The west coast road trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the quintessential American journeys. You’ll spend time in two of the United States' most vibrant cities, travel through some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world and have your pick of some exceptional hotels.
Cosmopolitan, laid-back and liberal, San Francisco is one of America’s most alluring cities. From your base, either in the heart of San Francisco or across the bay in Sausalito, it warrants at least two days of exploring. If you don’t mind a few hills (forty-two to be precise), striking out on foot with our custom guide is a great option. When your feet start to get sore just hop on one of the old trolley cars. From the beatnik cafes and bookstores of North Beach to the hip creativity of The Mission, each neighborhood has a unique feel and history.
Monterey and Carmel
After a couple of days in San Francisco it is time to take the roof down and hit the road. As you make your way south you will pass through Palo Alto, home to Stanford University, and close to Salinas, birthplace of John Steinbeck, before reaching Monterey. Visit the exceptional aquarium on Cannery Row and enjoy lunch on the bay as sea otters play beneath you. The well-heeled seaside town of Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor, lies just to the south and is the start of the spectacular 17 mile drive. Here the narrow road hugs the rocky coastline dotted with gnarled cypress trees, ritzy mansions and the world famous golf courses of Pebble Beach.
Route 1, PCH, or Big Sur…whatever you want to call it, the section of awe inspiring coastline that follows is surely one of the world’s greatest drives. The Santa Lucia Mountains rise precipitously from the Pacific Ocean as the road twists its way around verdant headlands and pretty bays. Each corner reveals another breathtaking view and, with a little help, you’ll know the hidden spots to stop and soak it all up. End your journey at one of California’s most sublime hotels, the Post Ranch Inn. Take a day to indulge yourself, get in touch with your inner self at the nearby Esalen Institute or lace up your walking boots and spend some time among the majestic redwoods of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
The next morning, after breakfast overlooking the Pacific, it’s back to the road. Taking your time and making plenty of stops, you’ll make it to the small town of San Simeon for lunch. Perched high on the hilltop in solitary splendor is Hearst Castle, the vast home built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1947.
Morro Bay and Wine Country
Morro Bay is a pretty seaside town that makes a great base for exploring this varied section of California’s central coast. Inland near Paso Robles there are some fantastic wineries that are emerging into the spotlight after years in the shadows of Napa. Several miles south of Morro Bay is the little explored gem of Montana de Oro State Park, with shady eucalyptus groves, deserted beaches and miles of rocky shoreline trails. At the right time of the year migrating whales pass close to shore and each winter California’s largest gathering of Monarch Butterflies make nearby Pismo Beach their temporary home.
Leave the coast for the rolling hills, country lanes and vineyards of Foxen Canyon. The road climbs after Los Olivos as you approach the San Marcos Pass with stunning views of the Santa Ynez Valley behind you. Emerging from the hills, the glistening ocean reappears in the distance and the whitewashed walls and terracotta roofs of Santa Barbara can be seen far below.
It’s easy to see why Santa Barbara is called the California Riviera. Its near perfect climate, gorgeous setting and swanky downtown make it a perfect place to indulge in a little R & R SoCal style. The town’s Spanish past is very evident and you’ll find some of California’s best examples of mission style architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright said “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles” and if you spend some time here you’ll see what he meant. Often wrongly judged alongside other major world cities, LA is in a class of its own. It’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of neighbourhoods, landscapes and cultures that feels in a state of perpetual change. From the laid back beachside towns of Manhattan Beach or Venice, the exclusive hillsides of Hollywood and Bel Air, to the rapidly changing Downtown, there is something for everyone here if you know where to find it. The contemporary art scene is exploding, world class museums abound and there are a host of exciting new restaurants. You might just find yourself being surprised.