California’s Pacific Coast Highway is a memorable drive
By Glenda Winders
Your memories of road trips with your parents might be more about claiming your half of the back seat, fighting over the comic books with your sibling and whining, “Are we there yet?” But up front your parents were smiling. They were seeing parts of the country they’d never seen before and saving money on transportation and child care by taking the whole family along for the ride.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it renewed interest in ways to travel while protecting the family from crowds, with the revered road trip heading the list. The United States has many worthy places to make this happen, and California’s Pacific Coast Highway remains one of the best places in the world for such a journey. Expect spectacular scenery, quirky little towns, and lots of places to stop and explore.
Fondly known as the PCH, the mostly two-lane highway begins north of San Francisco and ends 650 miles later south of Los Angeles. Opinions differ on whether it is better to drive south to north or the other way around but coming from the north provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean off to the right.
The route begins and ends just outside major cities, but the smaller cities and towns along the way maintain the charm and mystique they’ve had since they were discovered by motorists. Traffic and navigation are less stressful, too, so the driver can have as much fun as the passengers. En route there are lots of opportunities to be outside in nature, and every place you visit will be on or near a beach.
What to do
The population of San Jose soared to more than 1 million people when Bill Hewlett and David Packard started their company there, and Silicon Valley was born. Now the city is the third largest in California after Los Angeles and San Diego, but it still maintains some of its beach-town vibe, with plenty for road-trippers to see and do.
Perhaps most famous is the Winchester Mystery House, built by Sarah Winchester, widow of the firearms magnate. After his death she sought the guidance of a medium who supposedly put her in touch with her dead husband. Because he had been tormented by the thought of so many people being killed by his weapons, he implored her to build a house for their spirits.
The completed mansion had 161 rooms and seven stories, but many of its additions made no sense — doors and stairways that led nowhere, rooms added on to exterior walls so that windows of the original house looked into them and the like. It is said to be haunted, which might be reason enough to stop to see.
Several museums and other historic places add to making this a worthwhile place to spend some time, such as the San Jose Mission, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the San Jose Museum of Art, the Campbell Historical Museum and the Tech Initiative that explores the history of technology. Children in the group will enjoy the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose with its 28,000 square feet of galleries filled with interactive displays and half-acre play area outside.
For cultural experiences visit Mexican Heritage Plaza, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and the Japanese American Museum. The Lick Observatory is here, too. In nearby Santa Cruz the whole family will enjoy the three-hour trip from the sand to a redwood forest on the Santa Cruz Beach Train.
Where to eat
Luna Mexican Kitchen makes food with fresh ingredients and ancient methods so that you can “eat like your ancestors.” Still, its traditional entrees have a modern twist. Breakfast offerings include horchata French toast and an acai power bowl. For lunch there’s a salmon tostada and a Buddha bowl with brown rice, quinoa and vegetables. Dinner might be lamb barbacoa or yellowtail jalapeno crudo. Vegetarian and kids meals are inventive and delicious.
If you’re here on a weekend take in brunch at The Table. The items are familiar but served with flair, such as the steamed curried clams, seasonal vegetable benedict or lemon ricotta pancakes with strawberry and raspberry preserves and lemon curd. Its other meals are equally tasty, but those pancakes …
While you’re here on the Pacific Rim, honor some of the people who helped build California with a meal at an Asian restaurant such as Taste of China. The vast menu of Hunan cuisine with Korean influences is served in elegant but comfortable surroundings. Every meal starts with a free kimchee appetizer and moves on to eggrolls, soups and salads, and a vast array of entrees from which it is hard to choose.
Where to stay
Because of all the business transacted in San Jose, hotels are available at every price point, from low-cost to luxurious. Many are chains near the airport, but some gems recall the city’s history. The Hotel Clariana in the downtown commercial-historic district was built in 1913 as a YMCA in the Beaux Arts style that was popular at the time. Recently revitalized as a boutique hotel, it is close to just about anything you’d care to do.
Hotel Valencia is situated in the European-influenced Santana Row. Its architecture is Spanish, and the décor includes terra-cotta details and soft lighting to complete the picture. The Hayes Mansion, formerly a private estate built in 1905 in the Mediterranean style, is adjacent to a public park, always a plus.
What to do
Plan to spend a few days here, where one stop will give you the opportunity to visit this historic city as well as Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pebble Beach, home of the famous golf course and its scenic “17-Mile Drive.”
“The iconic Monterey Bay region includes stunning sand dunes, miles of beaches and epic experiences,” says Rob O’Keefe, president and CEO of Monterey County CVB. “Monterey County has a treasure-trove of inspirational scenery that will make you want to grab your moment and spend time exploring this section of one of the nation’s greatest road trips.”
On the way in, watch for Castroville, the so-called “artichoke capital of the world.” You’ll pass lots of artichoke fields as you drive, and this is where you can sample the tasty treat in every way possible, including steamed, deep-fried and even in ice cream.
Moss Landing State Beach makes for a good place to get out of the car and enjoy the local wildlife, such as seals, pelicans and sea otters as well as herons, egrets, cormorants and other water birds. Bring a picnic so you can eat while you watch. Borrow a horse and gallop down the beach or rent a kayak and hit the waves. At Marina State Beach watch hang-gliders or try the sport for yourself, and Monterey State Beach is popular for kite-flying.
This county is the mecca for lovers of John Steinbeck’s literary works. The National Steinbeck Center and his childhood home — now the Steinbeck Restaurant — are located in Salinas (a few miles inland). Pick up a “Steinbeck Country” map and make a pilgrimage through the places that inspired the Nobel Prize-winning author’s novels and short stories.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is known throughout the world. Located in a former sardine cannery and dedicated to marine research and conservation, the aquarium is home to some 35,000 sea creatures. Because of its excellent location, some of its offerings are open-sea exhibits. Cannery Row (also significant in Steinbeck’s work) is a good place for shopping, tasting rooms, restaurants and entertainment.
At the Old Fisherman’s Wharf you’ll find shops and restaurants where vendors will tempt you with free samples of their clam chowders as well as choice spots for whale-watching. Wander through nearby Custom House Plaza and Monterey State Historic Park. The Custom House here is one of the oldest buildings in California and the first to be designated a landmark in 1960.
Don’t miss the Monterey History and Art Association’s Salvatore Dali collection, the largest on the West Coast. At the Monterey Peninsula Art Foundation, you’ll find works for sale by local artists.
Where to eat
This is the place to come for great seafood and just about everything else. Start with breakfast at the Alta Bakery, where everything they serve is made fresh daily, from ginger scones to lemon lavender tarts and chocolate banana strudel. Or settle in with a grain bowl or breakfast burrito.
The Whole Enchilada offers authentic Mexican food with a special emphasis on Oaxacan dishes — such as the Oaxacan Tamale made with masa, chicken and mole and wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed — and those made with fish, such as seafood flautas or enchiladas. The seafood bar here offers crabs, oysters, mussels and calamari. At the Alvarado Street Brewery sip local suds while you munch on treats that go well with beer — steak nachos, crab macaroni and cheese, burgers and pizza.
Where to stay
The only hotel at Moss Landing is Captain’s Inn, but that’s OK because it has lots to offer amid the bay’s stunning wetlands. Rooms in the Historic House are decorated with antiques and nautical décor, while the Boathouse Building sports waterfront views.
In addition to its downtown Cannery Row location and ocean views, the Monterey Plaza Hotel offers the Blue Vista Spa on its top floor with a sundeck and fireplace where you can enjoy lunch between your treatments. The AAA Four Diamond Portola Hotel and Spa in the heart of downtown welcomes families and pets.
What to do
Carmel gained its fame as a writers and artists colony at the turn of the 20th century, and it continues to be the artistic and cultural hub of Northern California. It gained additional acclaim when Clint Eastwood was elected mayor there in 1986.
Probably the most efficient way to see Carmel is to take self-paced audio walking tours that will deliver you to the Comstock Fairy Tale Cottages, Carmel Point and downtown to sample restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and art galleries. The shops along Ocean Avenue and its cobblestone side streets include high-end Rodeo Drive names, but favorites are the boutiques with local proprietors where you can buy one-of-a-kind clothing, gifts and items for your home.
Where to eat
Downtown in San Carlos Square check out Stationaery, where the owners promise comfort food but with an elegant twist. Try, for example, its avocado toast with Meyer lemon, radish sprouts and pepper flakes for breakfast, perhaps the salmon and brown rice salad for lunch or caviar and chips for dinner.
Little Napoli is another local favorite, with chef Pepe Bumba serving Italian cuisine made from family recipes. One good choice is spaghetti alle vongole with mussels. Another is Sgt. Pepe’s 1944 classic meat lasagna, made with a recipe the chef’s father brought home from Italy after World War II. Finish your meal with lemoncello mousse cake or black and white cannoli.
Allegro Gourmet Pizzeria serves specialties such as del mare pizza with shrimp, scallops and roasted garlic and buon giorno pizza with roasted red potatoes, caramelized onion sauce, mozzarella, eggs and bacon. The Carmel Craft Brewing Co. is conveniently situated right next door. Just about every restaurant in this area has its own spin on the artichokes that grow abundantly nearby, so be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to have them this fresh.
Where to stay
The newly renovated rooms at the trendy Carmel Mission Inn have been designed with a mid-century modern vibe and good views. This hotel is pet-friendly and easy to find since it’s right on the PCH. The downtown Pine Inn was Carmel’s first hotel, built in 1889. Its Il Fornaio restaurant means you don’t have to leave for meals if that’s what you choose.
At the Carmel River Inn choose from the options of a room in the inn or a cozy cottage all your own. Some of these have kitchenettes and most are pet-friendly. La Playa Carmel, known as Carmel’s “grand dame,” was formerly a 1905 mansion built by artist Christian Jorgensen for his wife, a member of the Ghirardelli chocolate family. The elegant hotel has views of Carmel Bay and Pebble Beach.
For a real splurge, try L’Auberge Carmel, a Relais & Chateaux property with the Central Coast’s only five-star restaurant, Aubergine. Beautifully appointed with original antiques, many of the rooms have spectacular ocean views.
What to do
Before you leave Carmel make sure to gas up your car and use the facilities. You won’t find those amenities for several miles, but what you will find will knock your socks off: some of the most beautiful scenery in the world that includes redwood trees, rocky bluffs and beaches all along the mighty Pacific. So far, you’ve been enjoying museums, shopping and restaurants, but now it’s time to park the car and spend some time with Mother Nature.
Point Lobos State Reserve has often been called the crown jewel of the state park system. Take a short hike down the Cypress Grove trail to experience the many natural wonders this area has to offer. The pass you buy here will be good for the entire day, and you’ll be using it next a little bit down the road at Garrapata State Park. Known as one of Big Sur’s best-kept secrets, this park is only marked by one small sign, but a short hike will reward you with views of sea cliffs and ocean waves.
Use your pass again at Andrew Molera State Park, named for the man who brought the artichoke to California. What is special here is that your wanderings will take you through several biomes, from coastline and riverbanks to redwood ridges and grassy meadows.
The last time you’ll use your pass is at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named for a Big Sur pioneer who loved its majestic 80-foot McWay Falls. The park allows hike-in camping, but facilities are limited. Along the way be sure to stop for photo ops at Bixby Bridge, which you’ll recognize from movies and TV commercials, and Point Sur, a volcanic rock with a lighthouse situated on top. The lighthouse is open some days for tours.
At one point you’ll pass a group of shops and art galleries amid a stand of redwood trees. Stop here to browse in Studio One, said to be one of the region’s best art galleries, and the other nearby shops and restaurants. Farther south, you’ll pass the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a bookstore, gallery and coffee shop named for the controversial author. He came here to write away from the noise of Los Angeles and liked it so much he made it his home.
Where to eat
Start your day with breakfast or lunch at California Market at Pacific’s Edge, where you’ll enjoy incredible views while you feast on fresh seafood and local produce in a casual setting. Or stop at Nepenthe, called the “ultimate Big Sur experience,” where every table has an excellent view. Have an ambrosia burger with its signature sauce or a shrimp BLT for lunch, or if you’re here at dinnertime choose from Alaskan halibut, scallops, a Nepenthe steak and more.
Coast Big Sur is an art gallery and café built from redwood water storage tanks. Lunch here might be a quinoa mezze bowl or harissa chicken melt with a Big Sur tisane to drink and a chocolate ganache landslide for dessert. Before you leave the next morning have breakfast on the patio at the Whale Watcher Café. If you’re lucky and the time is right, you can watch whales frolic as you get ready to start your day.
Where to stay
One of the most eco-friendly and fun places to stay is Treebones Resort, dreamed and built by John and Corrine Handy and their children. Here they offer “glamping” in comfortable yurts, and food at their restaurant is what they call “redefined campfire cuisine” — think: burgers and halibut, blistered shishitos and beet and citrus terrine along with a sushi bar. Here, the water is heated with renewable energy and the vegetables served are grown on site. The clincher is the list of values they post on their website that include honoring the land and working in an environment of truth and honesty.
Another one-of-a-kind place to stay is the Post Ranch Inn, which is built on the land where the Post family — early Big Sur pioneers — had their ranch. Architect Mickey Muennig committed to organic design principles and used reclaimed steel, wood, glass and stone in designing cantilevered rooms that seem to soar out over the ocean and others that wrap around old-growth trees. Land stewardship and protecting the environment are high on the values list here.
Its Big Sur Roadhouse serves organic, locally sourced food whipped up into distinctive regional cuisine. Accommodations at Big Sur Lodge are billed as rustic, but the cottages are carefully appointed and come with kitchenettes, fireplaces and decks for relaxing and viewing the panorama beyond. It warns that WiFi is sketchy and offers you the chance to unplug your devices and chill.
What to do
“San Simeon is unique because it is home to three California State Parks,” says Stacie Jacob, executive director of Visit San Simeon. “Hearst San Simeon State Park includes the famous Hearst Castle as well as the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and the Piedras Blancas Light Station. These three state parks are a must during your trip to San Simeon.”
Just about everyone who comes to San Simeon tours the Hearst Castle. When William Randolph Hearst of newspaper fame inherited 40,000 acres of land here, he built his home with the help of famed architect Julia Morgan. He called it “La Cuesta Encantada” — the enchanted hill — and invited movie stars and other celebrities to enjoy its amenities, which at one time included a zoo. It is made up of 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, terraces and pools that are available for viewing by way of several different tours.
Hearst spent the rest of his life traveling the world to collect art, most of which is still here. The details upon which he insisted also remain — right down to the ketchup and mustard bottles on the huge dining room table because it was on this spot where his family picnicked when he was a child.
The Elephant Seal Rookery spreads over six miles and is a free and public viewing area. Named for the male’s large nose, the northern elephant seals come ashore twice a year to birth, breed and molt. The second-largest seals in the world, they are easy to spot and a perfect family-friendly activity.
Though you can find elephant seals in San Simeon year-round, populations peak in the fall and winter at the rookery with up to 17,000. You’ll find males sparring for dominance while the females and pups rest in the sand after long and treacherous months at sea.
The Piedras Blancas Light Station provides a glimpse into a time when lighthouses served a vital role in maritime navigation. Built in 1905, the lighthouse stands at its original post with tours offered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Tours begin with an easy and beautiful half-mile hike led by a knowledgeable guide and filled with wildlife viewings and gorgeous coastal views.
Also here is the Hearst Ranch Winery, a seaside warehouse for delicious wines with an ocean view on its dog-friendly outdoor tasting patio.
Where to eat
The Manta Rey Restaurant is just two miles from Hearst Castle and has stunning views of the coastline. Feast on seafood, chicken and steak accompanied by a wide variety of local wines. Finish with a dessert called chocolate decadence. More casual spots include Big Sur Restaurant with American cuisine and El Chorlito Mexican restaurant with traditional favorites.
Where to stay
Nestled on a scenic, seaside bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort offers guests an authentic Central Coast experience with two outdoor heated pools and a hot tub, fire pits with s’mores, a spa and fitness center, and more. The on-site restaurant offers panoramic ocean views and serves premium Hearst Ranch beef and locally caught fresh seafood.
Ragged Point Inn, situated on a 350-foot cliff, promises ocean views from every room. Enjoy the craftsmanship of local artisans in their shops and hike down a 400-foot waterfall-graced path to the beach. Have dinner in its restaurant, which features glass walls so you can enjoy a colorful sunset followed by a starlit sky.
San Simeon Lodge is located just a mile from Hearst Castle and offers everything you need to catch up, from an outdoor heated pool and gym to a public computer. Its San Simeon Beach Bar and Grill offers steaks and seafood, and every table has an ocean view.
What to do
Santa Barbara is a college town in an idyllic setting, so everything you expect will be here. Want to kayak, paddleboard or surf? That’s here. Wine tours and cooking lessons? Check. Museums abound, from art and natural history to railroads and teddy bears.
And of course, you’ll want to visit Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1786 and today home to Franciscan friars and a training facility for their order. They have a library and gift shop and abundant grounds that are perfect for a walk. The Santa Barbara Zoo is geared toward children, so if you’ve brought the kids plan to spend a morning or afternoon here. Stearns Wharf, the oldest working pier in the state, offers restaurants and shopping.
Where to eat
Cold Spring Tavern at San Marcos Pass in the mountains behind Santa Barbara is a bit of a drive but worth it. This rustic spot was an actual stagecoach stop that opened in 1868, and its grounds are filled with other historic buildings. Go for lunch to better navigate the mountain roads and choose from traditional American fare, some made from game as the pioneers would have done it. One choice is wild game black bean chili that features venison, rabbit and buffalo. Others are venison steaks and buffalo burgers.
Intermezzo and the Wine Cask downtown are sister restaurants where executive chef Josh Brown crafts American food with a Mediterranean twist, such as gambas al ajillo (prawns, garlic, parsley, sherry and lemon zest) or grilled marinated skirt steak, which comes with fingerling potatoes, chimichurri, roasted garlic and crispy shallots.
Bouchon serves California cuisine that you’ll want to have at least once while you’re here. Try cabernet braised short ribs or herbs de provence crusted tuna that comes with white bean ragout and saffron gastrique. Still nice but more casual and with a kids menu is Shoreline Beach Café. Fish abounds here, including in tacos, along with burgers, hot dogs and salads.
Where to stay
Hotels range from economical to luxurious, and each has character that makes it fun to spend the night. How could you resist the Secret Garden Inn and Cottages? Once a family compound, the lodgings are hidden behind hedges and among pathways and gardens. Coast Village Inn was built in the 1930s and is distinctly California in its architecture and furnishings. It is a five-minute drive from town, but it puts you close to Montecito, the lush community where many celebrities have homes. The rooms at Avania Inn are affordable and still designed to be comfortable and cozy.
What to do
“I believe Ventura is the last true Southern California beach town,” says Ken McAlpine, communications coordinator at the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau. “We haven’t been overrun. We’re a town of people who are here because they love the natural beauty, and we’re a town pretty much without pretension. We’re a surf town, yes, but we’re a lot more than that. People look out for each other here. Bhutan has been described as the happiest place on Earth. I believe it’s a two-way tie.”
McAlpine’s favorite things to do include a trip to the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, which have been called the Galapagos of North America. The park is made up of five islands and the ocean environment around them and can be reached via a one-hour boat ride. They are home to more than 150 species of wildlife, some of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Many other outdoor activities are here, too, among them 2,100-acre Harmon Canyon, a glorious place to hike and mountain bike in the hills at the edge of town. Paddleboat, whale-watch or kayak in Ventura Harbor or try surfing at one of several beaches. McAlpine says they don’t abide surfing snobs here, so nobody’s going to snicker if you don’t make it up the first time. If you’d rather watch, Surfer’s Point is the best place to be.
Mission San Buenaventura and its surrounding gardens are open for tour, and the Museum of Ventura County is a rich repository of Mexican American and Chumash artifacts. Take a hike through the Ventura Botanical Gardens or settle in at Grant Park, the best place to watch a sunset.
Where to eat
The downtown area here is small, so the best idea is just to start walking and see what you find, then try to make up your mind between burgers, ethnic specialties and more fish. There’s Spencer McKenzie’s for fish tacos, the Lure Fish House for clam chowder, Rice by Mama’s for Thai food, and Rumfish y Vino for Central American cuisine.
Masa Sushi and Winchesters Grill and Saloon are near the theater, convenient if you want to take in a movie after you eat. The Himalayan Restaurant features food from India, Nepal and Tibet.
Where to stay
One possibility here is camping on or near a beach, and there are several campgrounds from which to choose. If you’d rather be inside, every room at Inn on the Beach has a fireplace and an ocean view. The Pierpoint Inn also has ocean views and its own restaurant that uses local and sustainable ingredients.
What to do
The Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu Creek State Park are wonderful places to hike. For beach fun, one favorite is Zuma Beach. Malibu’s best-kept secret, it is small but seldom crowded.
Wineries abound for tasting, but Malibu Wine Safaris is especially fun since it is also a zoo that rescues exotic animals. The Getty Villa is here and well worth a few hours. This was the home of J. Paul Getty and formerly the main museum. Now that the Getty Center is open in Los Angeles, this location is reserved for Mediterranean antiquities.
Another colorful home available for touring is the Adamson House, one of the first houses in the area. It was home to the owner of Malibu Tile Works, so every room is decorated with all types and colors of tile. It sounds garish, but it is so well done you’ll be glad you saw it.
Where to eat
One of the most popular places in Malibu is Paradise Cove Beach Café. The food is good, but the setting is fabulous. Every table provides ocean views or sit outside and have your meal in the sun. The burgers, seafood, nachos and eggs benedict are great, and the generous cocktails and sodas come with eco-friendly pasta straws.
Just down the road Duke’s Malibu memorializes Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian swimmer who was a surfing pioneer. As you roll on into Los Angeles, stop at Patrick’s Roadhouse, said to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favorite breakfast spot and no wonder: The omelets here are heavenly.
Where to stay
Everything in Malibu is expensive, so if this is a budget trip setting up your tent in one of the many area campgrounds might be the way to go. If you’re willing to splurge, take your pick. Rooms at the Malibu Country Inn are tucked into ocean bluffs and have Jacuzzi hot tubs and fireplaces. Nobu Ryokan beachfront getaway (co-owned by Robert DeNiro) has Japanese architecture and fine art, spa treatments, decks, fireplaces and teak soaking tubs.
The Malibu Beach Inn, one of the most exquisite, is often voted best Southern California hotel. It’s right on the beach, rooms and suites are gorgeous, and you can wake up with guided yoga on the beach or have a treatment at the spa. Its Carbon Beach Club Restaurant serves Pacific and Mediterranean food that you can eat on a terrace suspended over the ocean. Sure, it’s pricey, but your holiday is nearly over. The next place you’ll eat and sleep will be home.