Nobu, which is nearby, is also a great place to catch the stars.
Only an hour north of Malibu, California seems to change completely. Santa Barbara has the feel of a Spanish colonial city by the sea. The county courthouse epitomises this style and from its clock tower, you get an unrivalled view of the pretty town. If you want to stretch your legs, hang out at Cabrillo Boulevard, where there’s sand beneath your feet and plenty of restaurants to laze at.
After heading inland a little way, Highway 1 hugs the coast once again at Morro Bay and from there it’s a little less than an hour to Cambria. The southern entrance to the famous 145km stretch of Big Sur is the best place to stop in the area. The latter has few accommodation options other than camping, and these can be overpriced. Cambria, on the other hand, is a quaint town with an antique shop-filled Main Street, artisanal delis and cute cafés serving home-made cakes.
Big Sur is the forested gem in the Pacific Coast Highway crown. Long known as a retreat for writers and artists, this region has been always been sparsely populated (electricity only reached the area in the 1950s), with the odd hardy homesteader making small dents in the lush landscape. While 145km don’t take that long to drive across, it’s worth having an entire day to explore the area, as the highway is dotted with national parks and forests, where you can walk between giant redwood trees.
The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one such place with access to the coastline’s only waterfall, McWay Falls. It’s an easy 10-minute walk from the car park. Aside from the national parks that cluster to the right of the highway, this has some of the most stunning driving panoramas the US has to offer. The single-lane highway wriggles around the craggy landscape, clinging to the side of the cliffs, almost close enough to be sprayed with salt from the Pacific below.
Once you’re through the northern end of Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea seems like another world, the artsy wooden shacks and hermit-style lodgings of Big Sur a stark contrast to this seaside town’s designer feel. Carmel finds a place among those who prefer Tiffany’s and Tom Ford.
Under two hours from the top end of Big Sur, tucked beneath San Francisco and its famous bay area, Santa Cruz is a boardwalk city made good. Thanks to the high influx of students, it is all about craft coffee houses and vintage stores. Head down to the traditional pastel-coloured boardwalk where you can buy saltwater taffy, ride the roller coaster and watch surfers in action.
Additionally, the area is surrounded by amazing beaches and national parks like Natural Bridge State Resort Park, where you can spot seals, whales and shore birds. When the tide goes out, it leaves behind a beach dotted with starfish and sea anemone. It’s perfect for laid-back fun, so stick around Santa Cruz for a couple of days.
San Francisco is one of America’s most iconic cities. From Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge to its hippy ideals of the 1960s, it has an incredible history and vibe.
Explore Fisherman’s Wharf at pier 39 for a taste of what San Fran has to offer. A popular tourist hotspot, don’t miss the chowder here at one of its many restaurants. You can hop on a cable car to get around – the Powell/Mason line passes by the bottom of Lombard Street – it’s often in films for its steep curves up the hill. If the trams are your sort of thing, the San Francisco Cable Car Museum on Mason Street is worth a couple of hours of your time (it’s free), or, if you’re interested in its famous island prison, then book tickets ahead to get a place on a tour.
If you’ve ditched the hired car but are still keen to explore on wheels, then a bike tour with Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours is a refreshing way to see this cool city. Choose from a few different routes that include the centre of town and further-afield districts.
Both Mission and The Castro districts are full of life for evenings out. Almost every cuisine in the world can be found alongside hipster boutiques and some of the most out-there street fashion. Try Hawker Fare for Indonesian street food or comforting Korean one-pots at Namu Gaji.
If you want to get away from tourist traps, then Pacific Heights is a classy area filled with healthy delis, up-and-coming designers and a sprinkling of pop-up shops. Stroll the area around Fillmore Street during the afternoon for a more relaxed take on San Francisco.
There’s nowhere better to end your Pacific Coast tour than over in Sausalito, the small town at the far end of the iconic red bridge. Take a ferry from the San Francisco Ferry Building as the sun is setting and you’ll sail parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge. There are a number of restaurants on the pretty quayside when you disembark to watch the sun set over Frisco and reflect back on a once-in-a-lifetime Californian dream.