One thousand two hundred and fifty-two. That’s how many miles of great American highway we cruised on our once-in-a-lifetime, two-week road trip up California’s famous Pacific coast.
One thousand two hundred and fifty-two miles of ocean-hugging, city-navigating, mountain-climbing, national park-crossing American highway that everyone should experience. Especially because hitting the asphalt of Highway 1 and Route 101 allows you to tick off a roll call of sights – the skyscraping redwoods and dramatic seascapes of Big Sur, the rolling surf of Venice Beach, the spiritual vistas in Yosemite – without burning through all your annual leave.
From urban hikes in San Francisco to paddleboarding with sea otters in Santa Cruz, as well all the retreats to rest your weary bones in and restaurants feed your energy levels at, here’s where you need to park for an unforgettable road trip along California’s breathtaking Pacific coastline.
Why? Be it the first or final destination on your adventure, no west coast road trip is complete without a stay in the sprawling urban expanse of LA. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, it’s absolutely enormous, and there’s a heck of a lot for you to do. Not least this lot…
Stay: Where you are and who you know is just as important as who you are in Los Angeles. Is that a bit of an ugly ’tude? Sure. But when in LA…. The Ace Hotel, an uber-cool design-led hangout in Downtown, is the place to be seen – especially its suntrap rooftop complete with pool, cocktail bar and waves of beautiful people doing not very much at all. Exactly where you need to be to style out your jetlag.
Eat: Stay in Downtown for breakfast in food stall-filled Grand Central Market. Set your alarm early though – you’re headed for an outpost of Eggslut, whose yolk wizardry has earned it a cult following that sees hordes of hungry egg hunters lining up for plates like the Fairfax sandwich (soft scrambled eggs with chives, caramelised onions, cheddar and sriracha mayo in a brioche bun) and the signature Slut – a potato purée and coddled egg that you’ll mix up yourself, dive into nose-first and beg for the recipe.
Do: Make like a local and don your rugged LA hiking gear (that’s a pair of pristine designer Nike trainers, sparkly clean sports shorts, expensive athleisure tee and bank-breaking headphones) for a powerwalk into Griffith Park and up to the Hollywood sign where you’ll tick off an essential tourist photo opp. There are three main trails here, but the moderate Canyon Drive Trail took our fancy – the 6.5-miler with 1,000ft+ elevation will take you past Adam West’s Batcave from the ’60s Batman TV series (and has far better car parking than the rest).
RECOMMENDED: The 10 Best Things To Do In Seattle, Ranked
Santa Monica And Venice Beach
Why? LA’s sandy coastline feels a million miles away from the smoggy city, but it only takes 30 minutes to drive. This achingly cool but chilled-out retreat from the urban hustle is where you’ll tick off Muscle Beach, Venice Skate Park and spotting wild-haired surfers on the boardwalk from your hit list.
Stay: Drop your bags at the upmarket Viceroy (from £237 a night). It’s close enough to practically flop onto the beach, but just far enough from the boardwalk to not be right on top of the tourist scrum. There are two pools at this trendy hideaway, as well as swanky décor, enormous breakfast plates, and decent (and very welcome) free coffee to get your morning started.
Eat: Abbot Kinney, a mainstay of many a comment box underneath a “Recommendations for LA please!” Facebook status, is your dining destination. It’s a high-end shopping spot that also houses a melting pot of LA food fads – think fresh juice shots, water with chlorophyll, wacky ice creams – but it’s also very serious about top-drawer dining. And Abbot Kinney institution Gjelina is top of that leaderboard. Order its unbelievably good shrimp and grits, and you’ll understand why.
Do: If you’re not hitting the 3.5-mile path between Santa Monica and Venice Beach, you’re doing this Californian thing all wrong. Keep your eyes wide open to soak in the crazy soup of people down there: the strutting bench-press pounders of Muscle Beach, the crusty punk rockers of Venice, the bloody-kneed kickflipping kids of the skate park, the well-to-dos of Santa Monica sealing deals over Bluetooth headsets during their morning jogs, and the boardwalk traders peddling their wares. Walk it, or get bikes from any one of the many hire shops along the way.
Why? This is where the vineyard-strewn Santa Ynez mountains plummet into the Pacific Ocean and it’s as dramatic as we hoped it would be. Stroll along the historic wharf and golden beach before lunch, then immerse yourself in the small but buzzing city’s healthy obsession with local food, wine and craft beer as the sun drops behind the horizon.
Stay: Give your Instagram a heads-up before you pocket the keys to your motel-style room at the Goodland (from £126) in Goleta, because it’s going to take a beating during your stay. This ’50s surf shack-inspired spot sits a 15-minute drive away from Santa Barbara, and looks as if every nook has been designed with your Insta-filters in mind. Thankfully it manages to deftly swerve the “style over substance” trap, in part due to a super restaurant, a gorgeous pool, excellent service and a fantastic bar. It earned the much-coveted title of our favourite hotel of the trip.
Eat: Enter the Funk Zone, a hipper-than-it-sounds district bursting with wine tasting rooms, shops and restaurants. Sample the craft beers of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co and/or the vino from the harbourside Deep Sea, the rock ’n’ roll DV8 Cellars and, our top pick, Municipal before soaking it all up with a feed at the Lark. There, you’ll find family sharing plates (that’s American for “giant portions”) bursting with hearty and healthy local fare (apart from the desserts – but rest assured they’ll be no room left in your stomach by then).
Do: There’s a long a picturesque cycle path hugging Santa Barbara’s beachfront and Wharf, and your name is on it. Think you’re riding a bicycle, though? Nuh huh, bud. Partner up and jump inside one of Wheel Fun Rentals’ surrey bikes – a double-seat four-wheel pedal-powered cycle-car hybrid thing. Yep, it’s what the Chuckle Brothers drove. But you’ll look a heck of a lot better in yours. Trust us. (No really, honest).
Why? “Ah, wine country!” A phrase you’ll hear a lot as you tell inquisitive locals that you’re headed for a night of R&R in Paso Robles, and with good reason. After the giants of Sonoma and Napa, it’s one of America’s great wine-producing areas.
Stay: The Mediterranean-tinged Allegretto (from £180) is the first vineyard resort of its kind in Paso Robles, pouring you wines made from grapes that are *points* just out there and providing an extremely comfortable room to rest your head after a long session in the tasting room.
Eat: You won’t have to go far for fine dining here. Cello is the resort’s casual on-site farm-to-fork restaurant. Order yourself a fat glass of white and get stuck into the Frutte di Mare pasta – it’s piled high with superbly cooked seafood. If cabin fever is setting in by morning, go for coffee and eggs at Kreuzberg – it’s in nearby San Luis Obispo but wouldn’t feel out of place in east London.
Do: Drink. Because you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t allow the resort’s charismatic tasting room expert John to blow your mind with his knowledge, have you in stitches and totally change the way you look at your wine for good.
Why? Santa Cruz is the birthplace of surfing in the mainland US and oozes with laid-back cool. There are world-class waves and chilled-out vibes aplenty here, as well as a rollercoaster-laden boardwalk (which you’ll recognise from 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys), hiking nearby, a buzzing food and drink scene, and a bay rife with sea life. Dive in, dude.
Stay: For an easy ten-minute walk to Pacific Avenue, where the action is, stay at the Hyatt Place Santa Cruz (from £122) and slide into its inviting pool after too long in the driver’s seat. The hotel houses massive beds to theatrically leap into after even more muscle-testing activities and belly-filling feeds.
Eat: Assembly in Downtown Santa Cruz is head and shoulders above the rest thanks in part to super-cool staff, local ingredients, trendy interior design and lakes of Californian craft beer. The remaining part is its knee-tremblingly good chocolate mousse dessert.
Do: Find Trudie in her tiny harbourside SUP Shack for an early morning guided paddle past Walton Lighthouse and across the bay to Santa Cruz wharf. Set your internal monologue to David Attenborough as here you’ll be seeing plenty of sea otters, pelicans, sea lions and, if you’re luckier than we were, humpback whales as you try your best to stay dry.
In the afternoon, pedal your way from the buzz of the iconic fairground boardwalk to the world-famous (and tiny) surfing museum right besides Steamer Lane, where Santa Cruz’s finest wave riders come to “shred”. Hit up Spokesman Bicycles for your trusty two-wheeler.
Why? It graces the bucket list of walkers, climbers, hikers, photographers and lovers of the great outdoors everywhere. You could arrive at Yosemite thinking it will change your life and it’ll still surpass all of your expectations.
Stay: When it comes to accommodation you have two options: shackle yourself to a life of payday loan misery by staying in the gut-twistingly expensive hotels inside the national park, or look slightly further afield and keep the bailiffs from the door. The simple yet comfortable 5th Street Inn (from £67) in Mariposa, just an hour away from the Arch Rock entrance to the park, will keep the bank off your back.
Eat: Without doubt, it’s a sit-down at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Even though the windows of the very Game Of Thrones-esque dining room frame the valley view exquisitely, you’ll be concentrating on the thick and delicious Reuben sandwich. It’s all the energy you need – and them some – to attack a strenuous afternoon hike awaits you here, as well as a bar to unwind at, gaze upon Half Dome from and to toast your efforts (and your burning thighs) at the end of a long day.
Do: C’mon, we don’t really need to tell you, do we? Those wild ridgelines… you’re headed for them. We split our single day in the park into an easy, flat morning hike to Mirror Lake and back to the Majestic along the Valley Floor Loop, which hammered home just how insignificant we were compared with the huge rock monoliths surrounding us.
After lunch, we upped the ante, testing our mettle on the exhausting, seemingly-never-ending and super-steep granite steps of the “strenuous” Mist Trail to find Vernal Falls before returning back to base via the John Muir Trail just as night fell. You should plan on spending at least another day attacking the picturesque Four Mile Trail though, to soak up the views of the valley, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Next time…
RECOMMENDED: Rock Climbing In Yosemite
Why? Surrounded by water on three of its four sides, nurturing its own urban eucalyptus forest, boasting an inner-city national park and with a famous surfing beach running up its backbone, the northernmost point of this road trip has an iron-clad claim to be the prettiest city in all of America. Couple that with never-ending food and drink options and a friendly population, and you’ll need to sit on your hands to stop yourself Googling “how to start a new life in San Francisco” when you get home.
Stay: The opulent architecture and views of the city are reason enough to stay in the Pacific Heights district. The dusky vista from our room inside the welcoming Edwardian boutique Hotel Drisco (from £230) was worth every cent. For something completely different spend a night in the sophisticated, historic Inn at the Presidio (from £222), a refurbished barracks building nestled in the national park besides the Golden Gate Bridge.
Eat: Looking for a grab-and-go lunch? The bagels at traditional Jewish deli Wise Sons are made on-site and stuffed with locally sourced ingredients, and put London’s Brick Lane beauties to shame (its house hot sauce makes for a great souvenir too). If it’s a sit-down you fancy, please, please endure the queues for Iza Ramen and order the Iza Tsukemen so we have someone with whom we can gush over what has to be – has to be – the most mind-blowing noodles in the city.
Do: A three-hour city trails tour with Urban Hiker SF is the first thing you should do after arriving in San Francisco. Exploring the historic stairways and hills of the undulating city with the brilliant Alexandra (and her awesome dog Jodie, if you’re lucky) will not only help you with your bearings, but will put you in exactly the right place to get your essential holiday snaps – such as the very top of Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower – out of the way nice and early. Ask nicely and she’ll impart some locals-only food and drink intel, too.
RECOMMENDED: Discovering A New Side Of California
Why? “It was here in Big Sur that I first learned to say ‘Amen’,” wrote Henry Miller of the California coast’s crown jewel. And you’ll learn why as you snake around the coastal roads next to sheer drops, cross the instantly recognisable Bixby Creek Bridge, inhale a lungful of damp piney air, gaze upon rolling waves and get a whole new perspective on the pages of Kerouac and Miller’s poetic masterpieces.
Stay: Wake up at the feet of towering redwoods and within earshot of the soul-soothing Big Sur River after checking into Glen Oaks Big Sur (from £131). The stylishly renovated motel cabins in a lost-in-the-forest location will have you forgetting you’re just a stone’s throw from Highway 1, allowing you to concentrate on getting your marshmallow toasted juuust right over one of the shared or private fire pits.
Eat: Here’s what you do. You check the time of sunset. You make sitting at a table inside Nepenthe at that time your number one priority. You enjoy one of the most incredible views on the planet as the sun sinks, and tear your eyes away from the coastal view 250m up only, only, to sink your teeth into Nepenthe’s Ambrosia burgers. Allow approximately five days for your mind to fully come to terms with what you’ve just experienced, and finally, wish you could spend every evening sat up there.
Do: Hike. Hike. Hike. You’re inside another hiking mecca, so grab your walking boots and head for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s 1,000 acres of trails. The Valley View Trail ticked our quick-but-challenging box and rewarded us with sweeping views down to the coast.
For something a little more testing, tackle the five-mile Buzzard’s Roost trail (which came recommended by the park ranger we spoke to as we handed over our $10 entrance fee at the gate). You’ll want to fuel up on the renowned Eggs Benedict at the historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn before having a crack at that one, though.
For more inspiration and to plan your trip to California, go to visitcalifornia.co.uk
Rent a car from hertz.co.uk collecting at Los Angeles International Airport from £222 for 11 days. For inspiration for your road trip holiday visit the Hertz USA Road Trip Planner.