Whirlwind Coastal Cali: down the PCH from San Francisco to Hollywood

One of America's classic road trips, and deservedly so, from San Francisco down the coast to just outside Los Angeles, via the Pacific Coast Highway 

Whirlwind Cali
Whirlwind Cali
Golden Gate Bridge
"Whatever happened to pre-dic-ta-bi-li-ty.."
Nothing too original here -- this is the quintessential road trip, and one of the most scenic drives in America.  Apropos of that, we rented a Volkswagon Eos convertible from Enterprise, checked out of the King George Hotel (comfortable and unspectacular accommodations), and headed out of San Francisco after having been there for a few days on business (and having placed our obligatory secret menu order at In-N-Out).  We temporarily went the opposite direction in order to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, take a few pictures at the scenic overlook in Sausalito by the Lone Sailor, and then officially kick off the drive back over the bridge towards LA on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)/Highway 1.

Pacific Coast Highway 1
Nothing between the road and the Pacific
The views along the coast are gorgeous, and for many folks, are the primary impetus to do this drive in the first place -- hence, the convertible.  It's just like you remember it from Play Misty for Me (assuming you have both seen and remember that movie).  You should know that the fog is usually thick from June through August, and some of the best views may be in the cooler months, in May and October.  I will say that the fog can add a sort of mystical quality to the cliffs along the Pacific, and we didn't regret that it obstructed some of our ocean views.

Santa Cruz
The first stop was Santa Cruz, 90 minutes south of San Francisco.  It's one of the few beach boardwalks on the West Coast that can actually rival the Jersey Shore for that magical combination of video games, funnel cakes, and miles of trashy-in-a-good-way souvenir shops.  It was a weekday morning, and much of the place was abandoned.. but there was abundant sunshine, and we were riding high.  We popped into Casino Arcade, which has a great selection of 80s- and 90s-era video games.  Coin-op dreams, revisited.  We lingered for a little while, then got back in the car and drove another hour south to Monterey.

The fog rolling in at El Granada
The fog rolling in at El Granada

Monterey is famous for the Monterey Bay Aquarium (as well as being the former capital of Alta California prior to Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848), but we decided to spend as much time outdoors as possible.  We thought about going on a quick whale watching trip, but they take a couple of hours and we didn't really have the time.  Instead, we browsed the shops and restaurants along the touristy Fisherman's Wharf before finally popping into Crabby Jim's for lunch.  After another hour or so, we got back in the Eos and headed to Big Sur.

Big Sur
Cliffs over the coast at Big Sur
Cliffs over the coast at Big Sur
The fog was thick as we drove another hour down the coast to Big Sur.  We checked into Glen Oaks, an upscale 1950s motor lodge whose rooms eschew televisions and WiFi in favor of board games and a fireplace.  Pure retro awesomeness.  We took a walk from the hotel up Buzzard's Roost trail, where I quasi-spontaneously proposed to my (then) future wife.  Seriously!  I actually had the ring on me for a few days, waiting for the perfect backdrop.  Thankfully, she said yes -- otherwise it might have made the rest of the drive a bit awkward.  For obvious reasons, we think fondly of Big Sur and the Glen Oaks Motor Lodge to this day.

We shook off champagne hangovers the next morning.  After putting ourselves together, we grabbed breakfast down the road at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn.  Like much of Big Sur, it was wonderful and rustic, and could have easily served as alternative lodging if Glen Oaks was full.

San Luis Obispo
Elephant Seal Vista Sam Simeon
"King of the castle, king of the castle.."
San Luis Obispo is about 2.5h south along the PCH from Big Sur, and we were lucky to be able to do the entire drive along the coast -- mudslides make portions of the drive here impassable from time to time.  En route, we pulled off in Sam Simeon at the Elephant Seal Vista, and were not disappointed -- the beach was packed, and their rollocking, barking chorus was quite a thing to behold.

SLO itself is the home of Cal Poly, and is a typical college town in many ways, with more of a laid back feel.  We had lunch downtown and walked around for a little while before shuffling off to Santa Barbara, about 2h further southeast along the coast.

Santa Barbera
Santa Barbara view inland from Stearn's Wharf
The view inland from Stearn's Wharf
We actually had no accommodations when we rolled into town around nightfall, and drove around the Pershing Park area until we saw a vacancy sign at the Lavender Inn.  We ended up with a courtesy upgrade to the biggest room they had -- it never hurts to ask!  We had a late dinner near Paseo Nuevo, then went to sleep.

The next morning, we took advantage of the free surrey rental the hotel offered, and rode down to Stearn's Wharf (although the thing pedaled like it weighed ten tons, and turned like a car without power steering).  The morning fog gave way to sunshine, and as we turned around to head back to the hotel, we marveled at the homes dotting the hillside as the Sierra Madre Mountains rose out of the sea.

Houdini Hollywood Walk of Fame
The Walk of Fame
After another 2h on the road (and a brief stop in Malibu for lunch at Marmalade Cafe), we checked into the Hollywood Hills Hotel & Apartments, which is now apparently under new management and/or defunct.  Shame, because although it was a little run down, it was high up in the hills, and our room was gigantic.  We then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening soaking up the full tourist experience, including the Walk of Fame, Grauman's Chinese Theater (or whatever they're calling it these days), and the general (seedy) ambience of Hollywood Boulevard.  Musso and Frank would have been an appropriate capstone for the evening, but we opted for Thai instead.

Santa Monica
The Venice Beach boardwalk
The Venice Beach boardwalk
The next day, we spent the morning in the museum at the La Brea Tarpits, followed by an afternoon at Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Beach Boardwalk.  The latter is probably one of the only places in the world where you can visit a marijuana dispensary, a pizzeria, a synagogue, and a tattoo parlor all on the same block.  After dinner at Greek Cuisine (a.k.a. Stop'N Cafe), we started the late night drive back to San Fran (along the much faster and much less scenic inland Route 5).  

If we had planned this road trip in advance, we probably would have flown out of LAX, instead of backtracking all the way to SFO.  We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Frazier Park on the way back (driving straight through would have been about 6 hours), exchanging 10k IHG points for the night.  Paid rates were a little over $100 -- a good value for IHG points.  After a few hours of sleep, we continued on to SFO, dropped off the Eos, and headed home.

The drive down the PCH may be a little cliche at this point, but it remains iconic and picturesque.  Everyone who lives for the open road owes it to themselves to make the pilgrimage at least once.  As noted above, I would check in advance to make sure that stretches of the road aren't closed (you can check PCH/Highway 1 closures at the California Department of Transportation website here).  We didn't, and got lucky, but other travelers have been forced to take lengthy detours inland and miss out on some prime scenery.  

Point redemptions:
10k IHG points @ 1.1 cents/point =
$110 in free travel!

Guide used:
Lonely Planet: Coastal California
Lonely Planet: Coastal California

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