Take a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway where the pampas grass and wildflowers lead you through quaint Californian towns along a winding stretch of road.
Beginning in Los Angeles and ending in San Francisco, the Pacific Coast Highway road trip will take you on a journey through the rugged vistas of the Californian coast, stopping in towns filled with so much character. The beauty of this road trip is unlike anything you can imagine, which is why you need to add this West Coast trip to your USA bucket list. The endless conversation and classic road trip games will be put to a halt as the simplicity of nature speaks for itself.
The quaint town of Santa Barbara is a breath of fresh air with its intangible Spanish aesthetic. The streets are lined with buildings characterised by their white wooden planter boxes dotted with purple and pink flowers, white stucco walls and red tiled roofs. We can thank the Spanish colonialists who arrived in Santa Barbara in 1782 and designed its architecture as if it was a small, seaside, European town. After the hustle of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is your chance to unwind and take a casual stroll around town and admire its charm. Start your morning with a tour through the Santa Barbara County Courthouse which was finished in 1929 and remains to be a functioning courthouse today. The intricate detailing in the architecture, the hand-painted ceilings, the decorative tiles and the sunken garden beds are beautiful features within the courthouse that need to be explored and appreciated. Inside, the Mural Room should not be missed! After grabbing a bite to eat at one of the many open-air cafes and restaurants including State and Fig, The Blue Owl or Scarlett Begonia for the best cinnamon roll in town, head to Lotusland. Previously owned by Madame Ganna Walksa who spent over 40 years developing this unique horticultural oasis, today, the estate is known as one of the best gardens in the world.. Lotusland contains several distinct gardens including the Cactus Garden and Japanese Garden; creating a whimsical and magical atmosphere – the perfect way to round off your morning in Santa Barbara.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo was once described as the happiest place in America by Oprah Winfrey; it’s extremely hard to prove her wrong – and why would you want to? The town is nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains along the Pacific Coast Highway which provides endless opportunities for hiking and beach hopping. The days in San Luis Obispo seem to go slow, so we suggest picking either the coast or the mountains to explore unless you are planning on staying overnight. If so, the Madonna Inn is a landmark motel in the town known for being kitsch yet it exudes a certain degree of coolness. Drawing inspiration from a quintessential French style mixed with an explosion of pink; this is definitely one of the quirkiest places you’ll stay at on this road trip! Also in San Luis Obispo, is the coastal side town of Pismo Beach. Without any doubt, Splash Café in Pismo Beach is home to the best clam chowder in California. It is served in a sourdough bowl and has enough creaminess, potatoes, celery and chunky clam to make any foodies heart sing. For an authentic Californian experience, head down to the beach with your clam chowder and fish and chips and watch the surfers roll into shore as the sun sets. On your way up to Ragged Point, make sure to stop in at Hearst Castle in Cambria – an opulent castle built by California’s first female architect Julia Morgan for publisher William Hearst so that he could show his affluence.
The next pit stop on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip is Ragged Point; the gateway to the Big Sur. Perched above the Pacific Ocean on a cliff, Ragged Point provides a teaser of the coastal vista’s you’ll be subject to on the journey lying ahead. This is to where the highway begins to etch its path through the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. The untouched beauty of the area and the welcoming sense of isolation exposes a certain personal vulnerability where you can really immerse yourself in and appreciate nature whilst also spending countless hours overlooking the blanket of azure ocean. Although highly underrated, the Ragged Point Inn is the perfect accommodation to venture out from and the staff are highly hospitable and knowledgeable about the local area. You can’t beat the experience of drinking your morning coffee overlooking the Big Sur coastline and watching the morning fog expose a pastel horizon from your personal balcony in the Cliff-Side Rooms. Even in the communal areas of the accommodation, the rugged coastline is exposed for your viewing pleasure and it becomes hard to fathom the simplicity of nature and its beauty.
“They had skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold. They had even more, for there was ever the unfathomable silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars.”
– Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
The Big Sur region has been made the protagonist of many stories and the American author, Henry Miller, is just one of few writers who can perfectly articulate the grand simplicity of this coastline. He lived in the region for 18 years and spent much of that time feeling overwhelmed and inspired by its beauty and we feel very much the same. It is hard to describe such a place where ‘beautiful’ and ‘majestic’ do not do enough to justify its grandeur. The Big Sur region is considered the greatest meeting of land and sea and is where the Santa Lucia Mountains roll into the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The two-lane stretch of road weaves you through mountains, the redwood forest, boulders, bridges and bluffs all while following the wildflowers and pampas grass which dot the coastline. There are a plethora of hiking trails, beaches and waterfalls to explore, however, our top picks are to hike to the beach in the Andrew Molera State Park, soak up the sunshine in the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach or to stare in awe at the waterfall at McWay Falls in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The best spot for breakfast is the Big Sur Bakery which also has delicate pottery mugs to purchase while the Nepenthe Restaurant is a popular spot for dinner with premium sunset views, so be sure to book in! And if this wasn’t enough, upon your departure from Big Sur, the region likes to send you over the Bixby Bridge as its final bid at proving that this really is the most beautiful stretch of coastline in the world.
Having just passed over the iconic Bixby Bridge, the next leg of your journey will take you through the quaint and artsy town of Carmel-By-The-Sea to the historical city of Monterey. This town is famous for Cannery Row which was once described by author John Steinbeck in the novel ‘Cannery Row’ as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” The author was describing the salmon and sardine canning industry in Monterey in which the former Ocean View Avenue was lined with corrugated iron canneries and to where the men of the town would work long and arduous hours to keep up with the demand. John Steinbeck’s writings were a realistic depiction of life in Monterey and despite the demise of the sardine cannery industry, Cannery Row has become a popular attraction for its industrial and historical aesthetic. The canneries have been transformed into a precinct of restaurants and hotels with the former Hovden Cannery at the northern end of the street is now home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For $50 you can explore and learn all about the underwater world and the aquarium’s conservation efforts through the help of the enormous eight and a half metre tall windows that look onto a mix of sea otters, leopard sharks and brightly coloured jellyfish. The town of Monterey is definitely a must-visit on your road trip!
Feature image by Amy Delcaro