Cruising along California’s legendary Highway 1 in a shiny white convertible is pure joy. The coastal wonderland makes a perfect antidote to a prolonged indoor Covid stay. Here I am taking in stunning vistas of the Pacific, feeling the sun’s golden glow, singing along to cool songs like California Girls on the radio. This iconic roadway takes you past charming beachfront towns and seaside cafes where you can smell the invigorating ocean air, with plenty of spots to turn-off, get out and soak up the splendor.
Starting in San Francisco, it’s a two-hour drive south, hugging the gorgeous coastline past dramatic cliffs with breaking waves, to Carmel. This enchanting seaside enclave with fairy tale cottages, where Clint Eastwood was mayor, has long been a favorite of artists and the creative set. Take a stroll in the village like center and discover art galleries, fashionable boutiques, cozy cafes and more.
I can’t think of a better way to experience Carmel’s natural beauty than the waterfront walkway. This 3.5-mile pathway follows the bluff at the back of the beach winding along the ocean with views from Pebble Beach to Point Lobos. It runs to Carmel River State Beach where tide pools, pelicans and cormorants await. If you want to feel the white sand under your toes, the Scenic Bluff Path offers several access points to the pretty beach below. Whether you walk the whole thing, just pop onto a section or take a sunset stroll, benches make it easy to stop along the way and enjoy splendid ocean views.
The 90-mile stretch of unspoiled coastline between Carmel and San Simeon called Big Sur is the most photographed section of Highway 1. Driving around the twisty curves on the narrow highway, I was dazzled by ravishing coastline, majestic sea cliffs, wildflowers, ancient redwoods and misty forests. The stark natural beauty and grandeur of this rugged wilderness where the San Lucia Mountains plunge into the Pacific Ocean has inspired artists and writers like Henry Miller and famed Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac and has been called ‘the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.’
Luxurious resorts such as Ventana Big Sur and cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, both offering dramatic panoramas of the impossibly blue ocean, make great bases to explore the region’s wild beauty. Driving through Big Sur, you’ll see pullouts like Bixby Bridge and plenty of spots marked ‘scenic viewing point ’ where you can take in the magic. Marvel at migrating whales, harbor seals, sea otters, endangered California Condors and monarch butterflies that are said to symbolize spiritual rebirth and hope. I could live here for years and still find undiscovered gems
Big Sur Wilderness is home to the southernmost range of the famous coastal old redwoods. It doesn’t get any better than hiking through the giant redwood trees and fern canyons with wildlife sightings and waterfalls along the way. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on Highway 1, 26 miles south of Carmel is called a “mini Yosemite”, with its breathtaking mountain peaks, rich wildlife, and amazing vistas. Hikers are sure to be wowed by picturesque trails such as Buzzard’s Roost, Valley View and the newly reopened Pfeiffer Falls Trail with a stunning coast redwood forest and 60-foot waterfall.
Continuing on the heavenly highway – take a break from hiking and unwind at the beach. The pristine, isolated beaches of San Simeon’s wild shores are perfect spots to relax and rejuvenate. San Simeon Beach, also known as William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach with its fantastic rock formations and golden sand, offers views of the opulent hilltop Hearst Castle (currently closed but reopening early next year). In addition to sunbathing, be sure to walk the wooden pier – an angler favorite.
Marvel at elephant seals up close on the beach at The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. These magnificent marine mammals, named for their trunk like noses, come ashore in the coastal town of San Simeon to birth, mate and molt. The rookery hosts up to 24,000 elephant seals each year, from the adorable 70-pound pup, the1,800 pound female to the 5,000-pound adult male.
Fifteen minutes down the road, Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill located in Cambria, a seaside village in San Luis Obispo County, – makes a great stop for lunch. Take a seat on the patio and enjoy the ocean view, the waves crashing against rocks, as you savor delectable dishes like steamers, cioppino, seafood pasta and the fresh catch of the day. Next up: An exhilarating jaunt on Morro Bay. Central Coast Outdoors provides private guided excursions where you can kayak around this extraordinary National Estuary watching sea otters, harbor seals and sea lions at play, along with countless rare and endangered birds.
Heading south 13 miles takes you to San Luis Obispo, which is still delightfully under the radar. This charming town with a laid back vibe makes a good base to explore Cambria and Morro Bay to the north, wine country to the east and pretty Avila and Pismo Beach to the south. Hotel San Luis Obispo, opened in 2019, features stylish, airy rooms done in contemporary décor with pops of color, and balconies overlooking the pool. The rooftop bar, High Bar, with its beautiful views, is a local favorite.
Many cocktail or dine at Piadina in the open air courtyard where a singer croons popular tunes in the evening. I relished mouth watering ribeye, tastiest yellowfin ahi tuna tartare and oysters to die for, paired with fine wine at their impressive main restaurant Ox + Anchor. Historic downtown, dotted with late 19th century buildings, turns lively at night with residents and college students alike in shops, wine tasting rooms like Ragtag Wine Co., trendy eateries such as Novo and in hip bars with cool music that wafts onto the scenic streets.
Continuing south on the three-hour dreamy drive to sunny Los Angeles, gazing at palm trees and the blue sea, I smiled and thought – Wow, what a fantastic trip!
The fabulous Exotic Car Collection by Enterprise, available in both airport and city locations in San Francisco, makes your drive down Highway 1 even more exciting. It’s hard to choose from their impressive assortment of elite cars ranging from Audis, BMWs and Mercedes to Aston Martins, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Range Rovers and Porsches – All Spectacular!
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