The Pacific Highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the most scenic drives on the planet, a natural challenger to such famous jaw-droppers as Australia’s Great Ocean Drive between Adelaide and Melbourne, the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies and the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Here are just seven of its pageant of wonders…
The Big Sur is the visual peak, the stretch of highway that weaves, ducks and dives between the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest and the ocean swells and surf. You’ll pass above spectacular coves, beaches and promontories on the three hour or so drive (but you’ll need to allow time for stopping to gawp from the various viewpoints).
The hilltop retreat of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst is a Disney-esque palace of an estate filled with his personal collection of priceless treasures. Book a two hour tour of the Grand Rooms, taking in the Roman indoor and the outdoor Neptune pool and sumptuous indoor fixtures and fittings.
Known as the ‘American Riviera’, this delightful, elegant, curiously south-facing seaside town has the feel of the Mediterranean, complete with lots of white stucco and terracotta roof tiles, with excellent shops, restaurants, a vast sweep of beach backed by a palm lined prom, the old Mission church and a wooden pier where you can lunch on lobster rolls and locally brewed beers. Michael Douglas has a house here, as does Oprah Winfrey.
Most famously the location for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Monterey also boasts one of the best aquariums in the world. If you stay for more than a night you should also detour to neighbouring Carmel, a remarkably pretty coastal town with a stock of antique shops and galleries, a historic Mission and a delightful white sand beach, and be sure to follow the 17 mile scenic drive between Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. Whale watching and sea kayaking trips are also available.
Of the many swathes of beach that fringe the Pacific coast, this is both easily accessible from the highway and a good spot if you want to break the journey. It has a pier, a choice of modest places to eat, mostly gentle surf and relatively few visitors.
There’s so much to do, so build at least three or four full days into your California itinerary . Highlights include taking the ferry to Sausalito across the Bay and returning to the city by open topped bus across the Golden Gate Bridge, the prison island of Alcatraz where Al Capone was in residence for a number of years, riding the cable car up to Nob Hill, exploring the arty, foodie, boutiquey Hayes Valley neighbourhood and visiting the California Academy of Sciences. You should also plan on eating out in two distinctly different neighbourhoods, Chinatown (the biggest outside Asia) and the distinctly Italian North Beach (where you should also browse in the City Lights bookstore, cultural crucible of the Beat poets).
The seaside ‘west wing’ of Los Angeles feels more like a stand-alone resort than part of the general urban sprawl. It’s got a historic pier, great shops along the 3rd Street Promenade, a beach and a prom where you can walk, bike or roller skate the mile or so to the funky, much more ‘alternative’ Venice Beach.
David Wickers is Director of Bridge & Wickers.